New class offers technology insight for Homeland Security

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Borrowing a program from the Defense Department, the Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate recently launched a Hacking for Homeland Security effort. Its goal is to find or adapt new technologies needed for DHS missions. One component of the program is a national academic course. For more on the course, Federal Drive with Tom Temin turned to the former Region 8 administrator of FEMA, Lee dePalo. And Colorado School of Mines associate professor Sid Saleh.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Former Region 8 Administrator of FEMA, Lee dePalo. Mr. dePalo, good to have you on.

Lee dePalo: It’s great to be here. Thank you.

Tom Temin: And Colorado School of Mines Associate Professor Sid Saleh. Professor Saleh, good to have you on.

Sid Saleh: Great to be here Tom.

Tom Temin: Alright. So we have FEMA, and we have the Science and Technology Directorate, two different kind of pieces of DHS. Tell us what it is that you’re looking to accomplish here. Lee, let’s start with you.

Lee dePalo: So we’re looking to partner with an academic institution. And we’re introduced virtually initially to Sid and the team at Colorado School of Mines, which coincidentally is very close in proximity to the FEMA Region 8 headquarters. And so we had an initial meeting with Sid and went out there just to see what was within the realm of possibilities. We knew about the hacking for defense program. And it sort of evolved into what it could look like moving forward for FEMA, and particularly in the emergency management arena. Initially, that was how we started the ball rolling for this one.

Tom Temin: And Sid, how does the School of Mining impinge on what FEMA might be doing? It sounds like something more like for the Department of the Interior.

Sid Saleh: Well, so we are one of the top rated engineering schools in the country. And we thrive on working with government entities, commercial entities, what have you, to innovate and help deal with challenges. And so when Lee approached us, this was a phenomenal opportunity to say, what can bright young students kinda bring as a fresh perspective to some of the challenges that you’re dealing with? And the whole point of it is to collaborate. And so this was an opportunity for us to kind of say, we don’t care if it’s this department or that department, but Lee and his team was just so thoughtful and innovative.

Tom Temin: Now, the first course in Hacking for Homeland Security, according to the release, is being held at the Colorado School of Mines. What is the content of it? What is it you’re teaching and who are you teaching it to?

Sid Saleh: So here at mines, we launched this first pilot course, and we just actually concluded it. The whole idea behind the courses, we team up, so Lee and his team submitted to us a number of challenges. And we took those challenges, and each challenge has a sponsor. So in my class, we have teams of students take on one challenge, and work collaboratively every week with the sponsor of the problem from Lee’s organization. So it’s a team of students plus a FEMA person, or two or three. And every week, they work very closely first on understanding what is the actual problem, the specific details of it, and framing it in a way where we could deliver some results on it. And then we iterate on solutions collaboratively. So we test new ideas with the buy in of the sponsor who has to sort of implement the solution eventually.

Tom Temin: And Lee, what are some of the challenges that you’ve presented to be taught to these would be hackers for Homeland Security?

Lee dePalo: Ultimately, we presented about 20 challenges, but the students narrowed it down and formed teams based around seven problem sets. Some of which were emergency management related and some weren’t. We had one of our partners, the Cybersecurity Infrastructure Security Agency, or CISA. The Region 8 had a cyber related problem in there. We had the state of Colorado as a partner in state emergency management, and they had a training related problem. From an emergency management perspective, we had one related to power outage, we had wildfires, we had in general preparedness type of problem sets, COVID related — and so it ran the spectrum, between the here and now and some of the things that we always think a lot about what to do in the case of a massive power outage. Outstanding set of problems that students worked on.

Tom Temin: And let me ask you, Professor Saleh, so many agencies tend to approach new problems and challenges and new courses with hackathons and looking at this from a computer coding standpoint. But many of the problems here, grid fire protection and so on, are really, I guess, more engineering than something you can code into a solution.

Sid Saleh: The term hacking has been generalized and really used away from hacking for computer purposes — hacking software, hacking code hacking networks. We’re thinking of it in terms of life hacking, or challenge hacking. So maybe a better term is creative problem solving. So we have engineering students who’ve learned so much engineering, science and technology, math, all that, but now you give them a chance to say put it all to work and see what kind of creativity can you bring to these challenges? And so it becomes a wonderful interaction between the students, they have no baggage, no prior knowledge of any of the constraints, they learn about those constraints, but they talk to their sponsor partners. What if we tried this? Or what if we tried that? And some of that fresh thinking triggers the sponsors into, yeah we haven’t given that much thought before or why not try it. And amazing things happen when you have this kind of interaction.

Tom Temin: And I imagine even though these are problem solving in the real world, in the physical world and require engineering, they’re not coding and computer science problems, they must be informed by data nevertheless, which could lead you to a proper engineering solution, I guess. And so Lee, what kinds of data sets and information do you provide so that the students have what they need to input into what solutions they might come up with?

Lee dePalo: It’s the expertise that we pair with the students. So for example, take the power outage problem set, we had one of our planners within FEMA Region 8 that was a mentor to the students, and they could reach out at any kind of questions they had. If our person didn’t know the answer, we would get them to the right person to be able to help them work through that problem set and get to their solution. And not every solution that the students came up with was directly engineering related either, these are engineering students, but they get a chance to learn entrepreneurial skills. And oftentimes one of the most unique things that one of the teams worked through was preparedness related. And they came up with a game solution where they said to help people, like if you played a game, sat down around the table and walk through different things to talk about preparedness, you earn points, you lost points, as you work through it. It was very unique when they presented that and we had some headquarters personnel on and they were very excited about that particular project and maybe seeing if they could move that forward with some grant money or what have you. So the solutions run the gamut from the more technical engineering type solutions to just a very creative problem solving.

Tom Temin: Yeah. Sid, Lee started to answer my next question. In this case, the output was a game type of approach. What are some of the outputs that the students come up with, besides essays that can help Homeland Security and FEMA?

Sid Saleh: So in one case, a team came up with a dashboard that helps FEMA and local emergency management folks direct people who are evacuated to the right place, and even paired it up with like a Google map that would show roadblocks and things to avoid. You can imagine, if you tried to point someone to go from point A to point B in a normal situation, just follow the Google map or any other map, and you’ll get there. But if there’s a disaster, and the map needs to be reflecting the ways around the detours that you need to take, plus the availability of space and all these different things, so that was phenomenal. We also had a team that works with helping emergency management folks who conduct the training of the local people. And they figured out a way to take the physical three day course, for example, and make it virtual and make it a lot more efficient and effective for everyone involved. So that was super exciting. And that’s the thing, the key behind what the students deliver and how we’ve structured the course is that we never set out tackling a challenge with a predetermined perception of what the outcome will look like. We simply say the objective is to try to move the needle on solving the problem.

Tom Temin: Alright. Lee, and FEMA is delivered with a stack of really great solutions, what happens next?

Lee dePalo: We look at what we may be able to build on and where they may go after the fact. In some cases, you may have the mentor at FEMA that picks something up and pushes that forward to headquarters. In other cases, students may continue to want to work on problems to further define them, because they do a lot in one semester, but they only have one semester. The Colorado School of Mines is an amazingly challenging school. And they’re delivering their solutions to us at the same time they’re in final exams and everything else. So I really admire the caliber of talent that they have a Colorado School of Mines. So it will vary by project. The example I gave you before, the gaming project, is something that our headquarters has now picked up and is looking at where that may go. So a wide variety of options moving forward.

Tom Temin: Lee dePalo is former Region 8 Administrator of FEMA, thanks so much for joining me.

Lee dePalo: Thank you.

Tom Temin: And Sid Saleh is Associate Professor at the Colorado School of Mines. Thank you.

Sid Saleh: Pleasure to be here Tom.

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