Red Cell lab uses military tactics to ensure THON security

Members of the Red Cell Analytics Lab at Penn State's College of Information Sciences and Technology recently partnered with THON for the first time to review and implement security operations for the event on Feb. 21 to 23.  Credit: Emilee Spokus / Penn StateCreative Commons

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- On Feb. 21 to 23, more than 15,000 students across the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania will participate in the 46-hour no-sitting, no-sleeping dance marathon known as THON Weekend. The event is a culmination of the Penn State IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon, a year-long fundraising and awareness campaign for the fight against pediatric cancer. Considering that THON is a high-profile, heavily attended event, ensuring the security of participants and onlookers is a major concern for organizers. This year, for the first time, THON is partnering with a laboratory in Penn State’s College of Information Sciences and Technology (IST) that uses military tactics to detect and combat security threats.

“It’s our Super Bowl project of the year,” said Brady Ripka, a senior at the College of IST and the president of the Red Cell Analytics Lab.

The Red Cell Analytics Lab, which has been operating since the start of fall semester 2011, is directed by Col. Jake Graham, a professor of practice at the College of IST, who retired from the U.S. Marine Corps in 2007. The Red Cell Lab, which is co-located with the Extreme Events Lab in the IST Building, utilizes a suite of analytic tools such as Arc-GIS, Analyst Notebook, 3-D visual analytics, Geo-Suite, Analysis of Competing Hypothesis and others, to explore and develop red-cell tactics, techniques and procedures. Membership to RCA Lab is open to IST students in good standing and to other academic units across Penn State and the Big Ten.

The name "Red Cell Lab" refers to teams of military personnel, often called "red cells," that are trained specifically to test the effectiveness of American military tactics. Red Cell members at Penn State investigate threats and opportunities in a range of scenarios and test the effectiveness of possible responses. The Red Cell Lab has collaborated with the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab, the Office of the Secretary of Defense for Intelligence, the Penn State Office of Emergency Management, Boeing Corp. and the U.S. Army War College.

The Red Cell Lab’s collaboration with THON, Ripka said, has three components. First, Red Cell members recently helped THON leaders test their evacuation plan. Second, the lab members reviewed THON’s communication plan for the weekend.

“Basically, anything that could go wrong, we try to think about,” he said.

The final stage of the project will take place during THON Weekend, as the Red Cell members will station themselves in the Emergency Operations Center in Beaver Stadium, where they will try to spot trends related to THON on social media. The issues that they will be on the watch for, Ripka said, include whether the Bryce Jordan Center, where THON is being held, will reach capacity within an hour; or in a more extreme situation, that the venue is under attack. Another possibility is that someone could set up a false Twitter account and send out false information on THON.

“I really think (Red Cell) is an underused tactic,” Ripka said. “Once you realize what the holes are, you have the implement to fix the issues.”

Last Updated February 20, 2014