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: Continue reading

Social Media goes hyper local for emergencies

For the past year, whenever my group has had government visitors to Microsoft labs in Redmond to see advanced technologies, we’ve considered whether or not to show them a demo of a particular “secret project” being developed, now called Microsoft Vine.

vineIf the group was with local or state government, or related to homeland security, or emergency responders and the like, the answer was easier, because that’s the sweet spot it’s designed for.

But I was always tempted to show it even to my federal government friends – and anyone else – just because it’s so impressive!

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Way Ahead and Far Behind

Today’s Washington Post has a story on its front page: “Staff Finds White House in the Technological Dark Ages.”

Two years after launching the most technologically savvy presidential campaign in history, Obama officials ran smack into the constraints of the federal bureaucracy yesterday, encountering a jumble of disconnected phone lines, old computer software, and security regulations forbidding outside e-mail accounts.”

“What does that mean in 21st-century terms? No Facebook to communicate with supporters. No outside e-mail log-ins. No instant messaging. Hard adjustments for a staff that helped sweep Obama to power through, among other things, relentless online social networking.”  -Washington Post

Some say that whoever has been responsible for information technology in the White House itself should be fired — but then perhaps the change of Administration just took care of that  :-) 

Overall, this situation is familiar to anyone who has worked in what I call “Big-G  IT” or the information technology of a federal government agency. I’ve argued about its challenges and sub-optimality before: see my previous pieces on “Roadmap for Innovation: From the Center to the Edge,” and more specifically “Puncturing Circles of Bureaucracy.”  In that latter piece back in March of 2008, I wrote about the “the defensive perimeters of overwhelming bureaucratic torpor,” and the frustrating reality within much of Big Government: “Federal employees have an entire complex of bizarrely-incented practices and career motivations, which make progress on technology innovation very difficult, not to mention general business-practice transformation as a whole.”

Here’s the truly frustrating, mind-bending part: it isn’t always true!  Other elements of the White House have cutting-edge, world-class technologies operating day in, day out.

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Several new Microsoft advanced technologies

Fact: As reported in TechCrunch and other sites today, “Microsoft’s Live Labs has just released Thumbtack, a web clipping service that allows users to compile links, media, and text snippets into online storage bins for future reference. Users can also share their Thumbtack collections with their peers, allowing them to collaborate by adding new clips and notations… The service works fine on IE7 and Firefox, and isn’t OS dependent. Each of these clippings can be sorted into folders called ‘Collections’, which can be published to the web via RSS, embedded in blogs, opened to friends for collaboration, or kept private for safe keeping.”  [There's also a good Ars Technica review of Thumbtack here.]

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A New Prototype: Research Desktop

Fact: The international conference on Advances in Social Network Analysis and Mining (ASONAM 2009, next July in Athens, Greece) today issued its call for papers on “experimental and theoretical works on social network analysis and mining,” particularly relating to online social Web sites, email logs, phone logs and instant messaging systems “which are widely analyzed using graph theory and machine learning techniques.”  Interested authors are encouraged to submit abstracts of up to 300 words by December 10, 2008; the full papers aren’t due until January 31, 2009.  More info at www.asonam.org.

Analysis: Several Microsoft Research people are preparing papers based on their current research, and I’m considering attending myself (I’ve written before about MSR’s work in analyzing large social networks). There are three Microsoft scientists on the Committee (Dou Shen, Haizheng Zhang, and Rina Panigrahy - check out Rina’s publications on hashing and sketching algorithms).  It should be a top-notch conference, co-hosted by ACM and IEEE.

But that’s way off in the future – what if you want to look at some research stuff right now? Well, I’ve been going through the related “Socio-Digital Systems” work of MSR Cambridge (UK), and they’ve just added more information to their section here of the main MSR site.  That’s some neat stuff, more on the side of the actual social uses of digital data and the effects on our (still-human?) everyday lives.

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When Intelligence Officers Get Social…

Today (and on-and-off this week) I’m attending the Intelligence Community’s “Enterprise 2.0: WIRE and ICES Conference,” up at the Kossiakoff Center at JHU/APL in Maryland, with its focus this year on social software and social networking – not the same thing, of course.

Acronym explanation, with some new ones tossed in:

  • WIRE = CIA’s World Intelligence Review, a very nifty Web 2.0-style classified news site now available on JWICS and SIPRNET.
  • ICES = Intelligence Community’s Enterprise Services group. 
  • And of course, JHU/APL = Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Lab.

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Washington Post Puts Microsoft on Page A1 – For Good Research!

Stop the presses! Microsoft Research is getting national front page coverage!

The work of Eric Horvitz and Jure Leskovec got top coverage in major newspapers and news sites today.  With that fame, Eric will probably never again be willing to just while away a Friday afternoon with our Microsoft Institute folks, brainstorming some outside-the-box ideas for future work, as he did this week with us in Redmond’s Building 99.

Right after that meeting, I bugged out of Redmond for a red-eye to the east coast.  Back home in DC this morning (Saturday), I opened my Washington Post to find on page A1, “Instant-Messagers Really Are About Six Degrees from Kevin Bacon: Big Microsoft Study Supports Small World Theory.

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Tradecraft in the Long Tail

Fact: Chris Anderson, WIRED editor in chief and author of the Internet-era classic book “The Long Tail,” also runs a couple of Ning social networks focusing on what the intelligence community would call IMINT, or imagery intelligence – specifically DIY Drones, “a site for all things about amateur Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs): How-to’s, videos, discussion and more,” and PictEarth, “a Social Network used to collect, link and geotag RC, UAV/UAS or Kite derived Earth imagery for use in 3D Globe Programs including Google Earth, Virtual Earth, World Wind and ArcGIS Explorer.”

Analysis:  With these sites, Chris Anderson is promoting what he calls “Crowdsourced Aerial Imagery.”  In the mission statement for DIY Drones, he writes that “Reasons to make your own UAV range from a fun technical challenge, student contests, aerial photography and mapping (what we call “GeoCrawling”), and scientific sensing. We are primarily interested in civilian, not military, UAV uses here.” (Emphasis is in the original.)

Let’s presume that individual DoD or intelligence-agency personnel have an interest in such issues, and maybe even in spending their personal time by keeping current and following the crowd’s interest in such topics, by participating in these new social networks.  One can then assume that others from foreign intelligence might have some interest in tracking those very IC personnel, by observing their activities within social networks (and not just Ning ones).  No spectacular logic needed for that.

The CIA has had some challenges in understanding their field presence within the Long Tail. 

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“The Largest Social Network Ever Analyzed”

FACT: According to ComScore data cited in a story in Monday’s FInancial Times, “Facebook, the fast-growing social network, has taken a significant lead over MySpace in visitor numbers for the first time… Facebook attracted more than 123 million unique visitors in May, an increase of 162 per cent over the same period last year… That compared with 114.6 million unique visitors at MySpace, Facebook’s leading rival, whose traffic grew just 5 per cent during the same period… The findings mark the first time that Facebook, launched in 2004, has taken a significant lead in unique visitors, [and] come at a time of change inside Facebook, as the one-time upstart attempts to transform itself into a leading media company.

ANALYSIS:  This week several members of the Microsoft Institute met in Redmond with a visiting friend from government, and among other talks we had a very interesting discussion with Eric Horvitz, a Microsoft Research principal researcher and manager.  Eric’s well known for his work in artificial intelligence and currently serves as president of the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence (AAAI).

We talked about one of Eric’s recent projects for quite a while: “Planetary-Scale Views on a Large Instant-Messaging Network,” a project which has been described by his co-author as “the largest social network ever analyzed.” 

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Pentagon’s New Program for Innovation, in Context

FACT: According to an article in today’s Washington Post, the Pentagon has announced “the selection of six university professors who will form the first class of the National Security Science and Engineering Faculty Fellows Program. The professors will receive grants of up to $600,000 per year for up to five years to engage in basic research — essentially a bet by the Pentagon that they will make a discovery that proves vital to maintaining the superiority of the U.S. military.”

ANALYSIS: This new program is an innovation from DoD’s Director of Defense Research and Engineering (DDR&E), and since tomorrow I’ll be at Ft. McNair for a two-day conference sponsored by DDR&E on Strategic Communications, I’ll congratulate John Young and his staff for the good idea.

But the Post article falls short in two ways: one immediate (it leaves out key information about next year’s program and the upcoming deadline!) and one longer-term (it ignores the overall context of federal support for R&D).  I’ll fill in the blanks below.

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