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Tech advances have enhanced homeland security

David Alexander, Senior Technologist, Science and Technology Directorate, Department of Homeland Security.

Geospatially-enabled analytics are becoming increasingly critical to DHS missions, says David Alexander in an exclusive interview with Geospatial World.  

What role does geospatial data play in the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and how has the department incorporated geospatial analytics in its operations?

Location-based data and geospatially enabled analytics are becoming more and more critical to Homeland Security missions and community public safety functions. These technologies are deployed across all mission sets to support more effective strategic planning, tactical decision-making and automated emergency measures. New advances in location-enabled technologies are also improving the effectiveness of current capabilities for Homeland Security law enforcement functions, cyber and infrastructure security and information sharing across stakeholders. DHS is rapidly moving from a consumer and outsourcer of analytics to in-house capacities complemented by public and private sector partners and resources.

There is a growing trend of people becoming more geo-aware. How critical is location data to counter-terrorism or solve issues like refugee settlement or migrant tracking?

Citizens, civic organizations and non-governmental organizations have always played an important role in keeping communities safe. Homeland security and public safety have been enhanced by advances in technology, monitoring and communications systems that enable, leverage or compliment citizen reporting (i.e.: E911, Wireless Emergency Alerts, security cameras, satellites, drones, etc.). “The See Something, Say Something” initiative is a prime example of using crowd-sourced information to enhance public safety. There are some issues and challenges that need to be overcome such as security, confidence and integrity of the data, analytics and platforms generating this new type of information. I believe social media and crowdsourcing offer a viable opportunity to augment current public safety reporting and monitoring systems. You wouldn’t rely on these sources alone, but combined with other bounded sources, this information can provide more accurate context and improve situational awareness.

With Google accepting that it tracks location data 24×7, do you approve of constant location tracking, even if it is for security purpose?

There needs to be a debate on the distinction between public safety systems and general-purpose solutions. There should also be a discussion on the decoupling of devices that enable collection of such data and solutions that are leveraging these devices.

A combination of location technology and disruptive technologies like AI and Big Data are leading to new innovations. How can DHS leverage this trend and strengthen its internal security system?

Homeland Security is already taking advantage of innovations in smart technologies, AI and machine learning. The research arm of DHS, Science and Technology Directorate is also investing in new science, engineering and solutions to further enable internal homeland security operations and national public safety capabilities. This research interest includes strengthening the integrity and security aspects of these new and emerging technologies.

Data is termed the new oil, but if misused, it can bring catastrophe. In the raging controversy over data privacy, do you think citizens would trust government controlling data?

There is always a healthy distrust in government regulation and administration of economic markets. The data privacy market is not different. That debate needs to take place and include transparency, opt-in strategies and distinguishing public safety systems with general purposes solutions.

Do you think data laws like GDPR can solve privacy issues?

As noted in a previous question, data is a new currency in the global economy. I think you phrased it as “data is the new oil”. Initiatives like GDPR play an important role in the discussion and resolution of data privacy in the information age and rise of an interconnected world. I don’t think there is a single solution to the data privacy issue, but the debate needs to take place. There is much that can be learned from correlated industries like healthcare. Transparency and opt-in needs to remain focal points of that debate.

What are your views on the US Geospatial Data Act? Can it emerge as a great enabler and foster further innovation?

The main benefit of the Geospatial Data Act is it institutionalizes a function for cross-agency geospatial coordination. The geospatial community needs to discuss how to leverage the reporting function of the Act to spur innovation. Oversight is usually not the most effective pathway for driving innovation or catalyzing new approaches. The geospatial community needs to discuss in collaboration with the private sector the best ways for the government to support, stimulate and grow the geospatial profession and marketplace.

Since NGA’s mission is to collect, analyze and distribute geospatial intelligence in support of national security, what role does the agency play in the functioning of Homeland Security?

DHS is a member of the intelligence community. Many of the department’s functions are enabled and empowered by NGA capabilities and other national technical means. NGA is an important mission support partner in that context.

What are the new innovations by which geospatial technologies can be used in internal security?

Enhanced way-finding powered by indoor GPS, radio frequency technologies, self-forming mesh networks, remote sensing and detection of aerosols, mini-drone capabilities combined with AI and machine learning that have embedded location-technologies, will form the next generation of public safety capabilities. New multi-dimensional computer visioning will encapsulate these technologies to support more effective tactical decision-making and automated emergency measures.

Does the DHS geospatial data model need an update for enhanced interoperability?

Yes. The Homeland Security and Public Safety communities and its traditional practices need to embrace analytics (human to automated intelligence), sensor diversity (from in situ, aerial, space, and on-body devices and platforms), new rendering capabilities, and interoperability to support the rapid and expanding transition from data/information at rest (static) to data/information in motion.

How do you think situational awareness can be enhanced in the age of AI and IoT?

I think the key term here is “convergence”. In the near term, I think innovation and advancement will come from convergence of multiple technologies and the novel approaches and applications will be the game-changers, not any single technology. An example of this can be the integration of on-body systems connected to fixed sensors and orbiting systems that interface with media platforms to provide fuller, richer, individual situational awareness and enhance regional situational awareness through shared context. AI and machine learning will have significant contributions in these types of scenarios.

For compiling data, do you think crowdsourcing is a viable option to increase reliability?

Social media and crowdsourcing has, and will continue to make an important contribution to public safety. “The See Something, Say Something” initiative is a prime example of using crowd sourced information to enhance public safety. Social media and crowdsourcing offer a viable opportunity to augment current public safety reporting and monitoring systems.