Tuesday, April 26, 2005
Necropolis of the future
A Roanoke firm leads the way as Arlington National Cemetery enters the digital age.
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A small Roanoke company is in the midst of a huge project - nothing less than a complete modernization of Arlington National Cemetery.
Interactive Design, headquartered in Roanoke's Warehouse Row, specializes in virtual tours and interactive Web sites. But now it's found itself leading a multiyear, multimillion-dollar program to bring Arlington into the world of computerized record keeping and management.
The $10 million to $15 million project, of which Interactive Design is the prime contractor, involves moving hundreds of thousands of paper records into a modern database; documenting every plot, headstone, building, pipe and streetlight; building a system to allow easier scheduling of resources; and linking it all to outside databases such as those of the Social Security and Veterans administrations.
The company is no stranger to federal projects, having created housing Web sites for military personnel and an interactive visitor information system for the Booker T. Washington National Monument. But its small staff - barely a handful in the Roanoke office - has never tackled a project this size.
Not that it set out to snag this kind of major undertaking. Company president (and Air Force veteran) Bill Hume started by offering to update the cemetery's Web site - to create a virtual tour for visitors and Web users.
He got a lot more than he bargained for.
His original pitch was simply to photograph all the cemetery's headstones and tie it in with a detailed electronic map - a geographic information system.
He even built a prototype "on our own nickel," photographing headstones in one section and creating a mock-up of what they envisioned the portal to be.
Hume presented the idea to Thurman Higginbotham, deputy director of the cemetery, and explained the plan to integrate with the cemetery's GIS.
And then the project got a whole lot bigger.
"We aren't automated," Higginbotham told Hume. "We don't have a GIS."
With more than 260,000 remains, 20 funerals a day, and 4 million to 5 million visitors a year, the cemetery isn't automated?
"I came in thinking I was going to add to the existing automation, but ended up creating it," he said. "We thought they lacked the ability to view headstones online. In reality they were missing the whole thing."
What does it mean to automate a cemetery? A lot. You need to carefully map the entire site so you have a solid foundation for reference. You need to computerize and verify the records of all the veterans buried there. You need to create a system for scheduling funerals and for adding new information to the database. And you need to tie all that together so that visitors, funeral directors and even groundskeepers know exactly what's going on where and when.
Hume said he's impressed by how well the cemetery runs without modern tools, and knew he had a tough standard to meet. "They do 'business' so well unautomated, you have to do something really unbelievable" to take its place, he said.
Arlington has three separate records for each veteran. A burial record contains personal information such as birth and death dates, military decorations and the location of the grave. It's typically a small paper card, possibly with hand-scribbled notes.
There's also a grave card, which gives the details of the plot itself and where a body is buried within it. That's because one grave can contain several bodies - a soldier, his wife and his children, for example.
Finally, there's the headstone itself, which might contain detailed information about the deceased - and might conflict with the burial record.
These three pieces of information are stored separately on those paper cards and, obviously, on large slabs of stone. Interactive Design needed to put it all together - more than 900,000 pieces of data - into a single database.
Today, if you go to Arlington in search of an ancestor's grave - or even the grave of someone killed in the Gulf War - you'll see firsthand how antiquated the process is. The visitors center personnel may have to search through five filing cabinets to find what you need. If the veteran was buried before 1988, they'll turn to microfiche; if he died between 1989 and 1998 they'll have to walk to another building to search through separate files.
When they do locate the grave, they'll give you a small map with a dot on it showing the approximate location. Unfortunately, that dot might cover 100 or more plots.
Making that process simpler means not only going through all that paper and microfiche, but sending photographers into the field to capture the front and back of more than 243,000 headstones and 38,000 columbarium niches.
"We're doing 65 to 70 per hour, per person," Hume said.
His photographers are equipped with tablet PCs and GPS units that are connected to a digital camera. They tell the system what grave they're photographing, and it automatically links two photos (front and back) in its memory.
"We're going to validate every headstone and every grave site in the cemetery," Higginbotham said. "We validate what it says on the stone, what it says on our burial records, what it says on our engineers' data cards."
Besides making it easier to find information about a person buried there, this will give Arlington's management "triple validation" of each veteran's information - the burial card and headstone might say "Smithe," but the grave card might list him as "Smith." The difference is crucial if you're trying to locate an ancestor.
And all this information has to be entered manually.
"That's the only way we can do this," Higginbotham said. "There's no equipment out there that's going to pick up every note or handwritten whatever on these records."
But information about the people buried in Arlington is only the first part. Where those graves are within the cemetery is just as important. Arlington's management needs to know what plots are available, where funerals will be held, and where roads, water lines and electrical cables are. That's where the GIS comes in.
Interactive Design commissioned a company to fly over the cemetery to create an incredibly detailed photograph - more than 40 gigabytes, at a resolution of 1.5 inches per pixel. They're combining that with engineers' drawings to create the definitive map of Arlington, right down to the tilt of the headstones.
Further combined with the burial data, the result will be a complete picture of the cemetery that's crucial to the operation of a facility Hume called "basically a small city." There are trees to be pruned, acres to be mowed, lights and roads to be repaired - none of which can interfere with a burial.
Right now, Hume said, "there is no automation from the time you schedule a funeral," which means that even grass cutters or road-repair crews can't schedule work ahead of time.
To improve the situation, Interactive Design is revamping the cemetery's funeral scheduling system. Today, scheduling a burial is done almost entirely on paper, according to Todd Keith, Interactive Design's vice president. Although the initial information is entered into a computer, it quickly reverts to the data-processing Stone Age.
Faxes are sent to various offices to coordinate the appropriate chaplain, band and location. Confirmations are received. Grounds crews are similarly notified, and someone needs to go out to the grave site to verify that it isn't occupied.
All of this is crucial. A Catholic sailor wouldn't want an Army rabbi officiating, for example, and two funerals can't be scheduled too close together. Processions in sections 7A and 48 might sound far apart, but they're actually adjacent.
When Interactive Design's GIS is finished, coordinating the people and services should be much easier, with less chance of error. Easier as well will be arranging for routine maintenance, because grounds crews will be able to schedule work so as to avoid interfering with a ceremony.
The long-term goal is a fully integrated, fully electronic system that is expected to make the jobs of Arlington's staff simpler, enhance the experience of visitors (either in person or online), and better manage the cemetery's day-to-day maintenance. Not to mention protecting the tons of fire- and flood-prone information sitting in filing cabinets.
All this work is not Interactive Design's alone, although it is the prime contractor. Other companies are doing the programming for the GIS, developing the cemetery's Web site, and building the network infrastructure, for example.
But Bill Hume and his Roanoke company are in the lead.