Inside DHS' big data opportunity

DHS has four big data programs in the works that will improve operations and decision making. immixGroup consultant Tomas O'Keefe describes what you should know.

The Department of Homeland Security is embracing big data, but budgetary challenges are preventing the department from fully utilizing new technologies.

Each DHS component organization has its own particular strategies for putting big data to use, and are looking toward automation modernization and application development for more efficient mission fulfillment.

Expect to see further adoption of development methodologies like agile and an increased use of groups like GSA’s 18F and the U.S. Digital Service at the department as well.

So let's take a look at some DHS component organizations with key IT initiatives that could help fund big data tools.

The Coast Guard and C4ISR

The Coast Guard has struggled to adopt a common operational picture to share information among commanders and merge geographic and location data in real time. The organization could benefit from IT solutions to network its ashore and afloat assets.

When it comes to big data needs for the Coast Guard, search and rescue and geographic information systems are top of mind. The Coast Guard has to cover extensive area with limited capabilities. Stretched thin by budget constraints, the Coast Guard needs to know where to direct their operations. What does that mean?

The purpose of the Coast Guard’s C4ISR program is to design, develop, and acquire integrated systems for multiple assets, including ships and planes. The program has a technology obsolescence plan that specifies how systems and technology are monitored. They’re interested in new information sharing and data transmission capabilities that can work across multiple platforms. So the Coast Guard has needs here for application development, information management, and mobility solutions. COTS vendors and still have a chance to shape the requirements for the C4ISR system.

ICE Looks to Update Traveler Compliance

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has a responsibility to prosecute illegal aliens in the United States, but it also has missions that extend to cultural and antiquities crimes, cybercrime, document and benefits fraud, narcotics interdiction, and many other missions. Here’s one way the organization plans to apply big data to meet these requirements:

raveler Enforcement Compliance System (TECS) Modernization. TECS is an update to an older system that has a significant role in daily ICE operations. It’s also used by Customs and Border Protection (CBP). More than 6,700 ICE special agents work on investigating a wide range of domestic and international activities arising from the illegal movement of people and goods into, within, and out of the United States.

This modernized case management system will strengthen and unify ICE operations and management by increasing interoperability through improving information sharing. On top of $27M coming from ICE, CBP will invest an additional $50M for their part of the system.

USCIS Embraces Transformation

DHS’s mission to enforce and administer US immigration laws falls primarily under the auspices of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). Over the years, USCIS has struggled to handle immigration cases in a timely manner.

Big data needs for USCIS are in the realm of business intelligence, analyzing how USCIS employees process applications and how that can be done in a faster, more streamlined way. Understanding how USCIS employees are interacting with new USCIS IT is crucial to ensuring a smoother application and benefit adjudication process.

Transformation. Some USCIS systems comprise 30 commercial software components. They are so unwieldy that offices are going back to adjudicating applications and immigration benefits on paper to save time. Big data technologies will allow the agency to understand where the hangups occur. Then Transformation can address these new IT systems problems and fix them before costs spiral out of control. Transformation is estimated to require upwards of $3.5B in investment, making it a program that will provide continuous opportunities over the next few years.

FEMA Takes on Flood Insurance

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is the primary agent for DHS’s mission to strengthen national preparedness and resilience. Budget-wise, FEMA is one of the largest DHS component agencies, due to disaster relief and flood relief funding and significant grant expenditures. Unfortunately, by some reports FEMA grant funding has not been awarded on an as-needed basis, leading to increased need for technologies to address this challenge.

Among the programs FEMA is pursuing is a better way to understand flood insurance:

The National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) IT Phoenix. The goals of the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) are to identify and map areas of flood risk, to protect communities from potential flood damage through floodplain management, and to provide flood insurance. The program is an effort to replace most of the underlying IT infrastructure that supports the NFIP. Grants and financial management, data storage, information sharing, and big data and analytics tools all fall under this improvement project.

NPPD Big Data Efforts Stymied by Shutdown Threat

The National Protection and Programs Directorate (NPPD) continues to have trouble coordinating between the five federal cyber operations centers under its purview and collaborating with them to respond to cybersecurity incidents.

Due to budget cuts, sequestration, and other factors, information sharing and collaboration with private sector entities has suffered. Elements of NPPD weren’t able to communicate adequately with critical infrastructure groups. And now the threat of a shutdown to DHS could possibly impact many of the individuals working on crucial cybersecurity programs like Continuous Diagnostics and Mitigation and the National Cybersecurity Protection System, which are starting to use big data analytics to understand the cyber threat landscape.

DHS has a need for almost every type of technology, from application development to data management to an increasing demand for mobile services. Still, big data will likely dominate demands for DHS in the near future. Now is the time for big data vendors to conduct outreach with department officials. Set yourselves up as both thought-leaders and mission-partners to help DHS over the next several years.

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