Microsoft/ESRI app boosts GIS data sharing at Mass. fusion center

Massachusetts center uses ESRI/Microsoft app to correlate mapping info and improve data sharing

The aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks highlighted the shortcomings many law enforcement and emergency agencies faced in analyzing and sharing information.

“People know they have the data out there; they just don't know how to get to it,” said David Stampfli, technical architect at Microsoft's U.S. Public Center Industry Unit.


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The elements of FusionX 


The Homeland Security Department launched a project to help state and local organization develop fusion centers, designed to let organizations share information within their jurisdictions and with the federal government. The “Fusion Center Guidelines,” developed by DHS and the Justice Department, define a fusion center as “a collaborative effort of two or more agencies that provide resources, expertise, and/or information to the center with the goal of maximizing the ability to detect, prevent, investigate, and respond to criminal and terrorist activity.”

As of early this year, there were 58 fusion centers across the country, 27 of them connected to the Homeland Security Data Network, which allows the federal government and states to share data at the Secret level, DHS has said. But fusion centers have also run into problems and, at times, drawn criticism from Congress. A Congressional Research Service report two years ago concluded that centers weren’t coming up with enough useful information, at least partly because of technical problems.

One problem they’ve faced is how to create a system that correlates data from geographic information systems, analyzes it and gets it into the hands of those who need to take action.

“We tried a year and a half ago to integrate ArcGIS with Microsoft SharePoint but failed,” said Brian Egnitz, GIS program manager for the Massachusetts State Police, which hosts Massachusetts' Commonwealth Fusion Center.

To simplify matters, Microsoft and ESRI have created FusionX, an appliance preloaded with ESRI GIS data and software together with SharePoint and other applications to integrate fusion center operations. Microsoft worked with several agencies to develop the requirements for FusionX, including the Massachusetts center and the Illinois Statewide Terrorism Intelligence Center.

The Massachusetts fusion center will celebrate its fifth anniversary this fall but has not yet fulfilled its goal. It had ESRI GIS software and access to public and law enforcement databases, but responding to requests for data involved too much manual number-crunching. Egnitz gave the example of what he called the $100,000 weekend: With no electronic data-mining system, a request from command for case load data meant rummaging through paper reports to gather metadata and aggregate it into a report.

The first improvement came by switching from an aging version of Lotus Notes to Microsoft SharePoint Server content management and collaboration system.

“The fusion center concept has evolved over the last couple of years, so we need to maintain flexibility and to track our activity both for privacy issues and tracking workloads,” Egnitz said. “We found that SharePoint had that flexibility and could easily collect the data needed on a weekly or monthly basis.”

To integrate SharePoint business processes with its ESRI GIS software, he enlisted Stampfli's help. SharePoint provides the dashboard to track case data and generate workload statistics. It also provides a single log-on search function to all the state police’s law enforcement and subscription databases.

“It gives users a centralized place where they can very quickly view the intell on a case and find out what everyone is doing without going through a manual process,” Egnitz said. “The administration can say, 'This is our workload, and this is who is working on what,' without walking around the office and saying ‘Hey guys, give me a report.’ ”

The fusion center has now gone through several rounds of testing with FusionX and is awaiting approval of a service contract before going into production. Internally, about 70 people on staff will use the system. Phase 2 will expand the system to local law enforcement business partners. A potential third phase could include parties outside of the law enforcement community.

Massachusetts already had the hardware and software it needed for the FusionX solution — it just needed them to work together — so it did not need to buy the appliance. For other fusion centers that need a quick setup, Microsoft is finalizing the appliance for release this summer.

“All fusion centers spend a lot of time trying to figure out what is in the queue, what are their priorities, how long has it been there, how important it is and where did it go,” Stampfli said. “We are trying to help fusion centers better manage the intake, how it is audited, reported, [and] searched and where it is going. That will help free up a lot of hours to do other missions.”

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