December 15, 2008
The Space Between Maps, Search and Content
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Susan Smith - Managing Editor


by Susan Smith - Managing Editor
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Industry News

The Space Between Maps, Search and Content

By Susan Smith


How do analysts make sense of volumes of unstructured information for law enforcement and government?


Last week, MetaCarta hosted a webcast that attempted to answer that question. The company is a primary provider of geographic search and referencing, dedicated to helping users find everything written about a place, person or event.


Although MetaCarta is useful to many industries, the focus of this discussion was on law enforcement and government.  MetaCarta's Bill Fisher clarified that MetaCarta fits “in between” three areas: maps, search and content. “We’re not a map company but we use different mapping platforms to display search results,” explained Fisher. “The content that we can map is unstructured content, found in blogs, emails, word documents and message traffic.”


Some intelligence information can be produced with open source, publicly available information. The ability of MetaCarta to read data like its author intended for it to be read translates to actionable intelligence that government agencies can use to arrive at decisions, and to quickly determine where to deploy their resources. At 10,000 documents per minute, MetaCarta can obviously move through information much faster than other search mechanisms on the market today.


Although this may sound a bit like Big Brother, what is fascinating about this company and their product is that MetaCarta can read documents “as a human can” and make that content actionable by geographically enabling it to be found in a search environment. The range of solutions includes alerts based on what is happening and where, identification of specific words within a document within a piece of traffic, and also the place mentioned within the document. The applications can be viewed in analysis on mobile devices, globe viewers and portal deployments.


How MetaCarta geoenables content is by providing a map to see what is happening and where, and then making assumptions about what the piece of intelligence is referring to. By viewing content on a map, users can more easily do situational awareness, visualize trends, do analysis, and find documents much faster than they might using a standard search engine.


“35% to 50% of all information isn’t found by a typical search engine and that’s critical because very important pieces of intel can be missed,” said Fisher. “70% of us are visual learners but text based displays dominate. We want to see things on a map, trends and analysis. 30% of knowledge workers or analysts spend their time searching for information that doesn’t exist or they spend time recreating that type of information.”


What MetaCarta is able to do is look at words and disambiguate the content to know what it means, if it means a person’s name or place, such as Joe Paris or Paris, France, for example. Fisher said that it’s difficult for analysts to find documents that don’t mention a place specifically. “If they have an ambiguous reference such as 5 miles southeast of Arlington, where is that talking about? Unless an analyst were trying to guess that information by name, that piece of intel would be missed.”


The amount of unstructured content in the world is growing rapidly, said Fisher, and the problem is it needs to be processed somehow and represented. “The best way to do that is by analyzing the content and representing it somehow on a map where you’re able to see trends and perform analysis.” The problem is two pronged: too much information can be a problem because analysts need to focus on what’s important, while at the same time, if the analyst can’t see the aggregate data to focus on trends and patterns, it’s difficult to discern what’s important.


A component of MetaCarta, Natural Language Processing (NLP), is the computer’s ability to read content like a human, and eliminates the process of having to hard code geographic locations into pieces of intel for the analyst.


By seeing content on a map, analysts can review intel more quickly and can respond to bulletins much faster. “Law enforcement can become proactive, not reactive,” noted Fisher. “It allows us to get the right content or intel to the right decision maker at the right time. The MetaCarta platform features different types of functions depending upon what types of analysis you’re trying to accomplish.”


The North Central Texas Fusion Center covers many different aspects of analysis, and for the Department of Homeland Security they have a law enforcement component, public health, fire, emergency management, state and local and private security as well.


The Center incorporates different pieces of content into one unified view so users can see a threat matrix, the law enforcement notification, data sharing, queries, reporting, observation reporting, law enforcement links and content displayed on a map.


An example of an item the Center was focused on was prevention of a water supply attack. A map depicted different sources of information that went into the decision on how they prevented this attack. The content includes narratives from the sheriff’s office, internet analysis, blogs, emails, fusion systems, medical reports -- all disparate sources. “You’d be surprised how many people actually brag about crimes on MySpace pages for example,” said Fisher, . “The fusion system models incorporate MetaCarta as well as other pieces of technology to give the analyst an overall view of what’s happening in a specific place,” said Fisher.


In response to this information, the Center built a single query across all data, so they had a single unified view of what was happening in a single spot, which included all structured content and unstructured content specifically geotagged by MetaCarta such as situation reports, weather reports, websites, blogs, and other types of news feeds. “What they’ve built is an analytical process, an intelligence processing cycle and it has four key parts: 1) the Fusion Center collects content via web crawls, different types documents from different types of repositories, 2) they process this content using entity extraction, and MetaCarta Geographic referencing, 3) they can
represent some of this content in Microsoft Starlight. 4) They can disseminate the information which arrives at the analyst via visual aides such as mapping portals as the final product."


This specific function was used for the Democratic and Republican National Conventions to provide queries, notifications and alerts to analysts when they’re away from their stations. MetaCarta can tie content from many disparate sources such as shared drives, Documentum live link, filenet, and maps from ESRI shapefiles, Google Earth, Virtual Earth, MapPoint, SharePoint, etc. Both structured and unstructured information can be fused in one search, with data appearing on the map with visual clarity which is "not just dots."


MetaCarta sits between content and maps, and maps can be distributed and displayed in many different ways. A content collection such as GeoSearch News was used by analysts at the Democratic National Convention to pull in information from local news reports, and learn what was happening on the street, such as protests and crimes. They were able to make decisions based on the news that was being crawled and add it to the MetaCarta engine.


For police officers, criminal justice and government officials, Fisher said geographic search technology is all about ease of access and use. Without the active participation of local law enforcement, Fisher noted that the Fusion Center could miss important pieces of intel. Law enforcement, first responders and the private sector must rely on clean information, and be able to leverage existing staff and infrastructure. They have issues of data security and disclosure that must adhere to government guidelines, and are assured that the MetaCarta products adhere to these standards as well.


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