Putting the pieces together for intelligence gathering or crime fighting is often likened to searching for needles in haystacks. And increasingly, those needles are digital traces in a sea of data.

Consequently, intelligence and law enforcement agencies are turning to big data analysis tools to find patterns and correlations that are often overlooked by traditional search methods. Such software allows analysts to quickly find and spot trends, mark maps and create timelines – all vital for catching criminals and terrorists.

One example is a software originally created to support Army intelligence gathering and analysis in the Middle East and South Asia, called Impact, developed by Textron Systems. The Impact software tool allows analysts to collect a variety of information such as text, imagery and signals intelligence data.

But instead of creating another database, the system builds connections to existing data repositories when an analyst makes a search, explains Jon Percy Textron’s vice president for homeland and cyber security. Impact uses pattern recognition tools to spot relationships and connections between individuals, transmissions or other types or relatable data.

One of the tools the system uses to put information into context for users is a time wheel, said Percy. The wheel is a graphic that allows an analyst to arrange and view events in the same day or week, highlighting connections between individuals. The software can also be told to search for specific relationships, he said.

But handling the increasing volumes of data to analyze is becoming a challenge in itself, both to law enforcement agencies to catch criminals in the United States as well federal agencies trying to identify and track terrorists working around the world.

The FBI’s Foreign Terrorist Tracking Task Force (FTTTF), for instance, typically pulled in data from 50 sources, sifted it and prioritized information for its analysts to pursue, explained Mark Tanner president of Law Enforcement and Intelligence Consulting. Tanner knows about the challenges of using big data tools to find elusive targets because he directed the FTTTF from 2003 to 2006.

One of the big challenges facing the task force was pulling data such as names, addresses and other identification out of unformatted, or unstructured data. Since its founding, the FTTTF has both bought and built its own analysis tools to help make its analysts’ job more efficient.

As agencies increasingly began to share information, merging data and updating it without losing it became a challenge, Tanner said. Tools like Impact allow agencies to sift through mountains of data while permitting decision makers to make more timely and higher quality decisions during investigations, he said.

The latest version of Impact recently underwent a year of beta testing with law enforcement agencies across the U.S. and reflects how such tools are becoming both more powerful and easier to use.

One participating organization in the beta test is the Lee County Sheriff’s Office, in Lee County, Florida. The software is already credited with solving several crimes, said Kyra Gravitt, a crime analyst with the Sheriff’s Office.

With software such as Impact, analysts can drag and drop imported data into different files, create link charts, timelines, maps and automated case packages. It also makes it possible to conduct key word searches of documents and files imported into a file or database. Many tools don’t do this, she said.

All this data can then be quickly put together into presentation-ready PowerPoint files. Additionally, data can be shared and accessed according to users’ roles. This allows analysts and detectives to access case information relevant to their roles without compromising the investigation, Gravitt said.

The drag and drop capability also automatically updates all information in the system and prevents time-consuming cutting and pasting, Gravitt said. Impact also allows analysts to drag and merge multiple case files into a single file — a process that can save hours or days of an analyst’s time, she said.

From a law enforcement perspective, Impact allows analysts to spot and identify patterns, especially when many people and crimes are involved in a case, Gravitt said. Often, human analysts can miss relationships and crimes spread across multiple reports that the software can detect and highlight.

In one example, Impact’s pattern matching tools were used to track the perpetrator of a series of burglaries. The criminal’s mode of operation was to target businesses by ripping off the electrical box to shut down their alarm systems. Based on analysis of when and where the crimes were committed, the police were able to predict where the next crime might occur and successfully tracked and apprehended a suspect in the act, Gravitt said.

Software analysis tools are a major step forward from days in the not too distant past when analysts used pins on maps to establish patterns for criminal activity. But while there are many analysis tools now on the market, their capabilities and ease of use still vary greatly, Gravitt said, and agencies need to compare capabilities closely.