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Wednesday, June 7, 2023

PERSPECTIVE: Promises, Insights and Rewards of Data Analytics for TSA

If you’re a TSA Pre-Check traveler, you know firsthand the benefits of this unique federal program. Using the personal information that you’ve provided to TSA about who you are, along with TSA’s own data verification and vetting processes, once “checked out” you as a passenger get the benefit of a streamlined screening process, allowing you to move through the line faster than those travelers without Pre-Check. While there is certainly a welcomed convenience factor associated with this effort, having this type of actionable data allows TSA to focus their efforts on screening passengers who may pose a higher risk.

This is just one example of how TSA uses data to do its often cumbersome and complicated jobs. Formed in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, TSA is the one agency of DHS with which most Americans probably come into regular contact. Screening the traveling public as they do (over two million people a day, on average) will certainly raise your public profile and performance expectations.

In terms of the agency’s data footprint, the vast amount of information TSA collects comes from airlines, railways, port authorities, law enforcement members, intelligence agencies and more. Anything that can help inform them and their mission of protecting the traveling public and commerce from harm, TSA wants to know about it – which is why data is so important to TSA and how it operates, but also how it shapes its policies, programs and investments.

But it is not a straightforward or easy path. Several weeks back, USC’s CREATE hosted a symposium at Georgetown University focusing on “Accelerating Action for Transportation Security.” One of the notable individuals attending the program was TSA Administrator David Pekoske, who has more than say and sway on these matters.

During the audience Q&A session, I asked him, “Given TSA has more than its share of data sources, what is TSA’s strategy for using its data to serve its mission and who is TSA’s chief data officer?”

With no sense of hesitation, the administrator replied, “We don’t manage the data we have the way we should and we don’t have a chief data officer.”

In a town that is prone to leaders who don’t often answer the questions posed to them, or deflect them with answers that don’t respond to what was asked, Pekoske’s reply was candid, straightforward and refreshing. As noteworthy as his reply may have been about what TSA could be doing better, it acknowledges the insight gap that one of the youngest components of DHS still possesses in doing its job with all of the information it collects and generates.

While it’s a tremendous responsibility to safeguard the public and commerce day in and day out, the challenge of having a full understanding of what all of the collected information is telling you is just as Herculean. Which is why Pekoske’s candid reply about TSA not managing data the way it should ought to have an even larger echo beyond those who heard him speak at Georgetown.

Prior to the recent July 4 holiday, TSA forecast that the Friday before Independence Day (June 29) would be its busiest travel day of the year. How did they know that? The answer comes from their smart use of their data, analytics and modeling tools to forecast that prediction. With all of those assets in hand, it told not just the front office folks at TSA HQ what was coming, but more importantly all of the airports that they needed to be have plenty of staff scheduled and on-hand to screen passengers and keep the lines moving. Their forecast proved to right as that week and, in particular, June 29 was their second- busiest day ever as they screened over 2.67 million passengers. But staffing screening lines is only one small data-use case for TSA that helps the agency with its mission.

From applying data and analytical tools to profile insider threats at airports and rail stations, risk-scoring passenger groups for expedited screening, improving TSA staffing and employee training – and maintaining high levels of screening equipment algorithms to improving overall operational efficiencies – there are real opportunities to make TSA’s decisions more auditable, repeatable and defendable. Such an approach also better shapes the policies and operations that should always be in balance.

There are critics who would describe such an approach as being too technology-centric and “letting the machines take over.” Technology certainly plays a leading role in this environment but in reality this approach is more about empowering leadership with the comprehensive details and insights they need to make the tough calls they were hired to make in the first place. This approach would also allow TSA to proactively evolve and forecast the costs, needs and requirements its operations will need to address the dynamic threats it will always face.

By itself, data can be informative but when it is assembled together with other data sets and analytical models applied to it, actionable insights become available where they previously did not exist.

While lofty for its aspirations, the three priorities of TSA’s recently issued Strategic Plan – 1) Improve Security to Safeguard the Transportation System; 2) Accelerate Action; and 3) Commit to Our People –  provide a viable framework for how TSA can revolutionize the way it embraces data and analytics for its mission.

For example, to help TSA achieve its second strategic priority, “Accelerate Action,” the agency will need to be far more timely, proactive and mature with its data-driven decision making. By improving data integration and analytic capabilities across its enterprise, TSA could automate detection capabilities for emerging threats, identify additional groups of passengers who should have additional screening, enhance the efficiency, maintenance and performance of its screening equipment; and, improve employee morale with training, benefits and strategies that are known to work.  Automating these processes allows TSA to focus on newer priorities and changing threats that will always be part of is day-to-day operating environment.   An enterprise approach to data and analytics provides the ability to make faster decisions, optimize resource allocation, anticipate changing threats and ultimately live up to its strategic priority to “Accelerate Action.”

From its first days, the data metrics by which DHS leaders, the Administration (OMB), the Congress, news media and the public assess TSA’s performance are a double-edged sword that has to be balanced with great attention and care. For years, TSA has incurred the wrath of the traveling public, members of Congress, news media and late-night comedians for long wait times for passenger screening, understaffed airports, lousy training and other poor performance issues. While many of these instances have been chronicled by news accounts, passenger social media posts and government reports (e.g. GAO, IG, etc.), it was data TSA collected itself that further revealed many of its problems. Low employee morale, frequent staff turnover, training/inspection failures and more were certainly one side of its data sword that proved to be cutting – especially if you watched any of the congressional hearings and media coverage of those instances. But it was the other side of that double-edged sword – that same data – that drove the organization to make operational changes that have set the agency on the better-performing track that its occupies today.

The data that once made it look bad is the same data that made the organization get even better.

It is unreasonable for any one person to know all there is to know about an organization’s performance. No one has enough brain matter or caffeine-fueled attention to keep that 24-7, 365 watch. But it is not unreasonable to put into place a position or a structure that can keep a comprehensive dashboard fully informed on how things are operating at any given time in the TSA universe. Which is why an enterprise approach to data management and analytics is the best approach to address TSA’s current data strategy shortcomings. And when that happens, more than the agency’s mission will be fulfilled. Employee morale rises, passenger screening improves, operational efficiencies increase, risks are addressed and the “watch” that TSA stands on is fulfilled.


The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by Homeland Security Today, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints in support of securing our homeland. To submit a piece for consideration, email [email protected]. Our editorial guidelines can be found here.

Rich Cooper
Rich Cooper is Editor-at-Large for HSToday. A former senior member of DHS’ Private Sector Office (PSO), Cooper has been a frequent writer and contributor to numerous media outlets. He is Vice President for Strategic Communications & Outreach for the Space Foundation and a Principal with Catalyst Partners, LLC. Cooper is also a former Senior Fellow with GWU’s Cyber and Homeland Security Institute and has also served in senior positions at NASA, the US Chamber of Commerce Foundation, SAS and several other profit and not-for-profit enterprises.

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