Comment: Analyse and picture this

24 Aug 2005

Anyone who has been to the US these days has experienced the new regime of fingerprinting and digital photography brought in by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which itself was established in the wake of the 11 September terrorist attacks.

A year ago while returning from a visit to the US, I was ‘selected’ for special security treatment at the airport. I was told the selection was done on a random basis as though I had won a prize. No such luck I’m afraid, as I had to remove my shoes, stand like a scarecrow and watch my laptop being hauled off to some other location for whatever reason. I then had to roll down the front of my trousers because the security officer’s ‘wand’ seemed to get excited every time he held it close to my groin.

I know I’m in dangerous territory here but the situation could only be resolved when I pointed out to the wand-bearing man that it was nothing more than a metal button performing an essential task in preserving my dignity. What made me particularly uncomfortable was all of this was happening in a glass box in full view of the other amused travellers. Anyway, with dignity duly dented I resolved never to darken Uncle Sam’s door again. But, like everyone else, I had to grow out of it and I found myself recently back at the same airport queuing up to re-enter in the full knowledge that I may well have to enjoy being specially selected by a wand-bearing member of the DHS looking for trouble.

This time as I stood at the entry point there were several queues and, as is usually the case, I chose the wrong one. I seem to have a genetic predisposition to always get in the slowest queue and I’m at the stage now where I prefer to be directed by someone else to a specific queue. Unfortunately, in this instance I was told I could choose from three of the five lines. But I got a sinking feeling when I realised I’d been there for 20 minutes, about 15th from the top of the line, and the same two people had been talking to the DHS man all that time. When the floating DHS ‘paper checker’ copped that our line wasn’t moving and all the other lines were almost gone, she did what I had hoped she would have done earlier, she directed me and the people behind me to an empty line and we were through in a jiffy. A great country really.

But one of the things that struck me while I played footsie with my hand luggage was the enormous amount of data that is now being captured at entry points and the huge job it must be for someone to collate it and make some sense of it all. I know from talking to a DHS man last summer it hopes to eventually track the movements of everyone that enters the country so it can detect terrorist threats and so on. But how it can collect all the different types of data, transmit them, sort them out and make sense of them all is something I suspect requires some serious technology and brainpower.

Well, I got my answer a day later when I heard a Dr Doug Lemon from the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory explain it was indeed a huge task and they were working with the National Visualisation Analytics Centre, which had been commissioned by the DHS to prepare a five-year research and development agenda for future research and development activities focused on visual analytics tools for analysts and emergency responders. The agenda will be fully spelt out in a book — Illuminating the Path — due to be published shortly and covering the science of analytical reasoning, visual representations and interaction techniques, data representations and transformations, and production, presentation and dissemination of data.

According to the book’s executive summary, which at the time of writing is available on the internet, visual analytics is the science of analytic reasoning facilitated by interactive visual interfaces. Or, in other words, it’s all about transforming loads of data into pictures that help people to make sense of it. Pictures, of course, are made up of patterns and what visual analytics tries to do is to work out some way of examining data of all shapes and sizes, even inaccurate and sometimes misleading data, and make it possible for analysts to take a bird’s-eye view of the visual patterns emerging to draw conclusions and help responders, in the case of the DHS, to make an appropriate response. As you can imagine, this takes time, and that can be a problem when trying to detect terrorist threats.

Similar to a lot of other things, when you think about it, visual analytics has been around for an awful long time — and I’m not talking about the people who read tea leaves. But the complicated definition and terminology being used in the context of computing is, as usual, cumbersome and complex. Put simply, what visual analytics is primarily about is finding ways to make related and meaningful patterns out of huge quantities of data that comes from different sources, in differing formats and levels of quality, and with little that obviously connects it.

The trick lies in how you work out how it might be connected. And this is where the old reliable algorithm comes in. Indeed, according to Lemon, it’s all in the algorithms, because if you can’t work out an algorithm all you have is a mountain of information and data that is of little use, especially in the time-critical task of tracking down would-be threats.

Over the next few years the DHS is going to put a lot of energy and resources into this science. But you can already see how it might be used in other contexts such as tax administration or criminal investigations.

In fact, for anybody who might be interested, there is a company called Visual Analytics and if you go to its website you’ll be able to download white papers on how to use these tools ‘to catch a thief’, in ‘creating clarity out of chaos’ and analysing the ‘anatomy of a financial crime’. If it works out, and it knows it will, evidence-based policy making is set to go to a new level.

But I wonder what pattern the man with the squeaking wand makes when he’s put through the pain of visual analytics…

By Colm Butler, director of information society policy, Department of the Taoiseach