DHS sees upgrade for Common Operating Picture

The Homeland Security Department wants to upgrade its Common Operating Picture (COP), the situational awareness tool used at the department’s National Operations Center (NOC), and make it more accessible to state and local authorities, a senior department official has said.

DHS’ activated the COP in May 2006 and currently uses it as a situational awareness tool for strategic, operational and tactical purposes at the NOC. The department now plans to spend millions to upgrade it, refresh technology and eventually to build a new version of the COP that would allow for improved visualization and increased users.

Harry McDavid, chief information officer of DHS’ Office of Operations, Coordination and Planning, said in a recent interview that when DHS originally developed the COP, the urgency brought by the 2001 terrorist attacks and Hurricane Katrina didn’t allow for much advanced planning and officials made use of existing technology. However, McDavid said officials overseeing COP have since planned how to develop its capabilities and have worked with other DHS agencies on topics such as geospatial information, Service Oriented Architecture and federated search engines.

McDavid said DHS wants to build a system that will allow officials to determine exactly what type of information they want. He said goals for the upgraded COP include visualization of data and analysis from multiple intelligence sources, the faster fusion of information and better interfaces with legacy networks and databases.

McDavid said the new version of the COP would be designed to meet the needs of state and local authorities that share information with DHS, in large part, through a network of state and local intelligence fusion centers located around the country.

“If we can share that information in a much more timely manner with our partners then their decisions will be better, and in fact that will encourage them to be engaged with us much more often and they will post their own content,” he said.

Rich Kelly, director of the New Jersey’s Regional Operations Intelligence Center, a fusion center, said it would be positive for fusion centers if DHS made the COP more available. Kelly said New Jersey already has a trooper assigned to the NOC.

As part of a separate project, DHS hired General Dynamics for $62 million in May to upgrade the Homeland Security Information Network, the department’s platform for sharing sensitive but unclassified data with DHS’ partners. That platform would be used by state and local authorities to access the new version of the COP.

DHS' approach to developing the upgraded platform has been criticized by government auditors, senior House Democrats and a federal advisory committee over the past year. DHS officials say the HSIN Next Gen upgrade is progressing and they are working to address critics' concerns.

Meanwhile, McDavid said DHS got between $5 million and $6 million in fiscal 2009 to upgrade and refresh technology on the current COP. McDavid said he was unsure about the amount of what funding DHS would get to build a new version of COP. But even without funding specifically for a new system, money used to upgrade the current system would be line with what was envisioned for the new version of the COP, he said.

McDavid said the department was going to focus on technology related to requirements already known to be needed. He added that building a new version of COP would involve taking input from different parts of DHS, other federal agencies, as well as state and local authorities on their requirements for the system.

McDavid said officials are developing a concept of operations with input from primary partners to help them visualize what the new COP should look like. After that, he said, officials would “do a shopping list of capabilities,” then focus on the technical requirements and then they will determine if they need to award another contract. He also said the new version would have to comply with statutory requirements.

“I want it to start out with a good set of requirements, [a] good set of buy-in from our [stakeholders], [to] be transparent with Congress and everyone else that we’re on the right track [about] what we’re doing and what our timelines are, what the money looks like and what the end state will be,” he said. “That’s a long way off.”

About the Author

Ben Bain is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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