Inside the Biz with Jill Dyche

Could Data Governance Help the War on Terror?

In which Jill wags her finger at the silos—ours, theirs, and yours.

“Our intelligence community failed to connect those dots, which would have placed the suspect on the no-fly list."
— President Barack Obama

President Obama addressed the Christmas day terror attempt in his White House briefing this afternoon. He acknowledged that the U.S. government had botched terrorist tracking and that the system had failed. He admitted that each agency took responsibility for its own stuff. He also confessed that there was a lack of information sharing, that various government agencies had failed to pull it together. The subtext was that current practices and the best of intentions aren’t enough when it comes to the war on terror.

Obama sounds like a lot of corporate executives I’ve met. They admit that the individual departments are working hard and may be meeting their individual goals. But then something stupid happens. The company loses its largest account or a competitor beats them to the punch on a new product. The hard fact emerges that the company could have used its information better. And that siloed organizations beget siloed data.

The alleged terrorist, Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab, had been in Nigeria, Yemen, the United Kingdom, and The Netherlands before flying to the U.S. Each of these governments had a slice of information about him. The UK had enough information to put him on a watch list. But the information was never integrated into a rich enough profile of Abdul Mutallab for the FBI to mark him as a person of interest. As Informatica marketing vice president Chris Boorman wrote in his excellent blog post, this would have been an apt use of identity resolution software. Various government agencies could have matched partial information to form a holistic view of Abdul Mutallab, one that could have been shared, thus pinpointing him as a suspect. With the right collaboration, this could happen at both federal and international levels.

There are over a million names on the U.S. terrorist watch list, and in fact the intelligence community had information that an attack on the U.S. might be imminent. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs insisted that since apprehending Abdul Mutallab, they had gleaned “usable, actionable intelligence” from him. Given their track record, you can’t help but wonder how American intelligence agencies will use this information. 

“It is increasingly clear that intelligence was not fully analyzed or fully leveraged,” Obama conceded. “That’s not acceptable, and I will not tolerate it.” As much as you believe him, you’ve got to wonder what he intends to do. Sure, he inherited a bunch of crap, but it’s crap we hired, er, elected him to fix.

The conversation in the press has been the same conversation that occurs in corporate conference rooms across the world after a major screw-up: “Who did the oversight?” and “Who should get fired?” “Growing questions about if and when heads will roll!” trumpeted CNN’s Wolf Blitzer. In a crisis, attention seems to shift to the people issues.

Instead, the government should be addressing process issues. Indeed, the real conversation should be how to move forward. These questions should be asked now: “How should we bring identifying data together? What are the key sources? How should integration, access, and usage policies be formulated? What would a sustainable process look like?” Those questions aren’t “who” questions, they’re “how” questions, and they should be front-and-center in the national security conversation.

Maybe they should also be part of your next conversation with executives or business users? The Christmas day terror attempt is one of many, many examples that the opportunity cost of not having data governance could be high, and the consequences nothing short of catastrophic.

This entry was published on January 5, 2010 at 3:59 pm and is filed under business analytics, business intelligence (BI), data governance, data integration, data management, master data management (MDM). Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

10 thoughts on “Could Data Governance Help the War on Terror?

  1. Great post Jill,
    I definitely agree there are many similarities between the information management aspects of this incident and what we see happening within corporations after a major SNAFU.
    Hopefully, precious time and useful resources aren’t wasted on blame-storming sessions in search of a scapegoat to FUBAR – although such an approach can be cathartic, it doesn’t help the corporation move forward, or make the necessary adjustments to minimize the likelihood of the incident recurring in the near future.
    Therefore, I also agree that the attention needs to be on process improvement and the real people issue is improving collaboration and information sharing (as opposed to developing better CYA strategies for “plausible deniability”).
    How—not Who—and Now—not Later.
    Best Regards,

  2. Tracy Austin on said:

    Excellent post, Jill. The data is there; but no process and governance to use it or make it actionable. In addition to integration and access, I would add some standards and agreed to triggers for action (not let on the plane, full search). I heard on the news tonite that Joan Rivers couldn’t get on her flite out of Costa Rica because the agent decided her AKA passport in her married name was not valid and her identificaiton was not clear. Yet, this panty bomber made the flight.
    Send your post to the President. It’s a missing solution and unlikely to be thought of given many C-level IT execs still do NOT focus on the data as applied to business results. Just the technology to hold it and gather it.

  3. Tracy Austin on said:

    I’m back. I wanted to add to what I mean about triggers for action that may be standard across the world. In this case, the panty bomber paid $3000+ for a ONE way ticket from Nigeria, to Detroit, NO luggage, on a Christian holiday. And, I think he was on some terrorist watch list. Seems like if you added those things up, it could be a trigger for action. Even if that action was only more thorough search.

  4. Completely agree with moving forward towards a solution rather than looking backward to place blame. I’m shaping my career to use identity resolution in the hopes to thwart abuses like terrorism and money laundering so I consider this post somewhat special. I always appreciate your content and look forward to more! Thanks again!

  5. Great piece, Jill. You’re right that data governance is essential to this effort, but we’ve also got to take probabilities into account. Larry Dubov makes that very point (along with a call for entity resolution) on the Initiate blog –

  6. On the other hand (as I suggested in my own hallucinations on the topic, I wonder if these failures are routine, perhaps even expected, and that the real risk that was being avoided is the one that they get caught in their deficiency of process. Even if you had all the data together, you might need the right person with the right vision to put the dots togethers.
    Meanwhile, one other curious consideration, as pointed out by a colleague: Abdulmutallab’s father, who notified the US embassy in Nigeria, is described in the press as a “prominent Nigerian banker.” Perhaps the folks at the embassy thought it was being offered a chance to participate in a plan to get 30% of some huge abandoned bank account?

  7. Great post, Jill. Well written and spot on, as always – I hope it’s widely circulated and read. I’m glad you mentioned “process” along with “data.” Along the lines of David Loshin’s apt observations (Hi, David! I think the missing link is “business process” just as much as it is “data.” Both seem to take a back set to “organization” (departments, agencies, bureaus, …) in the federal mindset. Years ago it drove me crazy when the Department of Homeland Security was created, to much fanfare, and the thinking/messaging was that putting all these different agencies under one roof was going to solve the problem. Creating larger organizations has never solved anything, as nearly as I can tell, but focusing on cross-functional and cross-organizational business processes does. (A self-serving observation, because I do much more process work these days than data work.) As David pointed out, even if they had good data governance practices and processes in place, they still need good business processes to get the data in front of the right eyes.
    After way too many years of working in both the data and process arenas, I find that focusing on business process first has been a great way to spur demand for better data, and therefore better data governance. Coincidentally, this has been especially true in criminal justice. And health care… but that’s a REALLY touchy topic.
    Thanks again for an excellent post.

  8. I completely agree with the sentiments expressed in the post and most of the comments. By the same token, is anyone really surprised that major government agencies cannot effectively share information?
    Like many, I’ve worked for organizations with departments that would routinely withhold information from each other for political purposes. Yes, the stakes are higher when it comes to terrorism but I can’t say that this shocks me.

  9. What’s been occurring in the intelligence community is a movement to get data integration right within their own domains, but not consider integration between agencies.

  10. The Funding Of Good Public Schools

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