September 12, 2007 By Jim McKay, Justice and Public Safety Editor
New data-linking technologies are giving north Texas homeland security, law enforcement and emergency management officials a keen edge. The new tools enable investigators to search and link data by geography, and allows them to identify trends or clusters of events. Officials also use a mining technology to search and group similar data, providing a visual presentation of each data group.
Together, they allow investigators at the North Texas Fusion Center (NTFC) to search millions of documents and identify trends without having to peruse each file.
The NTFC is one of many fusion centers in the country whose function is to exchange and analyze data that might relate to homeland security threats. The NTFC is unique because it deals with all hazards - man-made and natural disasters.
The NTFC collaborates with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Operations Center, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the North Texas High Intensity Drug Trafficking Activity Intelligence Center, the FBI Dallas Emergency Response Network and the local FBI office concerning detection and prevention of critical all-hazards situations.
"We have a very strong focus on prevention instead of the normal response, recovery, detection," said Kelly Stone, director of homeland security for Collin County, where the facility began operations in February 2006. "That's what's a little different about us. These tools are really beneficial to meeting the mission and answering the needs that are associated with the type of queries and access that you need to accomplish that."
Fusion centers are primarily a response to 9/11 - when homeland security officials knew scattered details about the airplane hijackers, but didn't put together the pieces by working across agencies, so the information was of little use. The fusion center provides a central clearing-house for data, which can be analyzed and shared with the appropriate agencies.
The intelligence comes from many sources, including reports from the media, police, fire departments, emergency management and public health agencies, airports and hospitals. The documents are collected by the North Central Texas Fusion System, where they can be sifted and analyzed.
MetaCarta software called GTS Analyst was recently introduced to the fusion system in a February 2007 pilot. The software lets analysts sort through millions of documents and find keyword matches. More importantly the software incorporates a geographic component, giving investigators not only viable information on gangs, drug runners, smugglers or hazardous situations, but also the locations of criminal incidents pictured as icons on a map.
Location, Location, Location
"That's what it's all about," said Bari Lee, senior intelligence analyst with the Collin County Department of Homeland Security. "During the Clinton years it was, 'It's the economy, stupid.' Well, really in our business, in intelligence research nowadays more often than not it is, 'It's the location, stupid.' That's what we need to know."
Seeing activity patterns based on activity hot spots is important to investigators. "It's kind of like a daily Google tool," Lee said. "It allows me to view the missing components of any kind of textual search. It brings up the same data that a normal Google search would, but it brings that geographic component as well."
The analyst tool was used in a statewide operation to analyze types of border-related criminal activity. Though officials are tight-lipped about the details, Lee said the tools helped them find some of the main geographic corridors of activity.
Lee said it helps to have a starting point - some information to query the system with, but it is not always necessary. "That's one of the surprise features from my standpoint. I can start out with a hypothesis about what's going on with, say smuggling along a certain corridor, and I think it involves a particular group. I'll
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