Big data and public security: Analytics on the world stage

Data sharing helps public health, safety and security organizations effectively harness the power in big data

By Babak Akhgar, PhD, FBCS is Professor of Informatics at Sheffield Hallam University, Fellow of the British Computer Society and Director of CENTRIC

April 2009 marked the start of the first flu pandemic in more than 90 years involving the H1N1 virus – a mutated version of the virus that killed hundreds of millions of people from 1918 to 1920, as much as 5 percent of the world’s population at the time.

The “swine flu” pandemic was first recognized in Veracruz, Mexico. Government agencies closed public and private facilities in an attempt to contain the spread of the virus. Those precautions came too late. An epidemic had been going on for months before it was officially recognized.

Since each infected person would infect an average of 1.75 others, the disease spread globally before the World Health Organization and the US Centers for Disease Control declared a pandemic.

Some of the most valuable insights only become apparent when you have visibility across systems …

What was? What is? What will be?

It’s hard to say how many lives were lost to this 2009 strain of the H1N1 virus because case reporting was spotty and inconsistent, especially in areas with underdeveloped health care systems. Experts seem to agree that the global death toll reached 284,500, but it may have been as high as 579,000.

How many of those lives would have been spared if the earliest cases in Veracruz were recognized as the seeds of a dandelion? Could the next outbreak be brewing somewhere, and we don’t see it because we’re not connecting enough dots?

hose are the kinds of questions we ask at CENTRIC. This multi-disciplinary research group is located within the Cultural, Communication and Computing Research Institute at Sheffield Hallam University, where I am Professor of informatics. The strategic aim of CENTRIC is to bring together citizens, law enforcement agencies, academics and technology vendors to undertake and support applied research.

In short, we are looking to advance the ways organizations use data and analytics for public security and safety.

The potential has never been greater. Yesterday we were talking about data management – still dealing with fundamentals of data integration, cleansing and access. Then it was knowledge management – how to generate and manage insights from that data. Today it’s about big data, which is changing the game.

We now have the computing power to not only understand past events but to create new knowledge from billions of data points – quickly. In minutes, we can run analyses that used to take days to run. Lifting the technology barriers has redefined what local, regional, national and global organizations can do with their data – and more importantly, what they can do when they share their data.

Some of the most valuable insights only become apparent when you have visibility across systems, such as cross-checking travel visas against data about purchases, criminal activity in other jurisdictions and social network connections, just for starters. For example, if more dots had been connected across international intelligence sources, would authorities have put London suicide bomber Mohammad Sidique Khan under surveillance after questioning him — twice? Would the scattered rumors of an impending attack have been taken more seriously if viewed collectively?

There are constraints to the data-sharing ideal, such as issues of privacy, data disparity and culture clash. However, the severity of the threats – the scale of the human risks and dollar amounts involved – has led to some softening of data use restrictions, both regulatory and cultural. And technology has advanced to the point where data can be integrated across agencies even when there are no common identifiers among systems.

Protecting the populace with data – Four projects

At CENTRIC, we’re involved in projects that use diverse types of analysis to address violent crime, cyber-crime, terrorism and the preservation of public order. For example:

  • The ePoolice project, funded by the European Commission and involving a consortium that includes European law enforcement agencies, it seeks to develop enhanced environmental scanning processes to identify future patterns of crimes. Central to the project is the development of an intelligent environmental scanning “radar” that applies semantic filtering to identify even weak signals of emerging organized crime patterns such as cannabis cultivation, human trafficking or cybercrime.
  • The ATHENA project looks at social media – particularly on smart mobile devices – to empower the public to help first responders. For example, in the recent Boston Marathon bombings, the suspects were swiftly identified in part through a massive, worldwide dissemination of information and photos via social media. Twitter, Facebook and other sites were all credited with helping to identify and apprehend the Tsarnaev brothers.
  • The COuRAGE project, also driven by a partnership of law enforcement agencies, is defining a research agenda on cyber-crime and cyber-terrorism in Europe. The goal is to determine how to protect critical European infrastructures against cyberattack and misuse. A key focus is to combat terrorists’ use of the Internet to spread propaganda and recruit followers.
  • The Odyssey project looks at how analytical tools can identify patterns from pooled data about gun crimes, such as the gun used, the ammunition and the context of the crime. We have created tools and applications that enable law enforcement agencies to integrate gun crime data with their back-end systems to support more informed investigations. If we can identify the source of the bullets, the source of the gun, who is going to use it and why, we have a fantastic opportunity to reduce the effect of gun crime.

Central to all of these projects is the ability to access relevant data, quickly aggregate it, and then analyze it to provide both situational awareness (the ability to detect threats as they are occurring) and strategic intelligence (a broader view of trends and emerging threats to monitor).

When you start talking about generating these views on a global scale – such as a global swine flu pandemic – big data is a big part of the story. We can now combine massive data sources to understand what happened in the past, report on what’s happening now, and foresee what will happen in the future. For example, we can identify the patterns that are hallmarks of a crime and, with predictive analytics, use that knowledge as an early warning system to alert us when a similar crime begins to emerge.

Working together, agencies can harness the power of big data to understand the continuum of past, present and future – with a proactive focus on the future. Since the big data analytics foundation is available, there are no excuses. When the mission is public health, safety and security, we have a moral imperative to share data appropriately and to embrace analytics-driven decision making.


Read More

For more about optimizing big data, read Best Practices in SAS Data Management for Big Data.

About Centric

CENTRIC is a center of excellence in terrorism, resilience, intelligence and organized crime research. Public health issues fall under the resilience pillar and cybercrime falls under the organized crime pillar.