Interior’s USGS turns to the cloud to make its earthquake app into a life-saving platform

The Interior Department’s U.S. Geological Survey is moving applications to the cloud for all the obvious reasons—better security, more storage, cheaper computing services.

But USGS is finding cloud services opens the door to more important, and potentially life-saving, mission areas, such as early warnings for earthquakes and other natural disasters.

Tim Quinn, U.S. Geological Survey associate chief information officer, said the agency is using the cloud to save lives in real time.

Tim Quinn is the Interior Department’s U.S. Geological Survey associate chief information officer.

“What the earthquake early warning is, and we are actually testing it in southern California, let’s say there is an earthquake in the Salton Sea, which is about 80 miles from Los Angeles, and let’s say you are in L.A. and you have your smartphone with you. If you downloaded our earthquake early warning system [app] on your smartphone, a big 8.0 earthquake hits in the Salton Sea and your smartphone goes off,” Quinn said on the Ask the CIO program. “You get a big red screen and it starts ticking down, 19, 18, 17… what’s happened behind the scenes is our earthquake sensors pick up the waves, they transmit it for processing, it gets analyzed and then triggers the earthquake early warning system, broadcasting out over the wireless networks to subscribers. The subscriber gets a screen that shows the potential severity [of the earthquake]. The processing is done fairly quickly.”

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Quinn said this means transit systems can slow down trains, emergency managers can have all the doors on fire stations open up or if you are in a hospital, you can secure the operating environment.

“This is an exciting application and we want to take advantage of the reliability and speed of cloud services,” he said. “In an application like this, every millisecond counts.”

The move to cloud services is providing USGS a host of opportunities to improve access to data and mission support activities.

Quinn said USGS already is seeing benefits from the cloud with some applications like the national map, which provides the public with online, downloadable current and historical topographic maps.

“By putting the national map in the cloud, we saw the usage go up,” he said. “What we have seen is we are getting millions of downloads per month by the public. Not only the usage went up, but so did the performance. We had a file that externally it took someone 120 seconds to download. When we moved it to the cloud, it was done in 1.8 seconds. That, for the public, the performance was great and downloading four other maps now became a lot less painful.”

The next mission area USGS will try to apply cloud to is the bioinformatics community. Quinn said his office has surveyed the community, and is developing an approach for test and development in the cloud.

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Quinn said USGS already has put 12-to-14 applications in Interior’s shared services cloud. It added another 10-to-12 systems to a second set of cloud instances under a contract through the National Institutes of Health.

“Internally, we are trying to build the capability of having a very robust network security, access authentication services wrapped around our cloud services, and a very capable business operation in terms of ordering and billing cloud services using agile or dev/ops methodologies in order to ease the onboarding,” he said. “What’s exciting for me is we are looking at the whole approach of building the front end and making it so solid and secure, a customer could actually do what I call self-service onboarding. Using an array of tools that as we structure those for our customers with relatively little assistance, they then can move a cloud application into our pipeline and get it onboarded quickly.”

Quinn said this is a big change from previous cloud efforts, which required more hand-holding on the customer side and therefore slowed the pace.

A good example of where this ability to quickly provision cloud services will come in handy is during a Web reengineering initiative. USGS is taking 150 websites that were independent and running them through a process to make them have a common, look-and-feel and then hosting those sites in the cloud.