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Spring 2006
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Model Empowers Public Participation

Mission to Help the Environment Results in Helping Endangered Children

  GIS Hero

  Chris Warner
Chris Warner

This article is the second in a series honoring individuals who have made a difference in the world by applying a GIS solution to challenges or needs within their communities. Since these unique individuals have been selected for their innovations or special achievements in a particular field, the series is appropriately named GIS Heroes. Our new honoree, Chris Warner, is founder of Engaging and Empowering Citizenship (E2C), Earth 911, and the AMBER Alert Portal.

The AMBER Alert System (AAS), currently celebrating its 10-year anniversary, is a public service that broadcasts radio and television community alerts when a missing child is believed to have been abducted and in danger. The AMBER Alert Portal (AAP) Consortium, a multistate group working on modernizing its AAS capabilities, is also celebrating the successful implementation of a Web-based warning system that produces fast, accurate communications and enables networking among participating states.

AMBER stands for America's Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response but also honors the memory of nine-year-old Amber Hagerman, who was kidnapped and murdered in Texas in 1996. Studies at that time showed that, in 74 percent of child abduction-murder cases, the victims lost their lives within three hours of abduction. Unfortunately, many cases were not reported until after two hours had already passed.

To help speed up rescue efforts for these kids, Texas broadcasters had the idea to use the Federal Communications Commission's Emergency Alert System to broadcast child abduction alerts over radio and television. These timely announcements put both the public and law enforcement on the lookout for abducted kids and also act as a deterrent to would-be kidnappers. By 2003, almost all 50 states had established some sort of broadcast-based AAS.

However, each AAS operated as a local system and was difficult to stitch together into a national or even state network. Police contact with broadcasters also depended on labor-intensive phone and two-way radio dispatches that tied up law enforcement communication lines. The system was difficult to update with new information, and blanket media broadcasts also created the risk of desensitizing the public to participation.

The system needed a real-time, single-entry method to deliver an alert to interested participants located in a tight buffer zone around the abduction site. In addition, the search zone needed to be adjustable according to how far a vehicle, presumably carrying the abducted child, could travel over time. The alert system also needed to be compatible with modern communication formats, secure, scalable, and fail-safe.

At a Government Technology conference in 2002, a chance meeting between Stuart McKee, then chief information officer for the state of Washington, and Chris Warner, founder of Earth 911 (www.earth911.org), the nation's real-time recycling and local environmental information service, and Pets 911 (www.pets911.com), the nation's call to action for pets, planted the seed for a solution. McKee was seeking a way to modernize Washington's statewide AMBER Alert Plan, and Warner, based in Scottsdale, Arizona, wanted to expand his proven environmental information network into new areas.

During the 1990s, Warner successfully used Internet and GIS technology to connect the public with recycling services in their neighborhoods. Visitors to the Earth 911 Web site type in a ZIP Code to retrieve the names and locations of local recyclers. To enable ZIP Code searches, the database was geocoded using ArcView software. This model might not seem so revolutionary in today's dot-com environment, but in the mid-1990s, combining Web and GIS technologies was an emerging concept.

  click to enlarge
This map indicates the initial abduction site and time of an AMBER Alert incident and provides a search radius and map of the surrounding neighborhood.

"Someone once said that to have a good democracy, you have to have an engaged and empowered public," says Warner, who left a successful real estate career 15 years ago to pursue his passion of helping the environment. "The whole mission of these networks is to empower and engage the public to think globally and act locally. We started from scratch and kept on scratching."

His novel way of financing and managing the Web portal included centralizing technical operations; decentralizing data; and establishing a partnership among government, community, and private groups. To create the nationwide Earth 911 database of more than 600,000 entries, Warner provided a very simple user interface for local agencies so they could enter and update information for their respective communities. He used low-cost but direct methods to advertise the site, such as getting lubricant companies to print the Earth 911 Web address on motor oil containers. Best of all, through partner sponsorship, Web site participation was free to the public and government.

Welcomed with national enthusiasm, Earth 911 received accolades from the Environmental Protection Agency and more than 70 awards recognizing its environmental and community stewardship, including the prestigious 2001 Stockholm Challenge Award for innovative information technology programs. Today, Earth 911 hosts a spectrum of information on recycling, water quality, environmental activities, and even "green" shopping tips. The model worked so well that, in 1999, Warner inaugurated Pets 911, a free service that posts notices about lost, found, and adoptable pets, all searchable by ZIP Code.

In 2003, Warner and Washington State formed the AAP Consortium with a goal of leveraging Earth 911 technical infrastructure and building a Web-based AMBER pilot. Law enforcement, media, and public and private representatives joined in the consortium.

Realizing maps would be essential, Warner consulted with Esri to provide a Web-based map display and a real-time way to plot distance traveled from an abduction site. Esri's Professional Services team used the ArcGIS Network Analyst extension to develop the algorithm for calculating drive time and search perimeter. Law enforcement enters the location of the abduction and the time in which it occurred, then sends the information to ArcWeb Services, which sends back a real-time online map of the area in which the abduction is active. Search perimeter calculation using Esri drive-time mapping technology enables targeting of messages to subscribers located in the search zone. Prediction modeling lets dozens of agencies and thousands of citizens know that an abduction is in progress and where to be on the lookout.

The pilot tested successfully in July 2004, and support from the state of Washington and corporate sponsors, such as Hewlett-Packard (HP), Intel, Limelight Networks, Protus, and Symantec enabled eight states (Arizona, Idaho, Kentucky, Missouri, Montana, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Washington) to get connected. To initiate an alert, authorities first must approve it based on state-established guidelines. Then the officer, at the scene or the station, submits information to AAP using an encrypted, password-secure, Internet connection. Reports, including text, maps, and photographs, are converted to a variety of formats compatible with pagers, cell phones, handheld computers, fax, e-mail, and special AMBER Alert road signs and sent out instantaneously to subscribers directly from law enforcement.

"Chris has brought his corporate experience to public alerting. By building on and extending his business model to this additional arena, he has made it possible for state law enforcement to quickly and reliably issue alerts directly to the media," says Todd Sander, director of AAP. "The portal consortium is an excellent example of government in multiple states working with the private sector to provide a mission-critical solution to a shared problem. Success requires a great deal of courage and trust from all involved."

In August 2004, the new system achieved its primary goal—it led to the location and return of a missing Seattle child—and has since been activated dozens of times with excellent results. The technology and its inclusive consortium model have been so successful that the U.S. Congress mandated its use in a pilot study for developing a modernized national warning system called All Alert.

The portal is maintained by E2C (Engaging and Empowering Citizenship for a Better World), a parent company established by Warner in Arizona. The system is housed at Limelight Networks. Supporting AAP partners include the American Humane Association, BMC, Brooktrout Technology, Center for Digital Government, Esri, HP, Intel, Protus, and Symantec.

For more information about becoming a partner or sponsor or to get information on how your state or community could leverage this free network, visit www.amberalert911.com or contact Kate Donlan (e-mail: kdonlan@amberalert.com). For more information on Earth 911 or Pets 911, visit www.earth911.org or www.pets911.com.

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