Connecting the Dots
When Wayne Comer retired from the FBI, he took his 28 years of experience to an anti-drug program in Philadelphia and stumbled across an idea that may revolutionize counter-terrorism intelligence.
In 2001, Comer became executive director of the Philadelphia-Camden High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (P/C-HIDTA) program. Created by the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988, HIDTAs are designated by the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) as posing serious community threats.
Federally run HIDTA programs serve as intelligence centers for law enforcement agencies battling traffic in illegal drugs in defined geographical areas. When Comer started at P/C-HIDTA, analysts were searching for connections among data housed in numerous databases. After observing the research process, Comer asked what turned out to be a key question: Why does it take so long?
“I thought there had to be a software that would read all these databases with a single query,” Comer says.
He asked ONDCP, which looked into the issue and found that Visual Analytics Inc., a software developer in Poolesville, Md., had a new system called Digital Information Gateway (DIG) that could search multiple databases simultaneously. The company was looking for a way to test DIG. Comer volunteered P/C-HIDTA.
Visual Analytics specializes in data analysis tools. “Our goals are to find ways to access all types of data as fast as possible so you can create up-to-date analyses and find patterns that might be embedded in data,” says its president, David O’Connor.
“While the idea may sound simple, it isn’t,” adds Bennett McPhatter, the company’s chief operating officer.
DIG sits on top of various database systems and models the stored data, without changing it, McPhatter explains. Visual Analytics connected DIG to seven separate databases including arrests, debriefings and FBI informant information. When an analyst typed in a query at a DIG screen, the system searched all seven databases and returned with materials including documents, Web sites, e-mail, spreadsheets, PowerPoints, PDFs and other database items.
Suddenly P/C-HIDTA analysts were churning out reports in two days instead of two weeks.
In 2003, Comer asked another question: Could DIG connect with other HIDTA systems and search more records? Specifically, could a P/C-HIDTA analyst query DIG and search the databases current connected to the system as well as databases serving the Washington/Baltimore HIDTA and HIDTAs set up throughout Florida?
Visual Analytics developed a concept called server-to-server searching. The original P/C-HIDTA system used a dedicated server configured to connect to each of the databases it would search. The new system would delegate searches to servers located within each organization that had agreed to share data.
To sell the idea to the law enforcement groups involved, the system also had to protect the data agencies did not want to share. “We configured a security system that controls who is allowed to use each database,” McPhatter says. “Each agency can configure and modify the security controls itself.”
The result: the DIG server-to-server system now searches nearly 50 geographically dispersed databases containing approximately 200 million records.
In addition, Visual Analytics has developed software to support DIG. Called Visual Links, the new application works with DIG by drawing flow-charts that visually describe the connection between various pieces of data.
Last year, Comer moved on and set up a Princeton, N.J.-based consulting shop called Analytical Information Intelligence Group LLC. His current assignments include marketing similar systems.
One of Comer’s targets is the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). “They operate an intelligence center or data warehouse,” Comer says. “Lots of agencies have contributed their databases to this warehouse, but none of them are linked together. If those databases were all linked, then every analyst working for DHS and every other agency involved could search all the databases with a single query.”