California firefighters battle blazes with data from the cloud

Crews on the ground use mobile devices to access digital images and data streams as they plan their strategies for responding to California wildfires.

firefighter
Credit: Lisa Adams

Crews responding to California wildfires can now access aerial photos, stats on ground moisture and wind, and other data to help them plan their attacks.

Fires shift character as they grow and recede, and the data helps firefighters and their supporting logistics teams respond as effectively as possible, says Tim Garza, director of IT at the California Natural Resources Agency, which makes the data available via a private cloud. "Fires aren't static, so they have to make decisions on the spot, [like] where are they going to cut the flames off and where are they going to try to redirect it," he says.

Other state agencies and citizens can also get current and historical data from the agency's private cloud. For example, decades of data on water flows, soil erosion and climate change help manage water during droughts. A farmer can gather rainfall and groundwater statistics to help make planting decisions.

"The whole idea is that the information isn't locked away," Garza says. Prior to the new system, because data storage capacity was limited, only current information was available and historical data was kept on tapes, he says. People didn't know where data was or if it existed, he says. "It was cumbersome."

California is among several states embarking on an "open data" push to make statistics, maps and other information publicly available for citizens, programmers and others to see and use. A portal of state financial data opened last year, and a website that offers data from 131 agencies on schools, transportation, air quality, political contributions and more continues to grow.

The California Natural Resources Agency system consolidated 30 data centers and server rooms into one and aggregates data from separate departments and state organizations so it's easier to parse. Garza's team used NetApp tools for storage and to cordon off parts of the private cloud so that sensitive information can't be accessed without appropriate authorization. The IT work has had significant impact on employees' productivity, he says. Firefighters use smartphones and ruggedized laptops to access the data in the field. The cloud, along with the apps and portals to access it, he says, "allows them to have logistical support on the ground in real time."

When they aren't responding to fires, firefighters can analyze large data sets containing current and historical records to identify danger zones and take preventive measures, such as clearing brush.

Forrester Research analyst Henry Baltazar says storage technology is critical for making data available in a reliable way, and for protecting it. IT leaders must think carefully about how best to store data in a private cloud, based on how constituents will use it. Storage tools can help manage server workload by moving data around as needed, he says.

"You create this pool of resources that you can give to any business stakeholder when they need it," Baltazar says. "That's what people are trying to get to."

This story, "California firefighters battle blazes with data from the cloud" was originally published by CIO.

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