What You Don’t Know Might Hurt You: Alum’s Work Balances National Security and Information Sharing

Posted: November 19, 2007 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

sean gorman at fortiusone headquarters
Sean Gorman, PhD Public Policy ’04, founded FortiusOne along with two Mason professors. The company has the U.S. Department of Homeland Security as a client.

By Jocelyn Rappaport

If the U.S. Department of Homeland Security takes an interest in your dissertation before it is published, you can be fairly certain you chose a pertinent area of study. Sean Gorman found himself in that position in 2004 when he was working on “Networks, Complexity and Security: The Role of Policy in Critical Infrastructure Protection.”

Gorman’s dissertation for his PhD in Public Policy demonstrated how he was able to compile publicly available information to map infrastructure in the United States. His ability to report possible breakdowns in the system raised concern. Although none of the information Gorman used to “connect the dots” was classified, it raised the question of where one draws the line between freedom of information and security.

“Post-9/11, there was a strong sentiment that security could be gained by obscuring, hiding or classifying data,” Gorman says today. “These issues have not gone away, and it is something the government and public still struggle with. There are those who would like to focus on obscuring all the data that reveal vulnerabilities and those who want to fix the vulnerabilities and make the nation more resilient.”

Identifying a Market

In the end, Gorman assured the Department of Homeland Security that he could publish the dissertation and create a separate report with the more sensitive information. But the experience made him realize that his research and the interest it generated provided an ideal market.

In 2006, Gorman, along with Mason public policy professors Laurie Schintler and Raj Kulkarni, started the company FortiusOne.

Based in Virginia, FortiusOne retrieves information from different databases and presents it to users on interactive maps on the Internet. Fortius (which means “stronger” in Latin) is one of many start-up mapping companies, but one of its main clients is the Department of Homeland Security.

Sean Gorman at FortiusOne headquarters
Sean Gorman at FortiusOne headquarters in Virginia.
Photos by Evan Cantwell

Although some people in government first dismissed Gorman’s early work, Gorman received a good deal of support elsewhere, including the School of Public Policy (SPP). His master’s thesis at the University of Florida focused on where the Internet’s infrastructure was located and if that made a difference in economic development and growth. Gorman recalls that when he came to Mason, he originally wanted to expand the scope of the study from domestic data to international data, but a month after arriving on campus, the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, took place.

“Those events changed the direction of the research from economic growth to the security of the infrastructure,” says Gorman. The timing of the research was useful and many people took interest. The decision was made that the research was patentable as intellectual property and that led directly to the formation of FortiusOne.

Gorman notes that support from SPP faculty, especially his advisor, Roger Stough, and Dean Kingsley Haynes, was “incredible from the beginning. They provided me the time and resources to work on the ideas, and then the help and assistance to go out and find funding for the research,” says Gorman.

“The project itself would have never gotten off the ground without Laurie Schintler and Raj Kulkarni. It was always the three of us working together.”

Geographic Data for Everyone

According to Gorman, the company has expanded from security work to incorporating many of the earlier interests in broader public policy issues and the role geographic data plays in informing the public.

Last May, FortiusOne launched GeoCommons, an online atlas of data and maps, to provide the public with a geographic perspective on a huge range of issues. A community of users contributes data and maps to GeoCommons.

“Recently, it topped 2,000 unique data sets, totaling four billion location descriptions,” says Gorman.

Gorman’s vision for FortiusOne is for the company to play a key role in interconnecting and sharing the world’s geographic data to make people better informed about issues that affect their neighborhood and the world around them. He believes that many of the policy issues facing the public can be conveyed in a powerful way with maps and that GeoCommons can help facilitate that awareness.

For example, while it is useful to read a list of toxic dump locations, viewing a map that shows that a toxic dump exists in your neighborhood personalizes the issue and, for some, provides a more urgent call to action. Gorman notes that the company spent most of the day after the Minneapolis bridge collapse mapping out bridges across the country that were rated dangerous by the government and sharing that data with the community.

“Security is where we got our start, but we feel the future of the technology is in sharing information and educating the public with a variety of serious and fun data you can visualize on a map,” says Gorman.

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