Pacific Northwest National Laboratory Helps U.S. Stay Ahead on Terrorism

Jan. 30--The federal government is asking the University of Washington to develop a digital canary in a coal mine to identify security threats through advanced computer analysis.

With a $4 million grant administered by the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in the Tri-Cities, officials from the Department of Homeland Security are looking for a screening and trend-tracking system to spot and stop terrorist threats, natural disasters or major disease outbreaks.

The UW is one of four U.S. university teams being asked to work on new technology and develop new courses to strengthen homeland defense, said Kristin Cook, a technology development manager at PNNL.

The other teams are the University of North Carolina with Georgia Technology Institute; Indiana University and Purdue University; and Pennsylvania State University.

All the schools get $750,000 except the UW, which starts with $375,000 this year but gets $750,000 next year.

Cook said the holy grail for all those university projects is "the ability to bring together all the important parts of information you gather, whether from text, from maps, from images, from anything, into a single environment, so that it's possible to make intelligent judgments about what it shows."

The expectation is that the work will produce results in the near future, she said, adding "we're under some time pressure."

PNNL's role is to coordinate the entire project, called the National Visualization and Analytics Center (NVAC). PNNL has already developed several analysis tools, including software programs that that track commercial air flights in real time.

Computer research in visualization and analytics has become a major focus of both the government and large companies that are looking for tools to manage databases.

The aim is to develop software that can analyze huge amounts of data and then graphically present patterns and relationships.

The large amount of federal spending for homeland security -- especially through PNNL -- is viewed as an opportunity for tech companies in

Cook said one example of an NVAC objective is to have a better method of spotting a virus outbreak or an epidemic. "But it's also about helping people make decisions. The real goal is to identify patterns and put tools in people's hands to make sense of those patterns," she said.

Spreading research money across the country makes sense, Cook said, since the challenge is immense. "This involves taking huge volumes of data and working with it, over a number of locations. And the information is always changing. So, this is a very complex problem."

Miners used to bring canaries into mines to help detect toxic fumes that humans couldn't smell. The NVAC idea is similar in developing tools that find threats that would otherwise not be spotted quickly, said Cook.

It may sound like something out of the TV show "24," but security agencies are counting on powerful data networks to watch for threats, said Pat Hanrahan, the director of Stanford University's NVAC the Inland Northwest.

"In all aspects of our lives, we deal with large collections of data and information," said Hanrahan. "Interactive visual interfaces are the most promising technology to help us analyze this information," he said.

In 2004 Stanford was the first school awarded a grant to develop a regional visualization and analytics center. Stanford is focusing on countering computer intrusions, network disruptions and threats to the U.S. information technology infrastructure, said Jim Thomas, PNNL's chief scientist for information technologies and NVAC director.

[Spokesman-Review, The (Spokane, WA) (KRT) -- 01/31/06]