DoD Uses New Information Technology to Battle Y2K
By Paul Stone
American Forces Press Service
ARLINGTON, Va., Nov. 1, 1999 To be a guest in the Arlington Institute's "fusion center" here feels much like being a guest on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. Both are futuristic in substance and style and both offer a glimpse of uncharted territory.
But unlike the Enterprise's make-believe view of the stars and planets, the view from the fusion center is a map of Earth surrounded by hundreds of key words that dance about in a verbal minuet.
The center is in the forefront of the information age. It gathers data from literally thousands of sources throughout the world, synthesizes it and uses it to predict people's behavior. The ultimate goal is to understand how society might react to regional or global events, such as terrorism, political instabilities or even Y2K, director John Petersen said.
Standing in front of a wall-sized computer screen, he explained how the center combines the best available technologies with some of the brightest minds in the fields of social and political behavior. By harnessing the power of computers with the insight of the human mind, the center develops models to help predict how events might unfold in the future.
The computer screen's display of a map of the world illustrates the global nature of problems and society's interconnectedness, Petersen said. The words that move about the map -- oil, Y2K, defense, cyberterrorism and others -- represent just a few of the search words the center uses to gather information from databases.
"This is an extraordinary time in history," Petersen said. "Because of the information and technology available we're now able to look at large, complex systems of data and discover patterns and shapes we couldn't see before. We can look deeply into what used to seem like chaotic bits and pieces of information and, combining it with the technology of computers, make some sense out of it."
The institute is using Y2K as a test case for its recently opened fusion center, and DoD is right alongside. The Pentagon has teamed up with the institute to help in its battle against Y2K.
According to Kevin Kirsch, who handles legislative liaison in DoD's Y2K office, the fusion center data will help fill in a critical information gap.
"We've got a good handle on our own systems, which ones have been fixed and which ones still need to be tested," he said. "But it would be nice to know how people might react to Y2K, what they are doing to prepare and how they will handle any problems that come up."
Kirsch said his office answers questions from the public every day concerning Y2K. Most questions concern DoD-only Y2K repair efforts, but many cover a wide spectrum of Y2K concerns.
"We have found it helps if we can just ease people's concerns, no matter what the Y2K issue is," he said.
The fusion center monitors press reports from almost 200 news media outlets and gathers information from databases using a program called "Starlight," originally developed by Pacific Northwest Laboratories for the intelligence community. Petersen said Starlight streams information into a database 24 hours a day and filters it according to key search words. He added that the program looks for relationships between data and clusters it, providing a more complete picture of the problem being studied.
"For example, if you wanted to look at the national electrical grid as it relates to Y2K, Starlight could gather and cluster information and then produce a three-dimensional representation on a map of the United States showing where problems might occur," Petersen said.
In addition, the fusion center polls Americans across the country almost daily to track their fears, preparations and attitudes about Y2K.
"Having this up-to-date latest information helps us alleviate concerns and, in the long run, will increase awareness and preparedness," Kirsch said. This is not only important for Jan. 1, when the millennium bug hits, but for many weeks beyond, he added.
"Many experts believe that only 10 percent to 15 percent of what will actually go wrong will happen on Jan. 1," Kirsch said. "Some programs will likely start building up errors that will not be evident until later in the month when the first payroll of the year is processed or when inventories are performed. Then we have the leap year transition at the end of February, and in our testing we've encountered just as many problems for that as we have for Jan. 1."
The leap year problem is that software not programmed to recognize 2000 as a leap year will read Feb. 29 as March 1. The Y2K problem stems from a past computer programming shorthand of expressing years in two digits -- 1999 would be "99." Some computer systems on Jan. 1 might treat "00" as "1900" and malfunction or shut down. Almost any computer system could be vulnerable, so all must be checked and fixed or replaced.
Petersen said the Y2K scenario is an excellent example of the type of research the fusion center makes possible.
"We're particularly interested in big surprises, global surprises that are potentially disruptive and intrinsically out of control, whether it's an energy revolution, global epidemic or Y2K," he said. "We know what can happen on the technical side. What we're examining is the human side -- how people are reacting. The fusion center is an exciting initiative and we think it's going to provide valuable information."