The “go-to” source for vetted information on biothreats
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) established the Biodefense Knowledge Center (BKC) at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in 2004 to provide technical assessments and data analysis tools that help the national security community anticipate, prevent, and characterize an attack using biological agents. As a key part of the Global Security Principal Directorate’s S Program (Chemical/Biological/Explosives Security and Infrastructure Protection), the BKC is funded by the DHS’s Science and Technology Directorate.
Since its founding, the BKC has matured to become the “go-to” source for reliable technical information and unbiased analysis on issues related to national security biology. According to BKC Director Tom Bates, “The BKC provides decision makers with authoritative technical assessments so they can better understand current and emerging biological threats.” Potential biothreats against the United States involve agents such as anthrax, plague, smallpox, and botulism.
Bates notes that because the life sciences evolve quickly, “We need to continually improve our understanding of emerging biothreats and monitor emerging technologies that could enable those with malicious intent.” He points out that “BKC people have developed trusted relationships with researchers, analysts, security officers, port personnel, and program mangers who have helped us understand the needs of the biodefense community.”
BKC scientists research, synthesize, and provide key judgments on complex technical topics concerning biological agents and technologies germane to biowarfare and biodefense. The analysts have authored more than 500 technical assessments and reports for DHS and other federal agencies. Technical reports, including awareness bulletins and more exhaustive threat assessments, span a range of topics, including assessing the feasibility with which emerging technologies could be exploited by an adversary for offensive purposes as well as the potential acquisition, large-scale production, weaponization, and dissemination of biological warfare agents. In addition, the BKC operates a 24/7 technical support line to field operational questions.
Other work involves advising DHS Customs and Border Protection on improving the methods used to screen cargo shipments into the U.S. for potential biological agents. The BKC also has assisted the Department of Health and Human Services in the selection of medical countermeasures for the strategic national stockpile.
A key and ever-expanding BKC asset is the Biodefense Knowledge Management System (BKMS), which takes advantage of Lawrence Livermore’s longstanding expertise in information technology (IT). The BKMS is a comprehensive collection of databases and knowledge-discovery tools that enables time-saving analyses for the nation’s biodefense community. This secure, Web-based system serves as a national biodefense library that houses all BKC assessments, as well as millions of other documents that may be useful to analysts and decision makers. The system is designed to enable discovery and visualization of previously unknown connections, so that an analyst can quickly recognize emerging anomalous patterns and unexpected connections across all data sources.
Computer scientist Kyle Halliday, BKC’s deputy director for technology, heads a team of eight computer scientists and software developers, several of whom work on the BKMS. “The BKMS is the place to go for biodefense-related documents,” says Halliday. “The system combines more than 45 million documents gathered from more than 37 data sources, and we’re adding around 80,000 scientific reports a month.” Readily accessible documents include scientific publications, technical reports, popular articles, Web crawls and alerts, databases, and real-time data feeds issued by the Centers for Disease Control, U.S. Department of Agriculture, and DHS. The system is capable of digesting and organizing more than 1 million documents per hour.
The BKMS has several hundred active users across the U.S. government on multiple networks. As a DHS System of Record, the BKMS is one of the few DHS IT systems that is replicated on networks at three different security-classification levels. The same unclassified content can be found on all networks, while additional information is added at each level. The system integrates these data sources and provides advanced querying, visualization, and knowledge discovery tools. All 45 million documents and records housed in the BKMS are tied to a powerful yet flexible search capability that permits users to access information by document title, key words, toxins, pathogens, time period, people, equipment, and other subjects.
The BKC takes advantage of best-of-breed software, whether commercial, academic, or open source. For example, the BKC was an early adopter of Hadoop, software for processing big data with clusters of computers working in parallel. The software currently driving the system combines the popular and open-source Apache Solr search engine with specialized code for the Web developed by the BKMS development team.
Because of the vast and disparate amount of information contained within the BKMS, traditional data-processing applications are inadequate. In response, the BKMS team is developing and employing powerful, biospecific big data tools. The big data platform gathers information from numerous sources, converts it to a common format, and identifies terms of interest. Integrated tools allow users to fuse, process, and visualize biodefense information using various optional search modules. In this way, analysts can explore connections between entities such as people, countries, organizations, pathogens, chemicals, and drugs.