Boundary Spanning: Working in Europe while Contributing to MITRE’s Support for US Operations in Africa
Interviewer: Karim Thompson
Forging connections is at the heart of Brian Flournoy’s position at MITRE. His work in Italy supports US Operations in Africa, connecting him with people across geographic boundaries. Moreover, this work literally helps key stakeholders on continent stay connected. In Africa, where cellular is the primary means of connecting to the Internet, Brian’s built tools that provide stakeholders with localized information about different levels of cell coverage and the best data rates. That just scratches the surface of Brian’s accomplishments. Check out the podcast episode to learn how Brian ended up in Italy and to hear more about his job.
Click below to listen to podcast:
Hello, everyone. My name is Karim Thompson and welcome to MITRE’s Knowledge-Driven Enterprise Podcast. Today, I’m joined by Brian Flournoy, a MITRE employee based in Europe. Our topic will be some of MITRE’s support to US operations in Africa. Okay, Brian, welcome to the podcast. We’ll start by asking who is Brian Flournoy and what led to your assignment in Europe?
Hi, Karim. Thanks so much for having me on. So I am an engineer of many kinds of systems. I also do architecture and modeling work, but also probably more importantly, a father of two teenagers, a husband of 18 years, a former military officer. I grew up in Europe. Military brat as we’re often called, living in Germany and Italy as a youth. My sister was born here. Really enjoyed our time.
So as I went into the military and was assigned back into Europe, just got to explore it a little bit more as an adult, which is a totally different experience and very rewarding. So after completing my time with the Air Force, I joined up with MITRE back in 2007. So it’s been 15 years that I’ve been with MITRE and just loving it. It’s such a great company. So that was one of the things that I was hoping to convey today was just what a great opportunity that I’ve had with MITRE.
So I’ll talk a little bit about the support that I started off with supporting the army there at the McLean site and just really loved the McLean site. So much energy, so many young people facing the nation’s problems, all brought in from all different parts of the government where MITRE has these connections and wonderful back channels where we can all come into a room and full of whiteboards and just draw out these problems and bring in all these different technical expertise that we have within the company.
So just really have enjoyed that. So after a couple years there in McLean, I moved to the San Antonio site, had a lot of opportunity there to work with the US Air Force as they were standing up their cyber operations center and just really learned a lot. It was about that time that I started looking around and seeing these emails coming in about opportunities in Europe.
There’s lots of them in Germany. I wasn’t hearing about the one in Italy. In fact, I’d never heard that there was a position for MITRE in Italy. But I had been talking with my group lead and he had been in multiple positions in Europe and made some suggestions to me about how to go about applying for position in Europe and to really get myself out there, apply to a couple of positions, talk to the hiring managers, talk to some of the project leads.
So that’s what I did. I got my name out there. So I interviewed for a position in Germany and didn’t get that one, but they saw the expertise that I had and they had, I don’t want to call it a crisis, but a situation where they had someone leaving this position and needed to fill it and they said, “Hey, if you could be there by this summer and this is May, June. If you could be there this summer, then there is a position in Italy. I mean, it’s not Germany but it’s a great opportunity. So my family and I, we talked about it and talked about what it would mean to kind of pull up roots.
Our whole family was there in San Antonio, so pull up roots and go. And so we did. By August we were there. So once there kind of started this adventure supporting the US military and this command here as it focuses on its support to security cooperation with partners on the African continent. So it was just something I had not even thought or considered before. So just a great opportunity. Living in Italy has been an amazing opportunity. We’ve had the opportunity to travel.
We’ve been to see the palaces of emperors, seeing operas at a 2,000 year old Coliseum, sampled the best coffees and wines and breads in my life. So that has been just a great adventure for us. At this point I’ve not yet traveled down to Africa, but I think in the near future I may have the opportunity to go to Morocco or Tunisia to support operations or surveys down there.
So your family moved from McLean to San Antonio and then to Italy?
Yeah, that’s right.
Was that all in the space of a short timeframe?
Yeah. So we were in McLean for three years, two, three years then was in San Antonio for over 10 years. And now we’ve been in Italy for coming up on three years.
Okay. So now I understand you’re concerned about uprooting them. So you’re in Italy now and it’s my understanding your work has something to do with what is called the great power and also sometimes referred to as the global power competition. Can you talk more about that?
Yeah. Absolutely. So now the government sponsor I support here is working with the US Army and I’m living here in Vicenza with thousands of other US folks, many of them military or civilians. There’s an associated command that is focused on Africa, the US Africa command. That’s a term that we use a lot and thinking about operations there. So this global power competition. And using that term rather than the more common in diplomacy, great power competition, I think that was intended as a show of respect.
The US really seeks to be a partner of choice when conducting operations on the continent. And there’s various types of cooperations that are favor, doing exercises, joint exercises with the militaries of various countries when they ask us to instruct them on different types of military doctrine on technique and technology. There’s operations for medical readiness, security force assistance to promote regional security and prosperity.
So lots of different things that we’re trying to do. When we think about the problems that our partners and the countries are facing on the continent, we seek to aid these partners. There’s problems with violent extremist organizations. And then this kind of brings it back to the global power competition is countering the influence of other competing nations. Like Russia for example, is they’re seeking to sometimes exploit local conflicts and resources to their advantage or Chinese influence beyond just competition, but also other problems like climate change where these problems are caused by reduced food production and the land pressure and displacement caused by the change in climate.
All of that can result in conflict. So the US and the US military and our diplomacy, really seeking to be that partner of choice as we’re doing exercises and doing security force assistance to help face some of those problems.
And so how does that effort to be the partner of choice tie in with some of the work you’re doing?
So some of the work that we’re doing is supporting communications planning. So my particular work here has been to support this US Army communications directorate. And what they are doing as part of partnering with our African partner nations is talking about the technology. How do we do cyber operations and how could they do cyber operations to protect their own nations and populaces? How are we doing… Talking about specifically communications, what type of technologies are being imposed or what technologies are available?
Some of the implications that a choice of technology may have on future partnership and on potentially… It’s communication security. If you think about the Chinese in particular as they’re building all kinds of new infrastructure all around the continent, it’s a significant investment and to some extent it really helps the local population as they’re now having more and better cheaper technology on continent. So that helps them out having access, but it also creates a dependency on that particular type of technology.
I think it’s a sovereign nation’s choice absolutely to just make those decisions. But having perhaps the opportunity if we’re talking about cryptography and what risks they may or may not face as they’re making some of those technology choices.
When it comes to technology, is there a product or service that your team has produced that you’re particularly proud of?
Yeah, absolutely. I think probably the best story right now over the past couple years has been a prototype that MITRE created called CCAT. That’s Cellular Coverage Analysis Tool. It’s my favorite story for a couple reasons. I think first and from an impact perspective, the sponsor uses it and it’s something that they keep finding more uses for. It’s a tool that helps you understand where there’s different levels of cellular coverage and depending on where operations are going to be, maybe what emergency route they may have, it lets you see what types of coverage there’s going to be.
Will you have the voice, will you have SMS, will you have data? And that’s what this tool is designed to help you explore as just looking at the enormous land mass that the African continent is. It’s just an incredible amount of space and this tool helps on a continental level just plot that all out onto a map and see on a country by country basis, which local company is going to offer the best coverage and the best data rates at any given location.
I think it’s also my favorite, not just because of what it does and how it helps the sponsor, but as a learning opportunity for me and an opportunity to do what MITRE does so well, sort of bringing internal company talent, in this case, this geo expertise with GIS systems from the L174 department, for example. Just amazing group of folks with a lot of GIS experience and talent.
In the face of a problem, so we had the sponsor saying, “Hey, we’re going to this location and we’re going to be there for two weeks. There’s going to be 20 of us, which kind of SIM cards should we get? Should we get one here in Italy and use the international agreement or should we buy one there locally and if so, which one? And so typically that would be a bunch of internet research that sometimes is reliable and sometimes not.
But we wanted to make that process easier and we’ve been successful. So that question often doesn’t even come up anymore. But now we’ve kind of moved on to answering other questions. And there’s so many things that cell coverage is related to because on continent is sort of a primary internet source, so anything that really has to do with getting network access comes back to cellular.
So it’s been a really useful tool and yeah, we’re very happy with the way the sponsor has worked, ask for it to be continued developed. But more than that, the chance to transition something is another great, I think part of this story where MITRE does prototyping and then we hand it off to another contractor or government agency that picks it up and says, “Hey, we got it and we’re going to keep doing it.”
So Brian, before you get into that transition activity, I wanted you to explain to our external audience what a sponsor is.
Okay. Yeah, absolutely. So in MITRE which operates federally funded research and development corporations, we are not a typical contract company. We don’t compete for contract work. We don’t see the folks that we work with as customers and we are not trying to necessarily get repeat business. We’re not trying to sell a product. It puts us in such a great position working with government sponsors. And when I say sponsors, the people who pay the bills.
They have determined that two things. One, that they think it’s worth the investment to bring in engineering or technology consulting that is independent of commercial interest. So that’s one thing they need is that funding and desire to invest in that way. But also sponsors need to compete for a very limited resource and MITRE effort is limited by Congress. So especially for supporting the military.
So the Army has competed and said, “Hey, these are our most difficult problems.” In this case here, in Vicenza, we want these people located here so they can be right here next to our tactical and operational challenges and hear these problems firsthand and then be able to pull all of that technology and expertise from the larger company and connect it back.
So as someone who has been a person who is embedded with sponsors, with government sponsors, one of our most important skills is being able to navigate that in MITRE. There’s all of these different departments of expertise in the latest technologies and traditional technologies and our connectivity with other government organizations. So we can see all of the common problems and try and find common solutions.
Okay. I think you mentioned one of those partnerships when you talked about that geospatial group?
Yes. Absolutely. The L174 folks. So I worked with at least three or four over the past three years and always have been able to do either the software development, the geospatial analysis or answer questions about geospatial analysis and how to bring either the basic techniques that… I mentioned I was an engineer of a dilatant I would say. Dabbled in lots of different types of engineering coming here and seeing problems that they had with… And they were looking for geospatial solutions like, “Oh, we’ve got lots of people.” So it has been great working with the L174 folks.
So going back to that cellular tool and as it relates to the impact felt by the sponsor, so it’s the sponsor being a US government, how is it that they benefited from that analysis of cell coverage in the African continent.
There’s a major exercise called African Lion. It’s done in collaboration with several countries on continent, Morocco and Tunisia for example. So as we had this major movement of personnel of equipment who are all going to be spending upwards of about a month there at their exercise location, they needed to know along these routes, at these particular locations who’s the best company and we’re going to need lots and lots of data.
So trying to make that choice what MITRE did. First, aside from building the tool and making this type of analysis simple, we would actually do that analysis and produce an analytic report where we say, “Okay, looking at these five locations, we’ve looked at each of the different major cellular providers and here’s a visual representation of their 2G, their 3G and their 4G coverage. And if you’re most interested in data, then, “Okay, look at 3G and 4G primarily. Where will you have it? Where won’t you have it?”
And then as a caveat, and we do caveat the tool and the reports that this is tool is based on an estimation algorithm. So it’s not truly based on measurement data, it’s based on sampling. So we do try to convey that and have made several algorithmic steps to clear up that data and clean it as well as we could to make it a conservative estimate.
But in addition to that, our analytic products bring in some corroborating data. We look at other commercial internet and open source tools that show cellular coverage. So we look at all of those and say, “What is this tool? Like nPerf say, “What does cell mapper say? What does frequency checks say?” And put them all in one place. It’s a product that has helped them make that choice, first of all, and know where they will and won’t have coverage.
So in addition to that, it’s been used for various other locations as the sponsor makes decisions about which US or which Italian company to contract with based on the international agreements they may have with countries on continent. So it’s a way to avoid cost as much as possible and make sure that they have the data and voice coverage that they need.
Earlier you mentioned transitioning the work and finding a partner. Can you tell us what triggers the need to transition work?
It’s always something that whenever you embark on a development effort, especially in MITRE work where we know that MITRE is sort of a precious resource and a sponsor can’t use MITRE either from a cost perspective or from a legal perspective. They can’t just say, “We’re going to have MITRE as our long term developer for our CCAT tool.” They can prototype, but legally we can’t sell this product or sell the maintenance of it.
So even at the beginning when we started like, “Hey, we’re making a development plan, a prototyping approach for not just cellular, but we want to look at satellite. We want to look at EM spectrum. We want to look at the full scope of communications planning.” But we know that we need to find a transition partner. So we had one in mind as we got started and one of the nearby geospatial support units kind of knew what we were doing and thought it was a great idea and said, “Yeah, absolutely we can support this or that function. We can run these kinds of scripts. We have access to the internet. We can do all the things that the CCAT tool would need.
So as we got there, as we completed the first fully functional, delivery. Let’s see, it was October of 2021 or so, and I think there was a change of command, a change of leadership at that unit and they sort of felt like, “Hey, that’s not really our job and we’re not going to do that.” So that was a major setback for us as our sponsor was saying, “Hey, this tool is great. We love it. We want to keep using it.” And I’m saying, “Well, I’m going to be here for a couple years. I can keep supporting it, but if you want this to work long term, we need to find either a contractor or another government organization that can do these, actually really very simple functions.”
But they do require certain expertise and understanding to know how they work. I was worried at this point in talking with one of the intelligence community liaisons here that works at one of the major geospatial organizations in the government to say, “Hey, we actually have a contract that might be perfect for this CCAT tool.” And it was perfect because CCAT is based entirely on first open source information.
So there’s no classified information even after the analysis is run. It’s not classified. And the contract that the liaison was referring to is specifically focused on partner. When I say partner, in this case I’m talking about outside the military, outside the government, being able to work with NGOs, being able to work with foreign governments and be that sort of geospatial clearing house that’s outside of the intelligence community, but that has some access to it.
So they looked at the CCAT tool and said, “Hey, this could be perfect.” And so we have been working with them over the past year and now they have really taken off with it. They’ve been able to take the data for Africa and completely replicate the CCAT tool. So our scripts were able to process data for Europe, but we hadn’t built an application for Europe.
Well, this contract with the geospatial agency was able to do the Europe application. So it’s something that some of the European sponsors had been asking for but hadn’t funded MITRE to do, and now they don’t need to. This is kind of going back to the non-commercial aspect. We think that is a great thing. If a problem’s already solved, you don’t need MITRE to do it. Go have these contractors, take the scripts and pull it all apart, put it back together newer and solve more problems. So that lets us shift our focus on to other things and solve other problems.
So that sounds like a very impactful outcome, Brian, where in the case of that transition opportunity, the benefit extended beyond, I guess, the original scope of the project because now this partner was able to add on and build upon what work that was already done. Is that an accurate summation?
Okay. Brian, I’d like to thank you for this conversation and we wish you all the best with what’s next ahead for you.
Thanks so much, Karim. Thank you for the opportunity.
Karim Thompson is trained in geography to analyze locations to uncover hidden patterns and improve predictive modeling. However, his other interests led him to become a scrum master and group facilitator. Now he helps teams work together to deliver novel solutions to difficult problems.
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