They're not as popular as they were when I was a kid; those connect the dot paintings that untalented artists like myself, could buy and pretend we could draw. You would start at dot number one, drag your pencil to dot number 2, 3, and so on, and finally a picture emerged. This connect the dot metaphor has been used recently to describe the U.S.'s failure to prevent a potential airline bomber from almost detonating an explosive device. It can also apply to campus shootings and workplace violence.
In global counterterrorism threat assessment, there are millions of dots and many agencies are trying to connect them. Pieces of information about potential dangers come to the attention of many agencies with many departments. In the case of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the alleged "underwear bomber," it's been reported that information came from his father, the State Department, Al Qaeda websites, NSA, and other places.
The National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) has the daunting task of being the agency in charge of connecting the dots to get the big picture of the potential threats by piecing together millions of pieces of data from all over the world. It's a lot easier to see the seriousness of the threat in hindsight when all of the pieces emerge quickly.
As a result of the recent airline-bombing attempt, President Obama has ordered intelligence reports to be distributed more rapidly and more widely because the events around Northwest Flight 253 show that "this was a failure to connect and share the intelligence we already had." Hopefully, there will be constant changes and improvements in the U.S.'s ability to aggregate and make sense of information that can better predict threats.
The challenge of effective information sharing takes place on more local levels at universities, companies, and government agencies. This has led to many failed attempts to prevent workplace harassment, murders, and school shootings. In these settings, information sharing is much more manageable than on the worldwide level that the NCTC is managing.
In the aftermath of school and workplace attacks, it is often discovered that there were warning signs that the perpetrator was moving down a path toward violence. In some circumstances, people reported the troubling behavior and the information was not forwarded to the people who could prevent an attack. Sometimes the troubling behavior didn't reach a threshold, in the judgment of the person receiving the report, that something needed to be done. There is often confusion about what information can or cannot be shared under privacy laws like FERPA or HIPPA.
Threatening behavior may come to the attention of multiple departments within an organization that generally don't share information with each other. Without clear policies, procedures, and training, large organizations may find it challenging to channel widely dispersed information about potential threats to a central reporting entity.
With a single report of threatening behavior, the situation may not look that bad, but when the other "dots" are connected, a clear image emerges that this person is someone that needs to be assessed and managed in order to prevent violence.
So what can we do to connect the dots better?
There have been recent technological innovations that help organizations share information, and help ensure that people are familiar with polices, procedures, and other information about how to manage threats. Awareity, Inc.'s MOAT Program is an example of a system that provides a process for streamlining information sharing.
Effective information sharing is enhanced through providing clear policies, establishing and training threat assessment teams, and providing employees and students training on the identification of and reporting of troubling behavior. The information about troubling behavior should be analyzed and funneled to the person or persons that are ultimately responsible for aggregating the information and deciding what to do about it. In some organizations, that would be the threat assessment team. In other organizations, it may be someone in HR or Employee Relations who is trained in threat assessment.
As of this writing, we don't know how much information about Amy Bishop, was available to the University of Alabama at Huntsville prior to her alleged shooting spree there on February 12, 2010. From media reports, it seems clear that some people were concerned about her. The investigations will reveal whether or not people knew about her troubling behavior and who to share the information with.
Dots are very hard to connect and the bigger the canvas, the harder it is to connect them. Is your organization sharing information in a way that connects the dots in a way that helps prevent dangerous situations?