Shawn P. McCarthy

Commentary | Shawn P. McCarthy

Fusion center approach could be effective in other areas

Common data formats could enable sharing data of everything from bridge sensors to business reporting

Despite some documented shortcomings, fusion centers have worked fairly well for homeland security issues -- so much so that maybe it's time to extend the concept to other civilian uses. The fusion center idea could even be applied to government functions that aren't security related, but which need real-time delivery of data and detailed analysis tools to make sense of the incoming data.

Homeland security fusion centers were suggested as part of a National Criminal Intelligence Sharing Plan issued by the Justice Department in 2003. The concept quickly spread across multiple security and justice-related agencies as they worked to import multiple data sources for analysis.

Today, more than 70 fusion centers have been set up across multiple security-related agencies. The centers serve as terrorism prevention resources and function as information sharing hubs -- gathering, digesting and comparing data from both government and private-sector resources. In the process, the centers also promote data sharing between federal, state and local government offices, the military and intelligence agencies.

Security-related fusion centers often rely heavily on data from trusted sources, and often that data is stored and shared using the Global Justice Extensible Markup Language Data Model. (Global JXDM or GJXDM) or, more likely, the broader National Information Exchange Model (NIEM). While other data also can be imported or exported, the GJXDM or NIEM formats are by far the most common standards for quick sharing, data drilling and, in some cases, automatic notification when specific security-related issues are uncovered.

Closely related cousins to fusion centers are emergency operations centers. Although these centers might also deal with security-related data feeds, their main function is to import real-time data that's related to specific events such as national disasters or terrorist incidents. An emergency operations center may track everything from the location of ambulances or rescue personnel to available hospital beds or even the location of victims who need to be rescued.

An important element that's sometimes missing from fusion centers is the overall portal-style view of the data resources. This type of view allows participants to log on with a role-based view of new and older data. They can set triggers for specific issues or anomalies. Such systems allow tasks to be assigned, updated and monitored. The more advanced systems allow data to be viewed using visual analytics. In many cases, the visual representation of the data functions as the primary way of interacting with the information and drilling down to specific data points or contact information.

Microsoft has developed this type of system, via its Fusion Framework, which uses an array of Microsoft SharePoint products and technologies designed to import, store and display a range of data feeds. Working with longtime geographic information system and geodatabase management stalwart ESRI, Microsoft also offers Fusion Core, which integrates GIS into public safety and homeland security workflows, with threat identification and vulnerability assessments, plus task assignment related to specific data points of issues.

Other solutions that offer at least some of these capabilities include Oracle Fusion Middleware, ChoicePoint from Lexis-Nexis and IBM's Entity Analytic Solutions.

So how can the fusion-center concept be expanded beyond its current scope? Although some type of data fusion already exists across most agencies, what makes a dedicated fusion center unique is its commitment to developing a specific set of solutions for a specific problem, and its focus on making data available in real time in a format that can be easily imported or exported by all participants. Just as homeland security data centers have focused heavily on the NIEM XML standard, other centers are most likely to grow up around common data sets that are used by multiple agencies and clients.

One likely area for future expansion could be data centers that use the Sensor Model Language (SensorML or SensorXML). Today, many new roads and bridges are being built with sensors that record temperature, road conditions, expansion or contraction of surface materials, and other information. This data can be converted to SensorML information and immediately shared locally or nationally, as needed, helping officials keep an eye on road conditions or maintenance issues.

Another set of data fusion needs might grow up around the Electronic Business XML (ebXML) which allows for the quick exchange of electronic business information – including, for example, reporting quarterly results from government offices. An ebXML fusion center could monitor a wide range or economic and business information.

There are probably a dozen other likely fusion center possibilities waiting in the wings.

Fusion centers are not perfect. They have been criticized in the past for importing data that contains incorrect information, and they have been accused of invading privacy. The best fusion centers work to address and correct any such issues by establishing best practices and standards.

The links below provide more background information on current fusion centers, plus ideas for how fusion centers can be expanded and improved.

The Justice Department has extensive guidelines for developing data fusion centers and sharing intelligence data. These guidelines are a good starting point for agencies that may want to adapt the concept for other uses.

Information on Microsoft's Fusion Framework and Fusion Core solution can be found here.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center has several pages of information about privacy issues related to fusion centers, and how some of these can be addressed.

The 2003 National Criminal Intelligence Sharing Plan can be found here.

About the Author

Shawn McCarthy, a former writer for GCN, is senior analyst and program manager for government IT opportunities at IDC.

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