Red Cell Analytics Lab on cutting-edge of security and risk analysis

March 21, 2012

Military leaders understand that studying the adversary is an essential strategy to win the battle. Red cell analytics represents a framework for understanding the opposing point of view that can be applied to nonmilitary areas such as politics, business, and crisis management. At the Red Cell Analytics Lab (RCA Lab) at Penn State’s College of Information Sciences and Technology (IST), which recently celebrated its grand opening, students are developing solutions to a wide range of security and risk problems with the aid of cutting-edge technology.

Recently, more than 50 students who are involved with RCA Lab, as well as a number of Penn State faculty and staff members, attended the grand opening of the lab. Also in attendance was a liaison from the National Security Agency as well as faculty from the U.S. Army War College and several of IST’s Corporate Sponsors.

The Red Cell Analytics Lab, which has been operating since the start of fall semester 2011, is directed by Col. Jake Graham, professor of practice in information sciences and technology, who retired from the U.S. Marine Corps in 2007. RCA Lab, which is co-located with the Extreme Events Lab in the IST Building, utilizes a suite of analytic tools such as Arc-GIS, Analyst Notebook, 3-D visual analytics, Geo-Suite, Analysis of Competing Hypothesis and others, to explore and develop red-cell tactics, techniques and procedures. Membership to RCA Lab is open to IST students in good standing and to other academic units across Penn State and the Big Ten.

RCA Lab members have conducted red cell analysis for various agencies, including the Penn State Police Department, Penn State Intercollegiate Athletics and the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab. Several agencies have offered support to current and future RCA Lab research, including the Potomac Foundation, Office of the Secretary of Defense for Intelligence, Penn State Office of Emergency Management, Ernst and Young, Deloitte, Pennsylvania Power and Light, Boeing Corporation and U.S. Army War College.

“I’m trying to build a community of interest in structured analytics,” Graham said.

According to Graham, red cell analytics is well suited to the study of security and risk.  In the RCA Lab, students work in teams to examine complex issues from multiple perspectives to derive a range of possible outcomes, courses of action or strategies. The overall idea, Graham said, is to take a step back from the situation and look for alternate viewpoints, solutions and courses of action from which a decision-maker can act.

“If you’re overly familiar with a problem, sometimes you’ll miss the obvious,” he said.

In the RCA Lab, Graham said, students occasionally come up with solutions that may have never occurred to security and risk experts. As “digital natives,” he added, students are highly comfortable with technology, having come of age in an era in which open source information, the Internet, mobile technologies and social media have exploded in popularity.

Open source social media tools such as Twitter, Graham said, are extremely useful in red cell analytics. Earlier in the semester, he said, the RCA Lab students participated in a project supported by the Penn State Office of Emergency Management in which they acted as student activists in a hypothetical natural disaster situation on campus. The students, using e-mail list serves and a simulated Twitter account, supported “recovery efforts” by building a national social media network. Part of the exercise included countering a group of students that was trying to obstruct the recovery team’s efforts. The project made the Office of Emergency Management “realize they need to pay attention to social media,” Graham said.

Jim Byers, a senior majoring in security and risk analysis who participated in the project and attended the open house, said that the skills he has learned through RCA Lab will transfer to the position he has landed as a technology risk consultant with Deloitte.

“When you have an issue, don’t count out anything,” he said.

Nick Giacobe, a research technologist and doctoral candidate at IST who assists Graham with the RCA Lab, said that one of the goals of the lab is to get the students to think about how they can affect change using the tools that are available to them. A candlelight vigil for child sexual abuse victims that was held in November on the Old Main lawn, he said, was attended by thousands of students and organized solely through social media.

At the RCA Lab open house, Giacobe, along with other IST staff members, demonstrated some of the technology tools that the students are using.  Wordle, a Web-based tool that generates a word cloud, helps to interpret the meaning of words by assigning font size according to how frequently the word appears in targeted text, such as Twitter feeds. RCA Lab also features 3-D technology that builds out different analytic views visually, Graham said, and ArcGIS, a system for designing and managing solutions through the application of geographic knowledge, allows users to access maps, data, and applications from a variety of devices without having to install software. Google Earth, a virtual globe, map and geographical information program, enables users to point and zoom to any place on the planet they wish to explore.

While technology can be a useful aide in red cell analytics, Graham said, it is not the defining feature. Technology can even be harmful to the process in some ways, he added, if people seek a “machine-derived answer” to a problem rather than examining the issue from various angles that consider the human condition.

“The solution is shaped by your way of thinking, not by just by the technology you use to get there,” Graham said.

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated March 22, 2012