Homeland security work wins national award for PNNL scientist

By Annette Cary, Herald staff writerOctober 14, 2009 

RICHLAND -- Research on sophisticated computer technology that can visually organize massive amounts of information to help predict acts of terrorism has won a Richland scientist a prestigious award and $25,000 prize.

Jim Thomas, a chief scientist and laboratory fellow at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, has won the Christopher Columbus Fellowship Foundation 2009 Homeland Security Award. The foundation was created by Congress in 1992 to encourage new discoveries.

Thomas is the founding director of the Department of Homeland Security's National Visualization and Analytics Center based at PNNL in Richland.

"Visual analytics combines the art of human intuition and the science of mathematical deduction to perceive patterns and derive knowledge and insight from them," Thomas said in a statement.

Analysts working to predict and prevent acts of terrorism are bombarded with enormous volumes of data in many different forms such as e-mails, documents, measurements, photos and sound recordings. Visual analytics works to synthesize the information and provide it in an interactive visual way to make it comprehensible and useful to analysts.

"Visual analytics are valuable because the tool helps to detect the expected and discover the unexpected," Thomas said. It is used not only to search through staggering amounts of data, but also to uncover hidden relationships within the data, he said.

The National Visualization and Analytics Center was established in 2004 to provide scientific guidance and coordination for the development of technology that the Department of Homeland Security needs to manage, analyze and visually represent information.

Thomas was picked for the foundation award because of his leadership of the center and because he is recognized internationally for his work in the new field of visual analytics and has served as a science adviser to government agencies and academic and industrial institutions.

"Jim has been instrumental in crafting collaborative agreements between the United States, Canada and Germany, and he has inspired degree and certificate programs so future generations will carry on the work he has begun," said Kimberly Owens, foundation chairwoman, in a statement.

In addition to helping with work to prevent terrorism, visual analytics can be used in other fields. For example, emergency responders and health officials can use visual analytics to reduce the effects of natural disasters and companies can protect against cyber attacks, Thomas said.

Thomas is the fourth PNNL staff member to be recognized by the Christopher Columbus Fellowship Foundation.

The first was Richard Craig, who died last week. In 2001 he won a foundation award and a $100,000 fellowship for his work on a detector that quickly and inexpensively locates metal and plastic land mines by recognizing the presence of hydrogen in mine casings.

The two other awards were in connection with a system being used at airports to detect concealed nonmetallic items and for a device used by customs officers to look for contraband inside containers by using ultrasonic pulses.

-- Annette Cary: 582-1533; acary@tricityherald.com

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