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You Visit Tour. Webb Lion Fountain. June 1 2017. Photo David B. Hollingsworth

VMASC Researchers Hired to Analyze Effectiveness of Department of Homeland Security Risk Assessment Tools

By Brendan O'Hallarn

A program designed by researchers at Old Dominion University's Virginia Modeling, Analysis and Simulation Center (VMASC) will be deployed to analyze the cost effectiveness of billions of dollars of U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) programs that mitigate terrorism risk.

Barry Ezell, VMASC chief scientist, is the principal investigator on a 12-month $250,000 grant, which will allow DHS to determine which of its substantial investments in keeping America safe have worked the best. The team members include Ross Gore, research assistant professor, and David Flanagan, project scientist.

"For 10 years, Homeland Security has conducted terrorism risk assessments," he said. "What is needed is a way to determine how well programs are mitigating terrorism risk from a cost effectiveness perspective."

Using as a foundation the Terrorism Risk Assessment Simulation (TRASIM) program developed by VMASC last year, the grant will support the creation of a decision-support system known as MONA (Mitigation Optimization & Net Assessment), which will allow DHS and its partners to map the success and failure of its programs across the spectrum.

Ezell likened the process to a financial planner showing a client how each investment of a portfolio is performing. "We can then separate the programs that are working very well with those that are under-performing from a cost-benefit analysis," he said.

In a time of budgetary pressures for all federal agencies, that will help them determine the most efficient ways of shoring up areas where the United States has vulnerabilities, post-9/11.

"If we're paying billions of dollars for a program and it's not working the way it should, that's money that can be reallocated to other strategic needs," Ezell said.

The project will be done in four phases. To begin, VMASC scientists will survey existing tools to identify the architecture used for the MONA decision support system. The Old Dominion team will also identify stakeholders at all levels of government that will use it.

Following design and implementation of the systems required to make MONA operational, the project will conclude with testing to ensure it provides accurate information to emergency managers at all levels of government and then training workshops to ensure personnel in these roles can use these tools to make the best risk assessment decisions.

TRASIM, the program created by VMASC scientists, aims to make terrorism risk models faster and less expensive, providing a more accessible decision-making tool.

Ezell said the creation of TRASIM is part of a strategic shift at VMASC, attempting to tailor its modeling and simulation solutions to the real needs of potential customers, in and out of government.

"It's less about writing white papers and more about creating programs that can be implemented and taken to the customer," he said. "This project (MONA) will put the data and the tools in the hands of the DHS analysts, so they can make the best decisions."

One of the world's leading research centers for computer modeling, simulation, and visualization, Old Dominion University's VMASC is dedicated to solving real-world problems through the application of modeling and simulation techniques and to developing new approaches to represent physical, social and human systems in simulation.