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‘Cocaine Sharks’ hackathon helps Coast Guard combat smuggling

Mark Parker



Coast Guard Sector St. Petersburg as seen from the Maritime and Defense Technology Hub's rooftop. Pole Star, one of the facility's anchor tenants and a prominent defense contractor, will now leverage an acquisition's commercial technology. Photo by Mark Parker.

Two St. Petersburg-based companies held a hackathon – dubbed “Operation Cocaine Sharks,” after a recent Discovery Channel special – to help enhance the U.S. Coast Guard’s (USCG) smuggling intervention capabilities.

A hackathon is a social coding event that brings computer programmers together to improve upon or create a new technological platform.

Three teams comprised of PVM employees presented the project’s results to organizational leaders and a Coast Guard official Aug. 4. The data analytics firm held the hackathon in partnership with marine intelligence-focused Pole Star Defense, a prominent USCG contractor.

The two companies frequently collaborate and operate from the Innovation District’s Maritime and Defense Technology Hub. Coast Guard Sector St. Petersburg, one of the nation’s most expansive commands, neighbors the facility.

“We brought in folks from literally across the country to work on what we thought was a pretty relevant problem set,” said Pat Mack, founder and CEO of PVM. “I don’t want folks thinking that we solved all of the Coast Guard’s maritime trafficking problems in four days. That was not really the outcome of the event.

“I will say … this was a tremendous success.”

PVM team members present their hackathon results to company and Coast Guard officials. Photo by Lauren Bell.

Mack noted that the hackathon’s first objective was increasing team building, brainstorming and innovative capacity among an often remote workforce. Participants utilized their coding and data analytics skills to identify potential enhancements for the Coast Guard’s Track Management System (TMS).

The overall goal was to help the service branch improve maritime security. In June, the Coast Guard confiscated over 14,000 pounds of cocaine traveling through the Caribbean to Florida.

One shipment was worth an estimated $186 million. Adding to the project inspiration was the Discovery Channel’s Cocaine Sharks special, which aired in July as part of “Shark Week” programming.

Tracy Fanara is an environmental engineer who participated in the show’s experiments in Key West to determine if sharks are ingesting discarded cocaine bales. She told CBS News, “There’s a lot of legitimacy to this clickbait headline.”

The hackathon teams sought to identify novel ideas for data dissemination and create more interactive tools for the Coast Guard’s Navigation Center (NAVCEN). Jonathan Love, deployed solutions engineer, said his team looked at a vessel’s entire voyage to determine suspicious activities.

While drug smuggling was a focus, the Coast Guard also works to ensure crews pay required tariffs and abide by environmental regulations. Love’s team color-coded the ships’ paths to signify when a transponder fails to submit a signal.

While that alone does not denote a crime, Love said the platform would “flag them for additional scrutiny.” It also highlights when two ships make adjacent stops in the open ocean and accounts for crews transferring cargo at simultaneous speeds.

“The core approach here was not to make these decisions for the end user, the Coast Guard,” Love said. “We just wanted to provide them with the tools to curate their information and searches based on the data.”

Brian Livezey, PVM’s deployed solutions tech lead, explained how his team focused on vessels loitering in an area or that took an unusual track to port. They also created new data sets to study ships according to port and national origin.

The platform flags voyages that don’t align with destination and origin information for further investigation. Another team created a process that increases analytic efficiency while incorporating additional data sets.

“I think we got a couple of very useful bits of code that will probably make it into the baseline within the next couple of weeks,” said Brett Frederick, CTO for PVM. “What these guys have really built, together, is a kind of a machine learning model. You can easily see these becoming features for an AI (artificial intelligence). That’s where my head went immediately.”

A whiteboard displays project ideas and parameters. Photo by Mark Parker.

Ben Minichino, president of Pole Star Defense USA, noted that USCG analysts must disseminate vast amounts of information aboard a ship with low internet bandwidth and intermittent connections. He encouraged the developers to create a “tactical solution that scrapes” data rather than requiring a deep dive “at the speed of execution.”

Frederick said that he and Mack frequently encountered that problem in the U.S. Navy. Mack said that could be the focus of another hackathon and suggested uploading information into cloud services to increase operational efficiency.

He stressed the mission’s importance as the Coast Guard’s primary function is protecting life at sea. Mack said that each transponder on the screen represents “real ships” with “real people” aboard, and the agency expects its contractors to innovate and collaborate.

Minichino said Pole Star also works with law enforcement, the U.S. State Department and environmental agencies to ensure regulatory compliance, mitigate nuclear proliferation and help enforce global sanctions. He added that incorporating new technology and increasing analytic capabilities would help achieve those goals.

“We’ve completely aligned with the new (USCG) Commandant’s strategic objective to modernize and bring the Coast Guard into the digital age, in a big, big way,” Minichino said. “We want to make sure that we have our fingers on the pulse of what the warfighter with the Coast Guard, personnel and staff need on the front lines.”




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