Weapons agency finds answers with topic maps

Energy Department officials have discovered that topic maps can be useful in managing the country’s nuclear weapons stockpile. Topic maps create connections among related information that ordinary search tools might not know to make.

National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) officials at the Y-12 National Security Complex, a facility in Oak Ridge, Tenn., that stores highly enriched uranium, are using topic maps in several ways. For example, one application helps prevent the inadvertent release of classified information. Another helps program managers better plan weapons manufacturing and project dismantling.

About five years ago, James Mason, a software engineer at Y-12 and chairman of the International Organization for Standards committee that developed the topic map standard, wanted to apply his work to a new search engine-like device the facility was developing.

“Our purpose was to look for classified information to make sure we didn’t release something that was classified,” he said.

The technology, originally called Ferret, analyzes e-mail drafts and tells authorized users whether the drafts include classified information. Now, DOE’s technology transfer program is commercializing Ferret under the name “Q,” in homage to the James Bond movies’ gadget guru.

In the other application, Mason is superimposing a topic map over a database of all the products used for nuclear weapons manufacturing. The map is a planning resource for program managers; it helps them choose the best tools to minimize project time and cost.

“The topic map lets you pick up and look at information from all angles,” Mason said.

For example, a program manager might want to know what machine to use to craft a part made out of stainless steel. The manager might also want to know what other factory parts that are made of the same material. A search powered by the topic map would deliver both pieces of information at once.

In another scenario, program managers planning a redesign project could click on a particular weapon’s name. The topic map would then generate a list of the weapon’s components. When they click on a component, they would see all the tools needed to produce it. When the managers want to go back and look at other components, they click an icon that takes them back to any previous screen. The topic map allows them to anticipate component requirements and tool needs.

This project has been demonstrated to NNSA officials, but they have not yet certified it for use on Y-12’s classified network. Mason expects the topic map to appear on the network for widespread use within six months.

However, this is one topic map the general public will never see.

“Unfortunately, we can’t show this to people because much of the information is classified,” Mason said.

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