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Snapshot: S&T Enhancing DHS-Wide Operational Analytics

Snapshot: S&T Enhancing DHS-Wide Operational Analytics

Release Date: 
April 19, 2018

The U.S. Secret Service (USSS) provides security for high profile dignitaries and preserves the integrity of the financial system, while U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) works to protect our national borders. But what do they have in common? Both use Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) System of Systems Operational Analytics (SoSOA) program to improve analytic capability of complex systems and processes for better-informed decision-making.  

Complex Decisions? A screen shot of the SoSOA program system with topics like dections, transactions, fraud, vehicles, helicopters, departures, returns, locations and land.All DHS components oversee a host of carefully-managed details—hundreds of different personalities, tools, teams and skillsets functioning behind the scenes to ensure operations run smoothly. Some might not consider how budget planning and logistics play into all of this—but looking at the big picture, these things are actually the backbone of an organization. They factor into setting the tone for quality of personnel and procedures, ultimately affecting morale which extends across the entire operation, first-responders and other field agents included.

Analyzing the numerous activities, processes, and operations is best served by applying a holistic, or “system of systems”, approach that captures the interactions of all aspects in an operation.  Currently, there are limited capabilities within the components and across DHS Headquarters to execute such complex analytics. S&T is leading a widespread effort to streamline and improve the analytics behind resource investments, budget allocation, capability needs, system tradeoffs, mission effectiveness, and better ways to track personnel and technology for different clients across the Homeland Security Enterprise.

For example, in the past, chief information officers (CIOs) have had to manually integrate the information needed to evaluate different aspects of their operations, and the information came from different sources, in varying qualities. While this process can reach the objective, it is labor-intensive to achieve more than a fragmented picture of what is going on. S&T wants to provide CIOs with a toolkit that allows decision makers to work from a single, organized rendering of information from their different analysts and officers.

The USSS is working with S&T to become one of the earliest adopters of SoSOA to enable their executives through a stronger basis for decision-making. Helping USSS gain an advantage in this foundational area is significant for several reasons. Among other things, the USSS safeguards payment and financial systems. Since the agency moved from Department of Treasury to DHS in 2003, it has grown further into its cyber-protective role to naturally meet the demands of converging financial and information systems that will only become more intrinsic to critical infrastructure with time. This makes cybercrime more of a systemic danger. In this sense, it is vital for all government agencies—or anyone connected to the internet—to operate at peak resilience in the IT department. For USSS and other groups responsible for tracking cybercrime, staying ahead is a major priority.

Another reason is simply the common-sense factor: better internal USSS operations can benefit the agencies working around them as well. As Kevin Nally, CIO, U.S. Secret Service points out, “It is important to USSS that this partnership with SoSOA continue as we are just beginning to realize the benefit to my office and USSS as a whole. This visionary program is the right initiative at the right time for DHS and has great potential to produce exceptional benefits for the Department and the U.S. Secret Service.”

Potency in the cyber world requires top-down awareness from skilled programmers, but also among executives and analysts, and an extended mutual awareness across components. S&T uses a similar “system of systems” approach with the CBP Office of Trade and United States Border Protection, in addition to the National Protection and Programs Directorate (NPPD) Office of Cyber and Infrastructure Analysis, targeting a cross-component solutions to advance communication and decision-making that starts within the individual group or component.

SoSOA will give decision-makers a more holistic view of an agency’s needs and make full use of internal infrastructure. USSS, CBP and NPPD want the ability to observe their use of technology, people and operations in one place, with an easy-to-use visual interface. S&T is currently eliciting requirements and identifying proof-of-concept projects. While the SoSOA platform is still in the very early stages of production, the implications are highly significant. At the core of the program is research to develop a scalable system of systems analytic modeling tool kit. The SoSOA toolkit will enable DHS and component analysts to answer questions on unique capabilities delivered when independent and useful systems, processes and activities are integrated into a larger system or process.

Kevin Roney, S&T Principal Data Scientist, makes clear the need to focus on the user-centered nature of the platform: “With CBP, we are working to analyze requirement gaps to find less labor-intensive ways of addressing them. This novel approach can also be applied to the Secret Service model. The end objective is an analytics toolbox that can be shared—not the mechanisms, but the tools. Now they can analyze what the data are telling them about their performance and costs, and address planning issues such as the number of new officers needed and budget allocation.”

An important feature needed for an analytic platform like this to succeed is the ability to sustain itself, not only across components, but over many generations of workers. Roney stresses how universal application through a practical interface is central to the mission: “Another key thing that is really important to S&T is that this is not just about building another great tool that isn’t usable—human system integration is what is most important to S&T, the human part.”

In addition to targeting high-level decision makers and operational analysts, the platform needs a straightforward, comprehensive tutorial to reach an incoming workforce. S&T wants to enable any individual to sit down and understand their role in using SoSOA. This would save a great deal of time and effort that might otherwise go toward training new employees in disparate information systems.

An analytic platform like SoSOA is ultimately implemented to increase time available for decision makers to actually make decisions as opposed to the tedium of analyzing different data sets to fill reports. The ideal visual, interactive nature of SoSOA is meant to help these decision makers go beyond the limits of what has been typically used to document operations analysis: a static document (Microsoft Office, PowerPoint).

“All of the current customers are very excited about SoSOA, because it attacks a problem they have not been able to address before. These groups are even eager to give S&T access to their information to help them achieve their goals,” says Roney.

With this project still in infancy, the first area of focus will be to gain USSS access to their information in a reduced timeframe. Once this is achieved, they can proceed to more complex cross-component questions, and whatever other operational priorities need to be addressed. This all starts with an improved foundation of internal collaboration, which S&T looks to achieve with SoSOA.

Since January 2018, S&T has been meeting with SoSOA clients to examine the visual aspects of the platform to determine how some items may appear on screen. From there, the project will advance to building the next proof-of-concept products, and by end of the calendar year, S&T will produce a small scale SoSOA prototype, leading to the potential for additional component operations beyond USSS, CBP and NPPD, potentially even to partners outside of DHS.

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