Information matters

This special report is designed as a useful starting point for thinking about the challenges and identifying solutions for homeland security.

The possibilities for information technology to aid in homeland security seem endless, and government agencies appear willing to explore all the options. But if one theme has emerged in the past six months, it's that information matters.

In the first weeks after Sept. 11, government officials considered whether their agencies had any information that, if it had come to the attention of the right people, might have helped avert the tragedy. Did the alleged terrorists leave an information trail through Immigration and Naturalization Service, the FBI and other databases? The debate continues.

In recent months, though, federal, state and local agencies have turned their attention to another aspect of homeland security — not prevention, but response. How might IT aid the "first responders," the public safety and health agencies that are the first on the scene when disaster strikes?

Consider a chemical spill. There's always the straightforward challenge of getting a crew on site in short order to contain the spill and clear the area so no one is harmed. But is it possible to assist that crew by providing them with access to a computer database or electronic maps to learn more about the dangers of the chemicals involved and the possible impact it may have on the surrounding area?

Many people agree that the ideas are appealing, but they aren't sure how to make it all happen. This Homeland Security special report attempts to help government agencies tackle this challenge. In the following pages, we explore several situations that have arisen in the past six months.

The first article, "A fast track to information sharing," examines the emerging market for software designed to help first responders deal with disasters by giving them access to valuable information. The pitch is tantalizing: Invest in this technology because of homeland security concerns, but see the payback whenever disasters occur, manmade or natural.

"Filling the communications gap" looks at one of the increasingly popular means of providing people in the field with Internet access — commercial satellite services. In theory, it's a straightforward case of loading a network server and satellite dish on a truck and getting on the road. But it may not be as simple as it sounds.

Finally, "The eye of the storm" highlights another potential model for information delivery — the Pacific Disaster Center. This center, established in Maui in 1996, brings together geographic information systems and other IT resources that might aid when disaster strikes. Its plans include developing regional Web portals in response to specific events.

Homeland security is constantly evolving, as new ideas come up and new problems emerge. This special report, the first of four this year in Federal Computer Week, does not address all of the issues, but we hope it serves as a useful starting point for thinking about the challenges and identifying solutions.

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