DHS digs geospatial data -- but not for the reasons you might think

DHS digs geospatial data -- but not for the reasons you might think

David Alexander, director of the Department of Homeland Security's Geospatial Management Office, explained how DHS' use of geospatial information is quite different than what people might think.

“Our use of geospatial and our interest in geospatial is not just maps and the traditional collection of foundational data,” Alexander said June 24 at the GEOINT 2015 symposium in Washington, D.C.

“The vast majority of geospatial information that offers value to DHS is not traditional imagery,” Alexander continued. “Imagery is important -- it provides a valuable and critical data point for us understanding a situation -- but it’s all the transactional data that’s occurring in our ecosystem that’s driving our understanding of scenarios, of actions, of players and how those relate to the security of the nation."

“Those could be emerging threats from outside the nation to activities that are happening within the nation," he said. "That’s not traditional geospatial information that you would obtain from looking at an image.”

Alexander, who has been DHS’ geospatial information officer for four years, also talked about the cybersecurity risks and how vulnerabilities can span both the cyber and physical worlds.

“Everything happens in space and time. Whether it’s in the virtual environment or is within what we consider the real world environment, it still happens in time,” Alexander said.  “So being able to understand where cybersecurity risks and activities are occurring, what the cascading effects could be in terms of physical infrastructure and the systems that rely on that is a key area of concern.”

And since DHS controls or has direct access to only a small portion of the geospatial intelligence that could identify such risks, Alexander said his agency has forged partnerships with a wide range of agencies and non-governmental organizations.  When it comes to health security, for example, Alexander's office and DHS' Office of Health Affairs coordinates with the  Department of Health and Human Services, the Centers for Disease Control, the Department of Agriculture's food safety inspection offices and the World Health Organization.

And while such partnerships expand the available geospatial data, DHS still faces challenges when it comes to managing and protecting it.

“Our biggest challenge is how do we safeguard important information and how do we share it with our diverse community,” Alexander said. "[H]ow do we do that in a way that the data is still useable?"

There's also the challenge of finding the important information amid the mountains of big data.

“One of the biggest challenges for DHS is we’re becoming very data rich, but information poor,” Alexander said. “Our problem from big data is how to filter out the most pertinent information from that swarm of data that’s flowing into the Homeland Security enterprise.”

About the Author

Derek Major is a former reporter for GCN.

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