Responding to Homecoming Safety Issues with Alternative Data

Security professionals are increasingly turning to alternative data sources to help improve their understanding of the threat landscape.

The internet has fundamentally changed the way campuses and organizations create and use information. Furthermore, the rapid proliferation of mobile devices has resulted in a massive increase in the number of social media platforms and users. With smartphones never more than an arm’s length away, anyone can provide and access real-time, minute-by-minute updates on breaking events.

With data that can be detected, aggregated, analyzed and disseminated in real time, campus protection professionals have an unparalleled source of information to inform better and faster security-related decisions. For example, in the event of a natural disaster, shooting or road accident, social media posts can provide clear and compelling information from multiple perspectives as the situation unfolds.

Campus security professionals are also making use of this valuable asset. Every year in October, thousands of visitors descend on campuses around the United States for homecoming, adding increased pressure for internal first responders to tighten safety and security across the entire campus.

However, it’s not just homecoming that stretches the capabilities of security teams. During any large-scale event such as a sporting event or graduation, campus security and local first responders must strengthen and enforce security measures to protect students, faculty, visitors and the surrounding community.

Planning Should Start Early

Security professionals should start planning for large campus events months in advance.

“It starts with a strong communication plan ahead of the event so you don’t end up with large numbers of people who are not prepared for the physical security checks to be performed on them,” says Nick Heywood, associate vice president at Guidepost Solutions Security and Technology Consulting.

Given the size of certain events, Heywood knows that preparing visitors for what to expect when they visit a campus is a labor-intensive undertaking.

“It’s got to go all the way through the teaching staff to administration staff and then be adopted by the students themselves,” he adds.

To complicate matters further, many campuses allow people to enter and leave certain parts of the property at will, creating a challenging security situation. For some institutions, locking down an open campus goes against their culture; for others, it poses impossible logistical challenges.

Even for areas of the campus with controlled access, such as main entrance gates, research buildings and student dormitories, security professionals must be able to receive timely and explicit instructions on how to react in the event of a crisis.

Steven Siegel, an independent security expert with over 30 years of experience, believes that experience is what helps education institutions prepare.

“Those that have regular events have the experience to adequately staff, train, prepare and anticipate all possible issues help to ensure a smooth event,” he says. “Those with a sophisticated security and event department with an experienced adequate staff, those whose heads are true believers in protection, security and safety, may have the necessary resources and experience to not only properly train and prepare but may also review, rehearse and revise those event security needs on a very regular basis.”

At the other end of the scale, there are challenges.

“Small institutions with limited resources may or may not have a current and realistic plan in place for a large event,” says Siegel. “Because large events at smaller institutions are rare, they may not have a realistic and full appreciation of current events that may impact their event. They may give lip service but not follow through with proper due-diligence.”

The Role of Alternative Data

Siegel encourages campus security teams to cast a very wide net to capture relevant intelligence.

“One must review and stay up to date with social media, radio, TV, newspapers and periodicals, current events and law enforcement agencies at the local, state and federal law levels, including the Overseas Security Advisory Council, DHS, local security association and groups,” he says.

To that end, he encourages campus teams to monitor what is happening in and around the campus, as well as political situations, both local and national, that could have an impact.

“One must envision the ‘what if’ scenarios,” he adds. “One must be creative in their thinking and ask many questions as to who, what, when, where how and why.”

With these thoughts in mind, campus security leadership must be able to coordinate security resources where they’ll provide the greatest benefit. To achieve this goal, security professionals are increasingly turning to alternative data sources to help improve their understanding of the threat landscape.

Publicly available data, which includes social media posts, blogs, the dark web, and sensors such as earthquake monitors, can provide invaluable information to security teams about the environment and how to secure it.

For example, if an accident occurs on campus between a pedestrian and a vehicle, news of that incident might appear on social media within seconds of the collision. Most posts will include pictures, videos and location data. Via traditional media channels, it could take minutes or hours to receive notification of such an incident, often without any meaningful pictures or video evidence and sometimes scant details about the exact location.

By monitoring social media, campus security teams can receive almost instantaneous notice about incidents, send officers to the scene and begin rerouting traffic almost immediately. And when minutes can mean the difference between life and death, early notification can help quickly direct paramedics to an injured person’s location.

Forge Strong Partnerships

Given the scale of many events, campus security must work closely with multiple departments and public service providers including local, state and federal law enforcement. Despite dramatic increases in the number of people on campus during major events, campus security and local law enforcement have finite resources.

In addition to existing means of gathering security-related information such as video monitoring, officers on foot or in vehicles, and emergency phones placed around campus, real-time alternative data can act as a critical component for first responders’ proactive and reactive strategies during major campus events.

By monitoring publicly available data streams, campus security leadership can ensure its simultaneous dissemination across entire security teams, improving communication and coordination between campus security and local law enforcement. Real-time alerts help keep first responders in alignment and ensure they have vital information before they arrive at the scene of an emergency.

During an event, real-time information also provides first responders with a holistic view of an incident and can help answer critical questions before they arrive on scene, such as the number of casualties, whether the incident involves hazardous materials, or in the case of an active shooter, whether the suspect is in custody or still armed and active. Consequently, using technology that detects and disseminates real-time information gives these professionals a clearer understanding of incidents as they evolve so they can change their mobilization plans and act with greater speed and confidence.

Alternative data and the intelligence it provides can also play an important role in keeping the institution’s administration up-to-date on current developments. Therefore, instead of basing their decisions on rumors and an incomplete picture of the situation on the ground, the administration can make decisions based on facts gathered in real time.

Furthermore, if there’s a need to hold a press conference in response to an incident, the administration and campus security leadership can stand in front of the media with confidence, having gathered critical data from a multitude of sources.

After-Action Reports Can Improve Performance

In addition to utilizing real-time alerts during an incident, campus security departments can also use the same information afterwards to analyze the effectiveness of their response efforts.

Gathering and analyzing real-time alerts after the fact allows campus security teams to evaluate their response efforts, revise existing contingency plans or develop new ones based on an enhanced understanding of the threat landscape. For example, if the team dealt with a medical alert or mass casualties, they could analyze their response and determine if they should make changes to the standard operating procedures.

To that end, some security teams create short reports detailing how they responded and where they need to improve. The security team leadership then reviews these reports prior to every major event to ensure they incorporate the lessons learned.

Heywood notes an increase in the number of education institutions with contingency plans for large events. With so many sources of information available to stakeholders today, doing no advanced planning is not an option.

“They’re going to be getting [plans] in place, because to be caught out and to be seen doing nothing is wholly unacceptable in this day and age,” Heywood says.

See, Hear and Understand More

Without access to alternative streams of data, campus security professionals must gather real-time insights based on first-hand observations by members of the team or piece together a picture from emergency calls. Nevertheless, the security team has finite resources, and there are limits to how much information individuals can gather and communicate while also carrying out their primary responsibilities.

For campus public safety professionals running security for a large event, real-time, streamlined alert data provides access to information that might otherwise go unobserved or take too long to gather. With unexpected events occurring anywhere at any time, real-time information about active incidents is essential for first responders to mobilize quickly across teams and respond to events with speed, confidence and coordination.

If campus security teams chose not to use publicly available data to guide their efforts, there is nothing to stop members of the general public from also accessing it and reacting as they deem appropriate. Therefore, in addition to using publicly available data to monitor incidents and emerging threats, security teams can also use social media to monitor public perception of their efforts to secure an event and adjust accordingly.

For example, attendees may post questions on social media seeking clarification on parking arrangements for an event, which might indicate parking problems to come. Similarly, visitors waiting in a long security line might vent their frustrations online. This provides an opportunity to re-assign staff from underutilized security checkpoints.

In a nutshell, real-time alerts gathered from publicly available data sources put critical information at the security team’s fingertips. Tapping into a constant stream of real-time updates allows for more efficient and effective security measures—regardless of the size of an institution.


Ed Monan is the director of corporate security sales at Dataminr. He previously supported a variety of U.S. government agencies, most recently the Department of Homeland Security.

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