The NY Times on using social software to connect the dots

Clive Thompson’s article on today’s New York Times Magazine is an interesting reflection on what social software can and cannot do to help intelligence agencies gathering and analyzing information.

Among other things, Thompson discusses two proposals submitted for the Galileo Award, a competition created by the C.I.A. to collect ideas on how to improve information sharing among American intelligence agencies. The first proposal, written by C.I.A. Calvin Andrus, proposes to use wikis and blogs to collect and share information among agencies. By allowing linking of information and ideas, previously disconnected pieces of data are shaped and structured by the dynamics of a social network.

If analysts and agents were encouraged to post personal blogs and wikis on Intelink — linking to their favorite analyst reports or the news bulletins they considered important — then mob intelligence would take over. In the traditional cold-war spy bureaucracy, an analyst’s report lived or died by the whims of the hierarchy. If he was in the right place on the totem pole, his report on Soviet missiles could be pushed up higher; if a supervisor chose to ignore it, the report essentially vanished. Blogs and wikis, in contrast, work democratically. Pieces of intel would receive attention merely because other analysts found them interesting. This grass-roots process, Andrus argued, suited the modern intelligence challenge of sifting through thousands of disparate clues: if a fact or observation struck a chord with enough analysts, it would snowball into popularity, no matter what their supervisors thought.

The second proposal, written by D.N.I.’s Matthew Burton, discusses how an open and interlinked system of information can dramatically improve information search. Intelink, the the spy agencies’ secure internal computer network

(…) has no links, no social information to help sort out which intel is significant and which isn’t. When an analyst’s report is posted online, it does not include links to other reports, even ones it cites. There’s no easy way for agents to link to a report or post a comment about it. Searching Intelink thus resembles searching the Internet before blogs and Google came along — a lot of disconnected information, hard to sort through. If spies were encouraged to blog on Intelink, Burton reasoned, their profuse linking could mend that situation.

But getting a social network in motion is not just a matter of technology: is a matter of culture. Can social software work in a highly hierarchical organizational structure built to protect secrets?

Back in 2003, a Department of Defense agency decided to train its analysts in the use of blog software, in hopes that they would begin posting about their work, read one another’s blogs and engage in productive conversations. But the agency’s officials trained only small groups of perhaps five analysts a month. After they finished their training, those analysts would go online, excited, and start their blogs. But they’d quickly realize no one else was reading their posts aside from the four other people they’d gone through the training with. They’d get bored and quit blogging, just as the next trainees came online.

So, will our intelligence agencies get into social software any time soon? Will they get it? Will it work? What do you think?

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4 thoughts on “The NY Times on using social software to connect the dots

  1. Antonella….just thinking about you. I’ve stopped by your site many times and never see much from you. I hope you are good. I just wanted to add my wishes for a very Happy New Year for you and your family. I wish you all the wonderful things in the New Year….you so deserve it. Miss you….

    ps: salutami tua sorellina PAOLA.

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