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Biosurveillance Stays Stovepiped

Two years ago, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) set out to apply the intelligence fusion center model to help authorities spot and track biological threats ranging from animal-borne disease to human pandemics and bioterrorism. The National Biosurveillance Integration Center’s (NBIC) establishment proved timely, as the H1N1 “swine” flu pandemic emerged just months later in Mexico and crossed into the United States.

NBIC, however, has run into the same stovepiping and turf problems encountered by nearly every other post-9-11 fusion effort, according to a review by the independent U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO).

In addition to DHS, which manages the NBIC through its Office of Health Affairs, the NBIC claims 11 partner agencies: the departments of Health and Human Services (HHS)—which includes the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)—Agriculture (USDA), Commerce, Defense (DoD), Interior, Justice (including the FBI), State, Transportation, and Veterans Affairs (VA), plus the U.S. Postal Service and Environmental Protection Agency.

The NBIC has drafted memoranda of understanding (MOUs) for collaboration with only seven of those agencies: HHS, USDA, VA, and DoD, along with the Commerce, Interior, and State departments, GAO found. Meanwhile only one—USDA—staffs the NBIC full-time.

As for information, the GAO found that partner agencies are largely not sharing it with the NBIC. Roughly 98 percent of the information taken in by the NBIC is “unstructured data,” meaning primarily open-source media reports that DHS mines with software to generate intelligence about potential disease outbreaks around the world.

The root causes of this lack of cooperation, according to the GAO, include the common problems of cultural resistance and staffing, combined with concerns about information security and ambiguity about the NBIC’s role and potential effectiveness during crises.

While the 2007 law mandating the NBIC’s establishment instructs partner agencies to post personnel there, it does not mandate it. Of the 14 different agency units that the GAO interviewed, half said that they either did not employ or could not spare staff with the kind of analytic expertise the NBIC seeks, while 12 of 14 “expressed uncertainty about the value of participating.” One agency was uncertain whether sharing resources “would further their agency’s missions.”

The NBIC has posted its own internal analysts on temporary assignments with member agencies and participates in daily conference calls with outside counterparts, but according to the GAO report, center officials said these efforts and others are “no substitute for the value of a member agency personnel detail that is physically located at NBIC.”

The VA, the DoD, and the Department of the Interior are, however, working with the DHS to assign personnel to the center, NBIC Director Eric Myers tells Security Management.

Agencies’ primary concern about sharing information with the NBIC is that it would be released publicly prior to release by the agency that generated it or that it would be incorporated into intelligence products that conflict with that agency’s own policy or analysis, according to the GAO. In a major crisis, some agencies told the GAO, they would simply share their own critical data with DHS’s main National Operations Center.

The GAO recommends two solutions for the NBIC’s problems: completion of an overall strategy for its operations, which Myers says is underway, and establishment of interagency security agreements that formalize how shared data will be kept confidential and secure.

Meanwhile, the NBIC is expanding its capacity to share information externally through its Biosurveillance Common Operating Picture (BCOP). A Web-based situational awareness tool, BCOP was developed for the center by Texas A&M University’s National Center for Foreign Animal and Zoonotic Disease Defense (FAZD), using dashboard software developed by the school’s Texas Center for Applied Technology. BCOP’s interface overlays selected events on a map, bordered top, left, and right by selected applications, such as graphs, and links to additional research. At the bottom, a sliding timeline function lets analysts visualize how events have unfolded in current crises and in past ones.

The application earned FAZD an Impact Award from DHS’s Science and Technology Directorate. The NBIC plans to introduce a new version of BCOP this year for vetted state and local partners, Myers said.

Jennifer Nuzzo, an associate at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s Center for Biosecurity and an expert in pandemic response, praised BCOP and its functionalities. An information-sharing tool, however, is only as good as its information. “This is a helpful thing,” Nuzzo says. “But the larger issue is where it gets its data.”

@ Read the full GAO report at "Beyond Print."