The USC Center studying unpredictable threats is expanding its focus to analyze and predict the risks from the most dangerous global emergencies—from terrorism to climate change.
By Greta Harrison. Republished from the USC Viterbi School of Engineering website.
For Randolph Hall, the year 2015 really brought home the importance of understanding deadly terrorism events, in order to prevent them from reoccurring.
At the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, a domestic terror attack took the lives of 14 people, including Harry “Hal” Bowman, who was one of the first staff members at the Center for Risk and Economic Analysis of Terrorism Events (CREATE) that Hall co-founded.
When Hall’s daughter led a program as a law student to promote legal education systems in Afghanistan, she also lost one of her colleagues to a terrorist attack in the country.
“So it really touches home. It can affect us and our families personally,” Hall said.
Hall, a professor in the USC Viterbi School of Engineering Daniel J. Epstein Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering, returns to CREATE this year, taking on the role of director of the center. A joint center between USC Viterbi and the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy, CREATE is studying the risks and consequences of the biggest threats facing the world today. In addition to terrorism, these threats also include climate change, natural disasters and pandemics—dangers that don’t necessarily have a human adversary or malevolent cause.
For Hall, his passion is to harness the work of CREATE to help bring the world back to a more safe, stable and peaceful time.
“It’d be nice if we could return to that period of optimism of 1989. The Berlin Wall had come down, the various proxy wars between the United States and the Soviet Union were ending and we were on a very positive trajectory,” Hall said. “Let’s see if we can find a way to make the world safer again.”
CREATE was the first ever university Center of Excellence established by the Department of Homeland Security in 2004, following a nationwide competitive application process. Hall was the center’s initial co-director, along with his co-founder Detlof von Winterfeldt, USC’s J.A. Tiberti Chair in Ethics and Decision Making and professor of industrial and systems engineering. Over the course of its 18-year existence, the center has been awarded more than $80 million in research funding from the DHS and other federal agencies.
In the wake of 9/11, the center’s initial mission was to offer scientific analysis of threats and responses to terrorism events.
“We had the broad purpose of looking at the risk and economics of anything that would be threatened by terrorism in the homeland, so that included all mechanisms of terrorism, from 9/11-style attacks, to chemical threats or radiation threats,” Hall said.
“We were trying understand the anticipated events, so we can foresee the kinds of things that maybe haven’t been done before, and we can think about the best investments to improve security and make the nation safer.”
CREATE Director Randolph Hall
Over the years, CREATE’s research has been applied toward strategies to address many real-world dangers.
The center studied the economic impacts of the World Trade Center attacks and has measured behavioral responses to terrorism. Researchers developed estimates of the cost-effectiveness of resilience tactics for natural disasters and designed a deductible/credit system for the FEMA Public Assistance program. The center’s work has informed policy and training at US Customs and Border Protection in order to improve wait times at land-border crossings and airports.
However, analyzing and predicting the likelihood of often-random risks such as terrorism and disasters is a significant challenge requiring unique approaches.
“With many kinds of risks, the way you predict likelihood is by looking at history,” Hall said. “For example, aircraft crashes don’t occur nearly as often as they used to. A big reason for that is because each time a plane crashes, it is investigated and the root cause is analyzed and then work is done to correct those root causes.”
Hall said that in order to predict and respond to adversarial or unpredictable events, one approach involved combining data-centric methods with more subjective measures.
“Essentially, you elicit estimates and probabilities from experts and you combine those with quantitative methods and get a collective judgment as to what people think may occur. It’s a method somewhat based in psychology,” Hall said.
Hall said that another approach was also drawn from gambling behavior or “risk markets” to establish the probability of events. The center’s research has also had a strong focus on game approaches to adversarial events and randomization of resource allocations when it comes and responses to these.
“So the idea is that in security arrangements or inspections, you don’t do it with planned and predictable staffing, that you randomize it so that an actor who’s malicious can’t easily predict what is being done,” Hall said.
Hall said that he looked forward to continuing to work with the researchers of CREATE as the center expands its attention to look at approaches to emergencies like COVID-19 and climate change.
“Statistically, terrorism hasn’t been high on the list of consequences in America, but the potential for harm can be quite large,” Hall said.
“So it can’t be ignored, and we need continue working on it. But it’s not the only thing that matters.”
Posted August 19, 2021