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:
- 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.
- 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.”
- 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).
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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