Tuesday, February 27, 2007

News: Mapping Mayhem: Defense Contract Raises Eyebrows

PIIM’s comprehensive mapping program will be a great resource, Kerrey says

[image of SDS & PIIM woman]

Sam Lewis

Sam Lewis

Nadia Chaudhury
[image of Cline & woman]
(from top to bottom) On February 9, SDS members demanded answers from a staffer for the Parsons Institue for Information Mapping; A PIIM map; Graffiti scribbled on a project that formed the basis for PIIM; The PIIM office on the 2nd floor of 55 W. 13th St; Alex Cline confronting a staffer.

By Kevin Dugan

In an obscure office at 55 W. 13th St., a group of engineers and graduate students sit shoulder to shoulder at computers, poring over thousands of news articles, digitally-rendered maps and satellite images.

Nearby, a huge, arcing window facing 13th Street fills a more spacious room with sunlight. There, a programmer sits at a Macintosh, studying Times Square from the sky. She flies down to street level and lands just outside a featureless, gray rendering of the Empire State Building.

Welcome to the headquarters for the Parsons Institute for Information Mapping (PIIM), a New
School program that collects and organizes endless amounts of raw data—including voting statistics, racial demographics and phone numbers—into media and visual mapping projects.

Unbeknownst to most students, the U.S. Department of Defense signed a $6 million contract with The New School in 2002 for one of the programs, the Geospace and Media Tool (GMT). Faculty and students recently discovered the contract, sparking a wave of controversy across campus.

New School President Bob Kerrey recently told Inprint that GMT, which may be on the market
as early as ten months, will not have a military application. It is designed to streamline communications systems for Congress and civilian agencies, and provide research tools for the university’s faculty and staff.

Nevertheless, PIIM’s executive director, William Bevington, said GMT can still be modified to access confidential information. Kerrey said faculty and students should not be concerned about
The New School’s relationship with the Department of Defense. “If you oppose the U.S. having
an Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps under any circumstances, and oppose the Department of Defense’s existence, period, then you have a consistent argument that we should not be doing business” with the department, he said. “If, however, your only objection is having Bush as commander-in-chief, that’s a wholly different matter.”

Kerrey helped create the institute in 2002 after seeing a Parsons senior-work presentation where students created detailed maps and graphs on specific topics. One student mapped the Battle of Gettysburg while another documented the desertification process of the Gobi Desert. This concept, he said, should be applied to a digital platform.

Kerrey chose Bevington, then a Parsons professor, to head the institute. Bevington recruited a
team of engineers and graduate students to create tools like publicopiniontool. org and Base Realignment And Closure (BRAC), a system that keeps track of military bases inside the country.

That year, Kerrey pitched one of the projects, GMT, to the Defense Department. GMT is designed to make it easier for Congressmen to gather large amounts of information
about unfamiliar topics. Kerrey, a former senator, said that most public officials have trouble
keeping track of important issues.

GMT collects and organizes “open source,” or unclassified, data much like a Google search,
but with far more comprehensive capabilities. According to Bevington, the program can process
almost two million news articles, from sources that include national news wires and community newspapers worldwide.

“You get 12,000 sources of news processing 80,000 stories a day,” Bevington said. For a student, “it would be an amazing research tool.”

Bevington demonstrated the program at PIIM headquarters. He ran a search for “mosque,”
and over one million news hits surfaced. Every article was linked to its area on an interactive map, giving him the opportunity to explore further.

As with most programs that compile data, such exhaustive access to information can have both
its advantages and disadvantages.

For instance, because of the PATRIOT Act, medical records are partially open to the public for hospitals and insurance companies.

With this access, in the event of a disaster, “we can treat more people, more quickly,” Bevington
said. “However, if it’s open, insurance companies can say, ‘I’m not gonna insure you.’”

Open source information could be used to improve intelligence gathering.

For example, the Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding
Weapons of Mass Destruction, a nonpartisan group, concluded in a 2005 letter to President George W. Bush that the intelligence community incorrectly assessed Iraq’s nuclear capabilities because it did not rely on open source information.

In response to concerns that GMT could be used for military purposes, Bevington said that that
the military already has access to advanced data analysis technology.

Nevertheless, Kerrey cannot guarantee that once GMT is available to the public, it will continue to gather only open source data.

“I think we should have a conversation about the need for secrets and the need for security,” Kerrey said.

When GMT goes public, Bevington said users will be able to modify its applications. “Could
you put classified information into the tool? Currently, no,” Bevington said. “Could you redesign
the tools to do that? Yeah.”

Some students and faculty believe this relationship runs contrary to the university’s principles,
including the anti-war stance of founders Charles Beard, James Harvey Robinson, Thorsten
Veblen and John Dewey, who left Columbia to start The New School in 1919.

Students discovered GMT on January 22, when graduate student Armon Rezai emailed New
School for Social Research economics professor Catherine Ruetschlin with a link to fedspending.org, a Web site that monitors government contracts and grants. The site reported
that the DoD had contracted The New School for nearly $10 million since 2002, and gave university $6 million in 2003.

“At first look I thought it could be from Kerrey’s service on the 9/11 Commission,” Ruetschlin
said. “Although there wouldn’t be any reason that money should come to our school.”

“It degrades the decisions of all the students who come to The New School in recognition of its
heritage,” Reutschlin added.

On February 9, with endorsement from the University Student Senate and the Lang Student Union, five SDS members marched into the PIIM office, armed with a “warrant” demanding that the administration end their relationship with the military until it is approved by students and faculty.

Bevington was not in the office at the time, and a staff member on hand could not divulge any information.

Kerrey said that the controversey points to a larger issue—that some students have not been receptive enough to viewpoints of conservatives and the military.

“People talk about academic freedom up the wazoo,” he said. “When it comes down to using
that academic freedom to have a real discussion and debate, where is it?”

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