Vonda Bell, Chief Human Capital Officer and Emergency Response Team Leader, Farm Credit Administration (left), and Glen Smith, Chairman and CEO of the FCA, turned to data analytics to keep employees safe. 

Mar 07 2022

Fusion Centers Find Their Way into the Federal Government

Agency leaders borrow from the state and local government concept to convert information overload into insight.

Months before mask mandates, variants and mRNA vaccines became part of the common lexicon, Farm Credit Administration Chairman and CEO Glen Smith spoke on Capitol Hill about the economic outlook, with one qualifier: His forecast was solid, barring an unexpected and extreme black swan event.

“Well, who could have imagined that a pandemic would hit?” says Vonda Bell, FCA chief human capital officer and Office of Agency Services director, recalling Smith’s speech. “Talk about that black swan event.”

Bell, who leads FCA’s emergency response team, was suddenly charged with responding to a virus that everyone was struggling to understand. Countless agencies, medical institutions and news ­outlets released evolving data about COVID-19.

But she had a secret weapon. FCA’s Office of Data Analytics and Economics (ODAE), created in 2019 to gather and analyze information from sources within and outside the agency, was able to process the avalanche of COVID-19 data so her team could plan how to keep FCA’s 300 employees safe and productive through the crisis.

“It was just the best gift that I didn’t know I needed,” says Bell. For 2020, FCA’s overall COVID-19 response had the top ranking on the Office of Personnel Management’s annual Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey.

ODAE is one of many examples of government’s growing reliance on technology to stay informed and connected amid complex, ­fast-moving challenges.

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For the past two decades, state and local law enforcement agencies have come together through fusion centers to gather, analyze and share threat-related information. Now, a number of federal agencies are forming teams of their own that draw on the fusion center principles of collaboration and data analysis.

“It’s a model that could be moved into any field,” says Mike Sena, president of the National Fusion Center Association and executive director of both the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center and the Northern California High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area.

The military has long relied on fusion centers, and Sena says he’s heard from an increasing number of organizations from government and private businesses worldwide that are interested in the fusion center concepts of collaboration, information sharing, and analytical capabilities and resources.

“It’s not enough to just share and move data around,” he says. “You have to have someone who can actually look at the information and form some type of analysis or hypothesis of what’s going to be the next step from the threat.”

RELATED: How do state and local agencies leverage fusion centers? 

Farm Credit Administration Uses Data to Assess Safety Risks

FCA oversees the institutions of the Farm Credit System, a nationwide lender network established by Congress in 1916 to provide reliable, affordable credit to U.S. farmers and ranchers. Initially, it created ODAE in 2019 to analyze economic data for financial risk planning, risk modeling and capital adequacy modeling.

“We charged that group with playing ‘what if’ — looking ahead, looking at potential risks in the future,” says Smith.

When the pandemic hit, ODAE was able to use its expertise to make sense of health data. It provided a combination of information sources to help the agency make decisions about whether it was safe for employees to return to the agency’s offices.

Vonda Bell, Chief Human Capital Officer and Emergency Response Team Leader, Farm Credit Administration
The Office of Data Analytics and Economics was just the best gift that I didn’t know I needed.”

Vonda Bell Chief Human Capital Officer and Emergency Response Team Leader, Farm Credit Administration

“We look at everything: hospitalizations, intensive care unit bed utilizations, transmission rates, transmission positivity and vaccination rates,” says Smith. “And we do that for each work location: Dallas, Denver, Sacramento, Minneapolis and McLean, Va.”

The technology it uses to gather and gain insights from data is an ­“evolving landscape,” says Jeremy D’Antoni, ODAE director and chief data officer. The eight-person team has recently moved toward technologies such as Microsoft’s Power BI data visualization tool and open-source platforms such as Python.

“We use front-end visualization applications to try to make the data more accessible and put it in a ­framework where decision-makers can really get their hands on it and use it in an efficient manner,” D’Antoni says. The remote team uses notebook computers as well as virtual machines for ­additional computing power. 

FCA has no shortage of projects for ODAE. One ­priority is to develop meaningful models on climate risk. “For 40 years, I farmed in Iowa. The next cloud that appears over the horizon could be a hailstorm that destroys a ­million dollars’ worth of crop. So, I’m no stranger to what risks nature poses,” Smith says. “I frequently say, ‘Don’t give me a history lesson. Give me an indication of what might happen.’ Certainly, modeling from ODAE has been very beneficial to that.”

National Counterterrorism Center Fuses Intelligence Data

One of the biggest challenges of ­information-sharing initiatives is breaking down silos to facilitate real-time ­collaboration, says Sena. “Those that are successful have all the right people working in the room together.”

Fusion centers were ­created after the 9/11 Commission Report cited poor connectivity, cooperation and information sharing among federal, state, local and tribal law enforcement agencies. The centers enabled them to collaborate. “The 18,000 law enforcement ­agencies in the country meant 18,000 different systems that were not ­connected to each other,” Sena says.

Those gaps also spurred the creation of the National Counterterrorism Center, the primary federal agency for analyzing and i­ntegrating intelligence with a ­terrorism nexus. 

“The way we’re structured enables us to connect the dots,” says NCTC ­spokesperson Sara Lichterman.

NCTC works with partners in state and local government, other federal agencies and intelligence organizations abroad, collecting data on worldwide counterterrorism threats in tools such as its classified database, the Terrorist Identities Data Mart Environment. “Our access to this broad data is all-source analysis,” says Lichterman.

The Joint Counterterrorism Assessment Team, which disseminates intelligence products among its partnering agencies, is physically located in the NCTC offices and is staffed by NCTC employees. It also includes members from the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI and state, local, tribal and territorial government public safety officers. Another key part of the NCTC model is its use of joint duty assignments, in which employees from other agencies take on assignments at NCTC.

“You start to build those ­connections,” says Lichterman, who herself is a CIA employee on joint duty assignment. “If you only work in one agency for years, you might not think, ‘This information could be useful here.’ It kind of widens your aperture and makes you a better intelligence officer.”

A recent example of a collaborative success was the troop drawdown in Afghanistan last August. The NCTC assisted intelligence, law enforcement and counterterrorism professionals in the screening and security vetting of all applications for special immigrant visas before refugees could enter the U.S.

“By working together in this way, there hasn’t been another major 9/11-style attack on our homeland since our ­founding,” says Lichterman.

EXPLORE: The intelligence community revamping its approach to a common IT platform.

Census Bureau Goes from Overwhelmed to Informed

In 2020, the U.S. Census Bureau had to manage 35 operations, 52 IT systems, hundreds of field offices and hundreds of thousands of pieces of equipment. And while it undertook the herculean task of collecting the census, it also had to ensure the safety of ­workers as wildfires, hurricanes, social unrest and a deadly pandemic plagued the nation.

“It was important to have one place where all of the information flowed to,” says Atri Kalluri, senior advocate for decennial census response security and data integrity at the Census Bureau. 

“We monitored anything that could potentially impact census ­operations and determined if it was safe for our enumerators and the public to interact during the pandemic. A fusion center was the best way to fuse all of this information.”

97%

The percentage of FCA employees who felt agency leaders were concerned about their welfare during the pandemic — the highest percentage of any agency

Source: ourpublicservice.org, “2020 Best Places to Work in the Federal Government rankings show impact of COVID-19 pandemic on the federal workforce,” June 29, 2021

The bureau, which built its fusion center on Splunk’s Data-to-Everything Platform, synthesized and presented information in dashboards so employees could manage the operation.

They could see real-time census response rates so they could reallocate resources to areas that fell behind. They had access to data about COVID-19 ­outbreaks, extreme weather events and protest locations. A stoplight-style ­system helped them determine which offices to open (green) and which to close (red).

“We were very dependent on geospatial technology and location intelligence because we needed the ability to identify locations in relation to our field operations,” says Kalluri, citing the example of power outages that affected offices.

The Census Bureau’s fusion center was designed to meet its unique needs, but Kalluri thinks the model could benefit other agencies whose work relies on the coordination of nationwide activities and information needed by leadership to make choices. 

“Decision-making must be quick and accurate, so team members with decision-making capabilities are ­critical,” he explains.

DIVE DEEPER: How did the Census Bureau pull off the first digital census?

Photography by Ryan Donnell

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