Border Protection by the numbers

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Things are busy for U.S. Customs and Border Protection these days. The fast pace means decision-making has to keep up. And one of the proven ways for managers to make better decisions is by arming them with actionable data. For a peek at how they do this at CBP,  Federal Drive with Tom Temin talked with Jay Visconti, the director of CBP’s STAT Division.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Mr. Visconti, good to have you on.

Jay Visconti: Great, thank you, thank you to be here.

Tom Temin: And you are a longtime border patrol agent. So having that experience on the ground, I guess gives you a really good idea of what it is that people at all levels of the agency need as their data to help them make better decisions. Fair enough?

Jay Visconti: Absolutely. Yeah. CBP is a data rich agency with vast amounts of data from all across our components.

Tom Temin: And what are some of the types of data that you regularly gather?

Jay Visconti: CBP is divided into four main operational components. The office of field operations, “…”, the ports of entry for legal trade and travel. So we have all that legal trade and travel data, you know, passengers, vehicles, vessels, cargo. We have the U.S. Border Patrol, who works between the ports of entry. So a lot of enforcement data, seizure data, as far as the illegal activity that happens between the ports of entry. We have our office of trade, which, you know, is a billion dollar industry in and of itself, that’s really more than, I don’t really delve into that area, they have a whole division that handles their size. And then we have our air marine operations, that is our planes and our boats, that really, you know, they have flight hours, float hours, you know, seizures and things like that. So I mean, tremendous amounts of data from all different components, that the senior leadership utilizes day in and day out to make data driven decisions.

Tom Temin: And this data comes in many different forms and formats, too, doesn’t it? So how do you process it in a way that’s usable and maybe that you can compare and contrast datasets that might have come in from totally different sources?

Jay Visconti: Great question. So one of the things that we do within the CBP STAT division, we have a great team here that is able to take this data, and basically kind of data wrangling and just, you know, clean it out, so that it’s being able to be used and visualize and format into, you know, we do you know, dashboards using Tableau and Qlik Sense, Power BI is another visualization tool that we use, but then we also use the basic Microsoft Excel, you know, for our standard charts and graphs. And the team also does a lot of high level analysis, trend analysis up and down, comparing FYs-to-FYs, fiscal years, you know, things of that nature.

Tom Temin: Got it. And so, the other side of this is, you know, what are the questions that people want to ask of the data? And you must get a million requests every year. How do you kind of channel what it is? And also, at the same time, teach people what questions they can ask, given the data sets that are available?

Jay Visconti: Absolutely. That’s one of the challenges is letting our stakeholders know what data is available, having been with the border patrol for over 25 years, but I’ve been actually in the data game for the last 10 years or so, I have a great sense of what CBP has. And so, you know, when we stood up this division in 2018, that was kind of our charges is to provide the senior leadership, the go to source for data. So there’s at least a core group of subject matter experts that understand the data. So when the question comes in, from, you know, whether it be the commissioner of CBP, the secretary of DHS, or filtered even on down from the White House, we’re able to respond with yes, we have this data, or no, we don’t, but here’s something that may help answer that question, you know, based on on how, you know, oftentimes a question comes in is, hey, you know, are apps up or down? Right, that’s an easy, you know, apprehensions that’s an easy one, you know, but what does that mean? You know, and, you know, data is, you know, apprehensions are up, yay, apprehensions are down, yay. So it’s all how you relay the data. So having that subject matter experts, being able to provide a little context to the data is critical in nature for CBP.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Jay Visconti, he’s director of U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s STAT division. Yeah, because a given macro statistic, like apprehensions or cargo seized or whatever it might be, or cargo examined, doesn’t get very fine grained. So there’s location, there’s type of seizure or type of apprehension, the circumstances under which it might have happened. So I guess the more fine grained you can get, the more management can understand what’s really happening in the agency.

Jay Visconti: Absolutely. And so with that is the technology has advanced over the last 10 years that I’ve been doing this, and so we’ve incorporated a lot of visualization dashboards that allows our end user to kind of filter down, you know, to those levels to the second level, to the station level, if need be, if they need that, that also provides the ability to even drill down even further into, you know, type of citizenship or the demographic, you know, whether part of a family unit or if they’re unaccompanied child, you know, that type of demographic, so, very powerful tools out there that have helped us to really take hold of our data through visualization and really communicate it and give that to the senior leadership, you know, those nuggets of information that they need to provide the strategic decisions that they’re being empowered to make.

Tom Temin: There is a situation on the southern border with a large number of people coming into the country. Is there a data gathering effort that goes along with that, so that over time, this can be better understood, as the policymakers decide what they want to do?

Jay Visconti: Yeah, absolutely. So all of our data comes from applications that are being used by the field agents, you know, whether it’s at the ports of entry, or between the ports of entries, when they make these encounters. So we’re not asking them to do anything different. It’s all part of the course of the immigration cycle. For the immigration violations, you know, all that information is captured, is dumped into our CBP data warehouse, where we’re able to pull out the relevant information for our stakeholders.

Tom Temin: And do you ever get suggestions for data series, say, from the people, right on the ground level, dealing with whatever it is, cargo or people at any location, to say, hey, if we gathered this information that we’re seeing, this might help in some manner?

Jay Visconti: Absolutely. Yeah. So our IT shop, you know, we were close in hand with our information technology shops, who developed the applications. The majority of our applications are all made in house by our office of information technology. And so the field will send the requirements, program managers over those specific applications will evaluate them and see whether they make sense and whether it’s going to provide a burden to the agency. If one port says, hey, I really need this information but if it’s not applicable to all the ports, they might not do it. But if it’s something that could be spread out across all the ports of entry, all of the stations, then yeah, most likely they’ll implement it, and then we’ll be able to better capture it in that regard. So very close coordination, collaboration with our OIT department.

Tom Temin: Yeah, I was gonna say that’s a piece of customs and border protection people don’t see as much, is that whole cargo and lading and all that area. And you must work closely with the other pieces of DHS. How much cross agency sharing and coordination goes on?

Jay Visconti: Absolutely. CBP, about a year and a half ago, undertook a major initiative called the Unified Immigration Portal, which is bringing in immigration, customs enforcement, USCIS, which is citizenship immigration services. We’re also working closely with Health and Human Services Office of Refugee Resettlement, to really kind of bring together all this relevant information, but into a single view, to kind of portray that timeline view of immigrants journey, as they enter into the immigration system, from apprehension to, you know, removal, if that’s the final case, or to you know, adjustment of status or what have you. So, with the technology that’s out there, it has provided us tremendous leap forward, whereas years ago, it would be a spreadsheet, then you have to marry it up to a spreadsheet from one of the other agencies and, and you know, we’d go around, it would take a couple of weeks, now we have this data right at our fingertips, which really allows our leadership to see what’s going on and make those decisions.

Tom Temin: And especially when you’re dealing with leadership, it’s probably good to have the capability to visualize the data so they can see colored charts and graphs and fever diagrams and so forth, instead of looking at spreadsheets.

Jay Visconti: Absolutely. We are definitely in the world of dashboarding now, you know, from everyday our CBP commissioner now within his office has a 42 inch monitor with dashboard with relevant KPIs, key performance indicators, and some graphic visualizations that pertain to what he wants to see every morning. And but even even on our CBP.gov website, we are changing over the way we’re portraying data. Last year, we had a lot of static tables. But now we’ve partnered up with Tableau and we’re using a Tableau server to provide interactive dashboards on our public facing web pages as well, so the public can view and kind of drill down to whatever question they may have to try and get an answer to.

Tom Temin: And so having been in the whole data field for 10 years, in that 10 years, you’ve seen a lot of change in what the capabilities are.

Jay Visconti: It’s been amazing. 10 years ago, when I came up to headquarters originally to help stand up one of the applications that captures a lot of this data that the team that was working, providing reports it was strictly, strictly spreadsheets, you know, and it was even just draft colors, you know, the grays and you know, light gray and fast forward 10 years and now we got you know, multicolored visualizations, interactive drill down capability, export to PDF, export to PowerPoint, I mean, it’s just tremendous, tremendous leap forward from from 10 years ago.

Tom Temin: Alright, Jay Visconti is director of U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s STAT division. Thanks so much for joining me.

Jay Visconti: Thank you very much. I appreciate the time.

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