Dill's computer expertise helps battle terrorism

March 23, 2006, vol. 35, no. 6
By Stuart Colcleugh

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John Dill is part of a very exclusive group.

The SFU engineering scientist is one of only two Canadians who were involved at the start of a major U.S. government research project focused on preventing terrorism with a powerful and relatively new scientific field known as visual analytics.

Visual analytics assists analysts to process enormous amounts of words, numbers, photographs, video, audio and other data from many unrelated sources and visually represent the information for human evaluation using a variety of computerized analytical processes.

"I've been involved pretty much since the public beginning of it," says Dill, who was part of the select panel that conceived the research and development agenda for the National Visualization and Analytics Center (NVAC), which the U.S. department of homeland security (DHS) created in 2004 at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Washington. "The fellow who's heading NVAC and who created it is Jim Thomas, a long time colleague and friend. We worked together at General Motors research labs many years ago."

The other Canadian is William Wright, founder of Toronto-based visualization software firm Oculus Info Inc.

The project has really just begun, says Dill, and will likely expand significantly over the next few years.

"This is going to be a large effort. And the initial impetus, the funding out of DHS, is to look at building better tools for intelligence analysis, emergency operation centres and first responders of all kinds. But this will also have applications outside of anti-terrorism, certainly in dealing with medical issues like epidemiology."

The panel's research agenda is outlined in Illuminating the Path, a book Dill contributed to, which can be downloaded from NVAC's website - http://nvac.pnl.gov/agenda.stm

Cognitive scientist Brian Fisher, an associate professor in the school of interactive arts and technology, wasn't on the original panel but he played a significant part in writing the book and contributing to the panel's efforts.

As the website points out, "The research and development agenda presents recommendations to advance the state of the art in the major visual analytics research areas: analytical reasoning; visual representations and interaction techniques; data representations and transformations; production, presentation and dissemination.

The agenda also includes recommendations to accelerate the ability to move the most promising research into practice and set the stage for an enduring visual analytics research community through a combination of education and research collaboration."

Although visual analytics has multiple uses, the website says, "Its use in biology and national security is an integral part of our nation's overall efforts to protect against terrorism and reduce our vulnerability to terrorist attacks.

"By uncovering hidden associations and relationships, analysts glean insight and knowledge to assess terrorist threats, to detect the expected and discover the unexpected."

Since its formation, NVAC has generated five university-led regional visual analytics centres (RVACs) to date - at Stanford University, the University of Washington, Purdue University, the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and Pennsylvania State University - each of which provide both research expertise and training and education programs, supplementing the knowledge centered within NVAC.

Both Dill and Fisher have ongoing collaborative relationships with two of the RVACs, although neither is receiving funding from them.

So far, there is no Canadian government involvement in the project, Dill says.

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