A-Space Past and Future

This week marks the second anniversary of the first live internal demo of the intelligence community’s A-Space project, groundbreaking for the IC in its goal of collaborative use of social media across agency lines. Somewhere in Maryland, a remarkable government employee and friend named Mike Wertheimer should pause and quietly celebrate the fruition of his early evangelism for it.

I was still a government employee then, but wrote about the effort at the time here on Shepherd’s Pi (“A-Space: Top-secret social networking“). It makes me chuckle to remember back to those days when it was still mostly unheard-of for IC employees to blog openly on the public web about current technology projects. Now you can’t shut ‘em up! :)

It made sense, I thought, to set down a few notes at the time for several reasons:

  1. A-Space was intended by Mike’s Analytic Transformation team of the Office of the DIrector of National Intelligence (ODNI) to take advantage of social-media advances then occuring rapidly on the internet, more rapidly than behind our firewalls. I had joined Twitter for example in March 2007, but few of my IC colleagues had Twitter accounts or access from work machines. Same for Facebook and LinkedIn. I blogged about A-Space because I felt we needed to socialize externally the path we were following internally, in order to attract good ideas and assistance from Silicon Valley and technologists who had little knowledge of intelligence work.
  2. The time would come when A-Space would be all grown up and accepted as a success, I hoped – and at that point “paternity” could become an issue. We had seen the same thing happen with Intellipedia, which has had several bouts of being claimed as a CIA creation rather than its more community-minded actual roots – and I thought it might be best to set the record straight early on. As Winston Churchill said about World War II, he intended history to treat him fairly “because I intend to write it.”
  3. I had announced my “retirement” from government service and was ready to go back to the private sector, and was frankly intent on setting a mark with A-Space so that later leadership might be less inclined to reverse course, against the use of social and collaborative tools.

So here we are, two years on.  I am relieved that A-Space lives! At this point in their lives Twitter and Facebook were themselves  not quite into their hockey-stick growth cycle as social-media phenomena. Think back to Facebook of early 2006 (it was launched in February 2004), or Twitter of March 2008 (it launched in its first alpha baby SMS steps in March 2007.  If you’re interested, Flickr holds some interesting screenshots of the very early Twitter beta screens by their designer).

This week Joab Jackson, senior technology editor at Government Computer News has an update titled “A-Space Melds Social Media and Intelligence Gathering,” quoting Ahmad Ishaq, who manages the project at DIA for the ODNI. I like giving him praise – not just because I hired him, but because he is doing  a bang-up job in difficult circumstances. Let’s just say that he and his team have been dealing with my third bullet point above during the last couple of years.

One of Ahmad’s smart tactics has been to enlist supportive users from multiple agencies as vocal advocates. The GCN article provides an example illustrating the cross-agency collaboration that was mandated by the 9/11 Commission and WMD Commission reports, and which A-Space and its sister tools are helping to realize:

A Homeland Security Department analyst needed to identify a person whose face was found posted on several street and stop signs in a region of the United States. So he posted a scan of the poster on A-Space and received information and photos from seven other agencies. With that information, he could run an image search of the face, which ultimately provided identification.” -Government Computer News

There’s been a lot of change in A-Space since I left – in the requirements, in the emerging business practices, in the software baseline used, and – perhaps explaining some of that – in the contractor team used. That’s all fodder for another article, perhaps.

Whither Analytic Collaboration?

What I prefer to focus on is the future potential of this tool and others in enabling progress for intelligence analysis and collaboration. Ahmad gives one window in the GCN article, and it’s a topic he and I have talked about recently:

[A]llowing analysts to share all this information is only the first step of A-Space. Ishaq and his team are exploring ways of making all the information that is being generated machine-readable. Ishaq would like to incorporate elements of the Semantic Web tools, which would allow them to draw inferences from existing material.

“Right now, the communication is between person and machine,” he said. “We’re trying to take it a step further, to machine-to-machine. So the end-user logs in to the computer, and everything he could possibly want would be there, without doing searches or clicking around.” -Government Computer News

But I’m sure that Ahmad would be among the first to agree that technology is perhaps among the lesser factors which will contribute to the success or failure of analytic collaboration (and “transformation” – an overused term but a worthy goal). Much more important are the social and cultural aspects of the workforce, the workplace, and the changing nature of intelligence work itself  – in response to and support of a dramatically changing foreign policy approach, driven as much by political transition as by societal shifts.

For the moment, let’s keep the focus on the tools though. As A-Space continues taking its own baby steps, it is worthwhile to consider the experience of its older sister Intellipedia – and that sytem’s progenitor Wikipedia. 

Early this year, GCN carried another Joab Jackson article claiming: “Intellipedia Suffers Midlife Crisis.” Much chatter ensued. Some of the challenges dealt with in the article are being addressed internally by the likes of the IC’s Chris Rasmussen, with new and complementary efforts such as Intellipublia (see Federal Computer Week, “Intelligence community wrestles with Web 2.0 tools for information sharing“).

The looming question rises about the overall significance of Web 2.0 style tools.  Dr. Mark Drapeau argued early this year in a widely read piece that “Government 2.0 has reached its midlife crsis.”  Now, more concrete and noteworthy stats are emerging about the hallmark Web 2.0 tools which inspired many of the IC’s efforts.

Could Crowd-Sourcing Max Out?

Yesterday the Wall Street Journal reported on new research  (“Volunteers Log Off as Wikipedia Ages“) showing that “unprecedented numbers of the millions of online volunteers who write, edit and police it are quitting.” They’re leaving Wikipedia and not being replaced by as many new volunteers, undercutting the “many-eyes” approach that crowd-sourcing relies upon. The numbers are striking: “In the first three months of 2009, Wikipedia lost more than 49,000 editors, compared to 4,900 a year earlier,” reports ZDNet based on the new research (more details here: “Is Wikipedia Maxed Out?”). An influential Econsultancy.com blog now asks in response: “Is free user-generated content dying?”

It is worth keeping an eye on the pulse of Intellipedia and A-Space, as their activity levels wax or wane. Unlike Wikipedia, they are work systems, not free web tools. So the issues there are the differential adoption and longevity of enterprise tools, as explored in Andrew McAfee’s excellent new book Enterprise 2.0.  

For the new intelligence tools, much will depend on their inclusion within agency official processes and analytic-tradecraft training programs. As Chris Rasmussen has pointed out about A-Space, it may still be true that “not a single agency recognizes A-Space content as official.” But social collaboration is more and more an accepted and critical requirement of all information technologies – we’re certainly reflecting that at Microsoft, and have been busy building such capabilities into the new Office 2010 suite (info and free beta sign-up here).

The wave is not going away (well, Google Wave might go away… see here and here and here and oh never mind…)

Who best reflects the pulse of A-Space and Intellipedia? There are many intel-watchers in my blogroll over on the margin, who chart the progress of the IC’s collaborative ways. I can also recommend Chris Dorobek’s reporting on the topic for FedNewsRadio; see his piece from July 2009 “Intel on the government 2.0 front lines – and a new report assessing A-Space” and more recently his article “November’s Signal column: The Intelligence Community Writes the Book on Collaboration” – both have insight and supportive links as well.

There will be other ODNI and constituent agency efforts to provide cutting-edge collaborative and analytic software and techniques. A-Space will be improved upon, no doubt.

The real test of A-Space – while we have it – and its intelligence utility will come in secret moments of crisis, but also in less-flashy use of consistent collaborative processes which over time contribute to the uncovering of truth for our decision-makers and national leaders. Of necessity, most successes will be unseen by the outside world… and likely, most failures as well.  For now, a happy beta anniversary to the A-Space team and its users.

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14 Responses

  1. Wow! Great summary of the genesis of A-Space! It is interesting that you note that the content there is still not deemed ‘official’! I like your take on the cultural aspects surrounding what you were trying to accomplish with A-Space – mainly because I seem to deal with almost the exact same set of challenges within Forge.mil.

    I’ve often said and blogged that tools are merely a means to an end – it takes a dedicated team focused on changing perceptions, cultures, and processes before even the best tools can take root and effect change.

    Congratulations to A-Space on their anniversary, and I hope that we can eventually take tools of its ilk for granted! :)

  2. Wow loved reading your article. I added your feed to my google reader.

  3. [...] A-Space Past and Future – Lewis Shepherd, Shepherd’s Pi [...]

  4. [...] A-Space Past and Future This week marks the second anniversary of the first live internal demo of the intelligence community’s A-Space project, groundbreaking for the IC in its goal of collaborative use of social media across agency lines. Somewhere in Maryland, a remarkable government employee and friend named Mike Wertheimer should pause and quietly celebrate the fruition of his early evangelism for it. [...]

  5. Happy birthday to A-space indeed.

    As happy as I am to see it alive and doing well, I still have a lot of concerns for each of the tools in the toolbox. I am starting to think that unless we work on the culture of our business and business processes, what we have done is essentially equivalent to handing a Match grade M-14 to a neanderthal. Half the people don’t know about it, and a large part don’t know what to do with it. This is where the fight needs to be focused now.

    I wonder if enterprise is starting to see the same issues.

    Thanks for posting, I still have lots of hope.

    • Lance, thanks for the insightful comment. I agree that I’m “happy to see it alive,” but I’m not fully convinced that it is doing well, for many of the reasons you’re pointing out. And I hope I pointed sufficiently to the need for the business-process innovation you mention, to match and in fact drive the technological focus which is more my metier. The one thing that keeps me optimistic is seeing you and your circles (we both know the kind of folks I mean) continuing to fight the battle. A good friend and former government colleague advised me privately that I need to be careful offering too much advice, because the natural extension of that is to return to government and set about again to perturb from the inside. Hey, who knows :)
      Thanks again – lewis

  6. There are still parts of the A-Space history that have not been included in either the article or your blog. You give a lot of credit to the technical team and absolutely no credit to the functional management team (comprised of experienced analysts) that is fighting hard to keep A-Space true to what analysts need. Without both that team and the users they support, A-Space and the other Web 2.0 technologies would probably not have been successful in building connections and linking analysts together. However, the success of any Web 2.0 technology should be considered a team effort and it would be nice if the work of the analytic side of the team was acknowledged. While there is still much to change in terms of the analytic culture; it will not be the technologists who lead the way in making that happen. “Build it and they will come” is not realistic in a government bureaucracy – you must have the teams design and build it together and be willing to throw out everything as part of the lessons learned in building. But that requires leadership and teamwork that is not often seen in deeply hierarchical bureaucracies. Whether A-Space survives is unknown, but hopefully the lessons learned from it and other collaborative technologies will become part of whatever the future steps will be.

  7. I understand and share your passion, Kelcy. I’m bounded by the length of a blogpost (too long as it is), not “The Book on A-Space.” Even so, seems to me I did indeed give a lot of credit to the functional management side, right from the get-go with Mike Wertheimer and the ODNI/A staff, as well as linking to an article about Nancy Dixon’s A-Space study on the functional value and shortcomings of the system.

    I also explicitly said – and you’re echoing this point – ” technology is perhaps among the lesser factors which will contribute to the success or failure of analytic collaboration (and “transformation” – an overused term but a worthy goal). Much more important are the social and cultural aspects of the workforce, the workplace, and the changing nature of intelligence work itself…”

    I focused a bit more on technology because, like it or not that’s what i do now, and know best :) If I had tried to write from the analyst’s perspective, I’d certainly not do as good a job as someone with your background. But I still love analysis and analysts, and hope to continue to bring technical means to their assistance, not the other way around.

  8. I’m far enough away from this project not to know anything about it, but I have to ask some questions thinking of it in the context of some other systems where I have seen some characteristic cultural effects of there being a lifecycle to the adoption of new technology.

    Often projects like this will live or die based on the attention of a project champion, who will see to it that the system works to meet their needs and goals for it and who has tied the success of the system to their own career path.

    There’s some critical size that an internal intelligence system needs to be so that it has some likelihood that all reasonable questions will have a reasonable answer in a finite time. If you have too few people involved, there may not be enough depth to draw from; if there are too many, people’s expert attention can be too diluted across a system to be able to find the person you want who can focus long enough to move you forward.

    Whatever you build needs to be not so cumbersome that routine tasks take extraordinarily long to do. A challenge in systems design is determining what the routine tasks are; it’s not unusual that the first pass at a system offers some complex way to do something otherwise impossible. This generates enough internal momentum to drive demand to solve the impossible, but only up to the point where the complexities are reduced to allow wide enough use.

    Finally there is the sad question of bit rot; the more encyclopedic content you create, the more likely that some of it is out of date, either benignly or dangerously so. The cumulative effort to build the online textual shadow of reality transitions from a system-building exercise into a system-maintenance exercise, and there is and must always be a temptation to move to a completely new and empty environment periodically to shed the burden of maintenance.

    I am tempted to compare A-Space (without using it, of course) with the process of producing an online local newspaper. Quite a bit of the real intelligence you are trying to get at is not what has been typed in already but that which is one step removed from that, where knowing the source of who to ask (internally or externally) to get the next question answered that hasn’t been asked yet.

  9. Hi Lewis. I just thought I’d take the time to say “hey” and remind everyone that although A-Space is viewed as a collaborative platform for social networking, that is not at all what Mike and Andy intended it to be when it grows up. Summarizing (e.g., my words) the opening paragraph of the A-Space concept of operations:

    A-Space is an analytical workspace that allows analysts to conduct the full range of analytical functions. Those functions include conducting research, find expertise, share and consolidate analytic findings, and collaborate synchronously and asynchronously.

    Collaboration and connecting with other analysts is only part of the vision and a part that has been very successfully implemented over the last two years. It is now time to move beyond “finding a friend” and get to the real brass tacks of helping analysts be more efficient and effective every day. That means building a data rich environment that is populated with not only information posted by colleagues, but real live intelligence from all sources. I seem to remember the notion of an “all source intelligence environment”. I wonder what ever happened to the crackpot that suggested that 3 years ago? :)

    • My good friend TS! Thank you for your thoughtful comments and for reminding me and everyone of the promise which lay (and still lies) underneath all the “collaboration” going on – the actual rationale for why analysts need to (and want to) collaborate. You’re right about the original intent. And as for that crackpot, Lord knows what he’s up to now :) Keep in touch and I’ll help promulgate your next innovation :)

  10. Wow, I did not know about that till now. Thanx.

  11. Aloha Lewis,

    I was something of a critic of A-Space in its early concept formulation stages, and I remain largely so. I’ll briefly explain why.

    1. Conceived as a stovepipe for analysts, and that is mainly what it remains. A more thoughtful approach to mission communities would have derived from U.S. strategies on various national security challenges, or, in a DoD-centric context, an OPLAN/CONPLAN context. The idea that analysts should be cloistered in their own “space” makes no sense whatsoever to me. A you know, I bring a COCOM-ish and “field guy” perspective to these things, and I took seriously the thoughtful ideas behind the “Horizontal Integration” banner everyone was waving around back in 2003-4. Horizontal Integration means you get your analysts out into the messy world of collection managers, campaign/operations planners, IO/SC practitioners, true operators, logisticians, and the like. Nothing drives smart collaboration and focus on outcomes like rolling up your sleeves and getting your hands dirty with intelligence consumers.

    2. It should never have been done at such a compartmented level. A-Space is the poster child for the IC hanging on to its in-bred culture of extreme secrecy and “green door” thinking. I never saw anything transformational or paradigm shifting in A-Space. Analysts have for decades had clever ways of collaborating with each other and keeping secrets with each other. It’s exactly that culture that needed busting, and A-Space didn’t do it — it just kicks the can down the road a few more years.

    3. What I like about the rest of the ICES capabilities is that they live and thrive on NIPR and SIPR and readily invite broad participation. A-Space, in contrast, remains aloof and elite — and therefore not particuarly interesting or compelling to the main stakeholders in the performance of the IC. So here’s a “yawn” from the Pacific for A-Space. Mostly much ado about nothing new. I’ll look for serious groundbreaking change in how the extended national security operates in other venues and enabled by other capabilities built on different models.

    Everyone likes to feel good about actually doing something or delivering a tangible capability in the government. As well they should – it’s damned hard to get anything real accomplished in this bureaucracy. But A-Space mostly missed the mark and I’d be very curious at the total cost to the taxpayers of the entire effort from conception to whatever it is now and whatever it costs to support. I’ve seen the “per-seat” figures and O&M/sustainment numbers for ICES and they are amazingly good. I have no doubt that A-Space is significantly more expensive.

    Best, Dave

    • Dave – you and I agree by and large, and I’m not only saying that because the particular factors about A-Space you ding were decided after I left. Perhaps the most challenging fact has been the (inevitable?) proclivity to self-segregate even within ostensibly horizontally-uniting platforms. Ah, well, the human/inhuman balance in bureaucracy frustrates us all. And as you know I agree wholeheartedly on ICES, which is why we worked closely with them while I was around and transitioned several things over to them to run for everyone’s benefit.

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