In an uncertain world where power has been pushed to the edges, allowing threats from non-state actors, including terrorists and transnational criminals, to dominate the strategic landscape, it is increasingly important for the United States to unlock the power of analytics to respond effectively to emerging threats facing the US homeland today.
This is one of the key takeaways of the 2016 SAS Government Leadership Forum held on October 11 at the Newseum in Washington DC. The event showcased some of the best and brightest minds in administration, analytics, policy formation and national security.
General Michael Hayden, former Director of the National Security Agency (NSA) and Central of the Intelligence Agency, gave the keynote address. He said two major changes have transformed the global security environment. First, the United States today is threatened more by failing states than by conquering ones. The role of nation-states and hard power has grown smaller, and threats emanating from non-state actors have risen, leading to terrorism, transnational crime and cyber attacks.
“The industrial era tended to aggregate power toward the center,” Hayden said. “But we are no longer living in that era. We are in a post-industrial era, which pushes power to the edges and down. In other words, the things we used to fear coming at us from malevolent state powers are now within the reach of sub-state groups, gangs and even individuals.”
Second, things that seem permanent are proving not to be. In the wake of the Cold War, the melting down of the post-World War II world order began to break down. Hayden said, “It is losing its relevance and is no longer what it is and is no longer suitable for what we are facing.”
“It is an unsettling world,” Hayden said. “I have seen it more dangerous, but I have not seen it more complicated and I have never seenit more immediate.”
Amid this dynamic shift in power, Hayden said the challenge today is to determine how to make the most out the most amount of data and enable leadership to get to wisdom. Hayden referred to an apt quote from Bill Black, former Deputy Director at NSA, who said, “We have gone from a world in which our data was too little and too hard to get, to a world in which it is too much and too hard to understand.”
Value of analytics to predict and respond more effectively in an uncertain world
During the event, Fritz Lehman, EVP and Chief Customer Officer of SAS, shared a story of the time he was flying home to the United States from Frankfurt, Germany on September 11, 2001. He got about halfway to the United States before the pilot abruptly announced they would be turning around because the entire North American airspace had been shut down.
For four hours, Lehman sat on the plane with no information, thinking Washington DC and New York City were gone. A few people had phones and were able to get a little information, most of which was wrong. After landing, he took a bus to Brighton, England, and immediately turned on his TV upon reaching his hotel. The first thing he saw was the towers still standing, despite having heard information that the towers had fallen. Then, he saw the plane hit the tower. It dawned on him that he was watching a tape of what had already happened hours ago. In that moment, Lehman knew life was going to be radically different from then on.
“In one day, life changed completely—things were different,” Lehman said.
In this post-9/11 world, Lehman said analytics can play a crucial role in predicting and responding to large events, including natural disasters such as typhoons and hurricanes. In the aftermath of a large typhoon that hit the Philippines several years ago, an enormous amount of data was generated, including 10,000 tweets that talked about where the areas needing help.
Lehman explained, “If you think about it, all of those tweets had to be analyzed through some form of text analysis to be able to see how to optimize the limited resources that we have to go take care of the problems that are being caused because 300,000 people are all of a sudden without a home. This is an instance where data that is coming from a different place and analytics actually helped us solve some of the problems that come up from a natural disaster.”
This is just one example of how data and analytics can solve a problem. John Scalia, a professional statistician and Chief of Forecasting and Analysis at the US Marshals Service in the Prisoners Operation Division, said analytics have transformed how the agency manages federal detention costs.
Back in 2005, in an effort to control costs and save taxpayer dollars, the US Marshals Service undertook a study of what factors were driving the variation in per diem rates. They identified a core rate and then were able to get agencies closer to that core rate, thereby reducing the per diem rate by $12 dollars, which represents a 13 percent reduction from the requested rate.
“At the end of the day, over the past 8 years we have avoid over $211 million in costs that would have otherwise been incurred to the detention program,” Scalia said.
However, other organizations are struggling to see the impact of analytics on their organizations. Tom Sabo said there is a paradigm shift going on. Anyone born after 1980 is considered a “digital native”—those who have grown up immersed in digital technology. They live and breathe the technology. Everyone else is referred to as “digital immigrants” who are still learning how to get the most out of the technology.
Sabo posed the following question: “Who is working for ISIS and who is going after ISIS?” The answer is that digital natives are primarily working for ISIS and the digital immigrants are going after them. Using the right kind of analytics can bridge this gap.
Sabo addressed three main challenges organizations face with social media: volume, noise and legality. With the enormous amount of data publicly available, it is difficult for organizations how to capture information that is relevant to their mission. The key is casting the right size net over that data. Casting too large a net entails capturing a lot of noise, but if the net is too small, critical information could be missed.
This is where analytics come in. To make sense of data, organizations can turn to text mining, which can help find trends, patterns, and themes. It relies on having a collection of documents, so that there are frames of reference. On the other side of the house is natural language processing, a very powerful method that relies on subject matter expertise.
“These two go hand in hand, like bread and butter,” Sabo explained.
The future of data and analytics
Lehman explained that twenty years ago, it took hours or even days to process data. Today, people cannot wait hours or days. A hacker who infiltrates a network can do a lot of damage if not immediately detected. However, as the need to know rises, data has gotten bigger.
“Data is coming at us in bigger and faster ways than it ever has before. So we are constantly trying to figure out a way to take this flood of data and give you faster insights,” said Lehman, adding, “We are in a point in time in history where there is so much we need to know immediately, but data is getting bigger.”
What is the future? Companies need to be thinking of putting analytics in the hands of everyone, not just the data scientists. In addition, it is critical that leaders have access to the tools they need and it needs to be easy to get value out of those tools.
Overall, data is just going to get bigger and analytics are going to become more important. So it will be critical for federal agencies and organizations to put a big data strategy in place.