On Super Bowl Sunday in a building adjacent to MetLife Stadium in Northern New Jersey, hundreds of people will be glued to their big screen – but they won’t be watching football.
Instead these analysts will be monitoring thousands of pieces of information steaming in from still thousands more state and local public safety officers on the ground in New York and New Jersey. It’s the big game’s command center and has been up and running weeks before the Super Bowl. The operation is headed up by the New Jersey State Police but the technology is provided by the Washington, D.C.-area's Haystax Technology, which has provided similar software for the last four Super Bowls.
Less than a year after the Boston Marathon bombing, in which social media and crowd sourcing proved instrumental to finding the suspects, this year’s Super Bowl security technology pools resources in a way that uses data to paint the most comprehensive picture yet.
“Boston woke people up,” Anthony Beverina, Haystax’ president of public safety, said at a demonstration this week of the system at the company’s McLean, Va. office.
Here’s how it works: The software pools together data from thousands of law enforcement personnel reporting incidents and observations through an app, in addition to other tools like traffic cameras, Twitter posts and GPS. It then prioritizes the information based on importance. Analysts can also filter by information type, like only viewing suspicious package reports. All the most recent or most important pieces of information are plotted on a map that includes Northern New Jersey and New York City.
For example, early on Tuesday afternoon, the top piece of information coming in was a suspicious activity report filed through the app by a cop who observed two men on a bus speaking loudly on cell phones in a foreign language. Other bits of information available by scrolling around the area map included reports of when team buses arrived and exited the stadium and disgruntled tweets complaining about NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell coming from a user Tweeting from Manhattan.
New Jersey State Police Lt. Col. Ed Cetnar is in charge of the operation but in the weeks surrounding the big game, the map and incident reports are also available to cooperating agencies and other interested parties like New York Mayor Bill de Blasio. This level of cooperation between agencies has only been possible in the last few years as law enforcement personnel has seen the benefit of pooling resources, said Beverina.
For big-time, regional events, being able to process information rapidly and communicating across different agencies is key, said Trooper Jeff Flynn, a spokesman for the New Jersey State Police.
"When you’re working with all these agencies -- state, local, county -- we have systems in place so that the lines of communication are open and we can cover as much area as possible," he said. "It's important and very useful so that we’re all on the same page."
The state police will keep the software for daily use after Super Bowl XLVIII, something past hosts have used to their advantage. Tampa Bay, which hosted the Super Bowl in 2009, has since used the technology for the Republican National Convention in 2012 and "Gasparilla," the city's annual pirate festival that draws thousands and is Central Florida's version of Mardi Gras. Indianapolis, which hosted the game in 2012, used the software the following year to better secure schools in Marion and Hamilton counties. Information like building blueprints and emergency plans was included in the program that provides real-time information in a crisis situation such as a school shooting or a severe weather event.
The cost of the technology for Super bowl XVIII was not immediately available, but Indianapolis used a $500,000 federal grant to pay for the program used during its Super Bowl and pays a roughly $80,000 maintenance fee now, according to news reports. The current version of the software, however, includes much more data.
The immediacy of the available data has gotten better and better, but there’s still a long way to go. Bryan Ware, Haystax’ chief technology officer, said Boston showed local law enforcement officials how valuable pooling together images from different sources (Instagram, CCTV cameras, Facebook and Twitter posts,) was in creating a visual timeline. “But there’s still no system that makes it easy to stick together video and imagery using their time stamps,” he said. “It still has to be done by hand.”
Boston was able to pull off that mission using massive amounts of manpower but the opportunity still exists to create the kind of technology that would save law enforcement time and energy when it comes to visually recapturing events leading up to a terrorist attack. The same goes for giving police better technology – government has been slow to embrace smart phones, partly because there is a concern about protecting sensitive information. Still, the Boston bombing suspects’ smart phones would have allowed them to monitor the news, send tweets and listen to police scanners while police with their radios and Blackberrys did not have the ability to turn that usage to their advantage in tracking down the suspects’ location quickly.
In short, the technology portrayed in television and movies isn’t yet a reality. But it could be.
“What more can you ask of these people whose first instinct is to run toward the explosion, not away from it?” Beverina said. “How can you not give them everything?”