Computerworld Honors 2013: Combating pirate attacks near the coast of Somalia with statistical modeling

The Naval Meteorology and Oceanography Command, the 21st Century Achievement Award winner for safety & security, uses technology to forecast the probability of pirate activity.

Computerworld Honors medal

In years past, pirate attacks off the coast of Somalia were rising, climbing from 60 cases in 2007 to 181 in 2009. Pirates were killing innocent people and taking others hostage. Their attacks were disrupting commerce and shipping traffic, as well as costing the world's economy billions of dollars every year. President Obama called piracy a threat to both U.S. national security and foreign policy.

To combat the age-old threat, the Naval Meteorology and Oceanography Command turned to a modern weapon: technology.

In early 2009, the command developed the framework for the first-generation Piracy Performance Surface (PPS) model, which produced maps showing the probability of attacks based on how environmental conditions such as wave height and wind speed affected the pirates' small-boat operations. The model highlighted areas where shipping would be susceptible to piracy.

Following up on the success of the PPS model, command leadership decided to develop a more advanced antipiracy model called the Piracy Attack Risk Surface (PARS). The Monte Carlo probabilistic forecasting tool integrates environmental conditions, pirate concept of operations, commercial shipping information and other relevant data to forecast vulnerability to piracy as a function of latitude, longitude and time. The model then forecasts the probability of a pirate presence over a 72-hour period.

PARS is the only Navy product that fuses shipping information, environmental data, pirate locations, pirate operating procedures and predicted pirate behaviors into a cohesive forecast environment.

To make the program work, the command had to clarify stakeholder needs to technical requirements as well as address early performance issues, specifically around the time required to produce an end product.

Following the deployment of PPS and then PARS, pirate-related events off the Horn of Africa dropped dramatically, going from a high of 181 in 2009 to 32 in 2012, an 83% reduction.

Task force commanders continue to use PARS to determine where to allocate antipiracy assets in a vast area, and the Navy is moving forward with building a forecast model for areas with the highest probability for attacks.

At the same time, other operations have taken notice of the tool's success. The same techniques now are used to conduct counter drug operations off the coasts of Central and South America, smuggling operations in the Red Sea, criminal operations in the Gulf of Guinea and small-boat operations in the Persian Gulf.

Next: Measuring the sustainability of data centers worldwide

Pratt is a Computerworld contributing writer in Waltham, Mass. Contact her at marykpratt@verizon.net.

Read more about the 2013 Computerworld Honors Laureates.

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