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Information Network: How LAS Mines Data to Help Communities

The Laboratory for Analytic Sciences at NC State takes the concept of partnership to a new level.

The lab — a partnership with the National Security Agency — brings together some of the brightest minds from government, academia and industry to address challenging big-data problems involved in issues of national security. In the process, LAS has created partnerships that otherwise may never have existed.

“There’s a recognition that different sectors have different incentives and different goals, but there’s some power in working together,” says Alyson Wilson, principal investigator for LAS. “There are issues we’re all interested in. We bring different things to the table.”

Through a highly competitive selection process, NSA awarded NC State a $60 million grant to lead LAS, due in large part to the university’s national leadership and expertise in data analysis. The geographic proximity of the Research Triangle and NC State’s strong connections to national industry leaders, local businesses and other leading research universities, including Duke University and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, solidified NC State as the ideal host for LAS.

The nontraditional laboratory’s focus is translational research— analyzing data and converting it into information that can be used to solve security problems in communities and even countries.

LAS comprises two parts: the intelligence community, represented by about 50 federal government workers (primarily from the National Security Agency) on Centennial Campus, and the academic and industry side, which Wilson manages. LAS partners with 30 faculty members from nine universities. Industry collaborators include well-known names such as the Mayo Clinic.

The lab conducts about 40 projects in any given year, but the research constantly shifts as intelligence priorities, faculty involvement and government staffing change. The work is all connected to defense, security and intelligence, yet it covers a broad array of issues, such as privacy, cybersecurity and even human trafficking.

LAS does not dictate problems for faculty members to solve; instead, the lab tries to match faculty with research topics that fit their passions and research.

“We very much try to align what we’re doing with the kind of work our faculty do,” Wilson says.

The research has applications beyond the intelligence community. This year, Wilson says, social scientists and quantitative statisticians are trying to improve the usefulness of the failing-state index — a gauge indicating when a country starts falling apart. For intelligence agencies, a failing state raises red flags about potential violence and radicalization, but failing states affect businesses, too. For instance, a company may rethink its presence in a country with black markets, a foundering economy and a trend toward instability.

“Everybody says the same thing, which is ‘How do I use this data to get strategic advantage?’” Wilson says.

Everybody says the same thing, which is ‘How do I use this data to get strategic advantage?’

LAS offers benefits for everyone involved. Industry partners developing security- or intelligence-related products can work with the lab to test prototypes before releasing them commercially. Faculty partners gain new testing grounds for their ideas and urgent problems to tackle. Intelligence agencies have access to academics’ specialized expertise and their networks of students and colleagues.

Wilson says she doesn’t expect LAS to solve security problems all by itself. Instead, the organization is more properly regarded as a tool to help make communities safer.

“We can create some partnerships that push the ball forward in some very specific ways,” she says.