Desktop computer first responder map

Smart city tech: Situational awareness data fused and filtered

When the National Weather Service issued an alert at 4:29 a.m. on Jan. 29 that winter weather headed for Georgia had grown in severity, most local officials were asleep. By the time they learned of the threat, it was too late to prevent motorists there from getting stranded in dangerous conditions.

A new cloud-based software-as-a-service product from Swan Island Networks called Trusted Information Exchange Service (TIES) for Microsoft CityNext could have helped avert such a crisis and aims to do just that in other cities nationwide, said Charles Jennings, chief executive officer of Swan Island Networks.

“TIES is a situation awareness engine developed initially in [research and development] programs to provide the federal government with intelligence sharing but now is applied in both private sector and state and local governments,” Jennings said.

CityNext, an initiative Microsoft started last July to create smart cities worldwide, partnered in February with Swan Island to help departments within city governments better communicate with one another.

At the center of TIES is the Common Operating Picture, which shows real-time data from many sources fused in various maps on dashboards. It can display the latest information about severe weather, road closures, health scares, electricity outages and cyberattacks, for instance.

TIES works in two phases. First it gathers data from hundreds of sources such as social media, local 911 centers, NWS bulletins, intelligence analysis and even the locations of school buses using global positioning system tracking. Next, it filters the information by relevance to a given user and delivers it on dashboards and as email, text or phone call alerts.

“TIES is about aggregating information from multiple sources, making access to that information easy and also filtering it so that everyone is able to get no more than the information they need,” Jennings said.

To fuse and filter the data, TIES maintains profiles about particular jobs and the technologies people who hold them use to get their work done.

It also uses the Common Alerting Protocol, “a digital format for exchanging emergency alerts that allows a consistent alert message to be disseminated simultaneously over many different communications systems,” according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

CAP structures alert-based data so that attributes – the severity or type of event, such as fire or terrorism – can be identified along with time, location and certainty, Jennings said.  TIES also lets users customize attribute settings so they can tune in to the signals they want, not all the noise.

“It’s pretty easy to gather information and blast it out there,” he said. The hard part is connecting the specific information and technology preferences to either school or law enforcement personnel who have different interests and needs.  Users shouldn’t have to  “open 12 different windows and do 10 different searches to get what they want. It all shows up for them 24/7 in one service.”

For instance, a school administrator might want better, faster access to information on pedophiles living nearby, breaking crime news and gang activity. But many schools lack the security resources to address all these threats, so they rely on a close relationship with local police departments.

Microsoft CityNext Safe Schools Edition facilitates that bond, Jennings said.

“One specific way to do that is through shared video surveillance using TIES,” Jennings said. “Maybe the school cameras are available in the local police department and can be monitored there, and if there is word of an incident, police can immediately get a picture at headquarters of what’s going on.”

Similarly, principals can monitor 911 calls to find out if nearby incidents could affect the school.

All that’s needed to implement TIES, which is managed through the Microsoft Azure cloud, is an Internet connection, Jennings said, but it’s not a public Internet system. Only vetted personnel receive access from city supervisors, he added.

Currently, TIES is being used as an intracity service, but that could change to connect multiple cities or even broader organizations. For instance, Colorado is starting to connect state agencies and local Denver organizations on a common operating platform, Jennings said.

“There’s no reason we can’t link the cities, but the TIES for CityNext program is only about three months old,” he said. “We’re just getting started.”

About the Author

Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.

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