Slow-Live-blogging #NASASocial for CRS7 Launch


I was really giddy at being selected by NASA to participate in the agency’s innovative “NASA Social” program, where social-media personalities are credentialed and allowed to cover NASA rocket launches. Launch is scheduled for Sunday June 28 at 10:21 AM EDT – fingers crossed for good weather :).

I’ll be updating every couple hours or so over the weekend, and will definitely take good advantage of the tweets and photos of my colleague attendees (with credit of course!). The items follow in chronological order:


6/26/2015 / 8:30AM: Showed up, got my credentials, and parked in front of a great landmark: the easily-recognizable Vehicle Assembly Building. NASA staffers begin by giving us – the two dozen #NASASocial attendees for the launch – an overview of the NASA “social media universe,” including their 490+ Twitter accounts, including their flagship @NASA and right down to the individual lander accounts for all the spacecraft in flight. Over 1,000 people applied for social-media credentials to cover this launch event, and the choices (we are told) were deliberate and non-random – so I was fortunate and very grateful for the awesomely fun opportunity!

6/26/2015 / 9:12AM: Getting an intro briefing from Dava Newman, the newly appointed Deputy Administrator (bio here, with details on her background, most recently teaching/researching at MIT). She acknowledges with a smile that she only joined Twitter yesterday (@DavaExplorer), but she’s been doing big-data research on tweets and online engagement about the topic of human space flight for several years. She answers a question about the role of science fiction in educating young kids in STEM: “I wouldn’t call myself a fiction _buff_ per se, but I have my favorites, certainly Jules Verne and Asimov,” and endorses sci-fi use in schools.

6/26/2015 / 9:48AM: Talk about a small world: We’re going around the room introducing ourselves, and just as one woman was saying hello, I got a Facebook message from a DC friend – “My wife Angelica is attending the SpaceX social as well. She’s wearing a Yankees cap and black & white checked overalls…Say hello!” Indeed we did – she’s Angelica Ferreir.

6/26/2015 / 10:55AM: Here’s my hangout for the weekend: NASA Continue reading

Twitter Search as a Government case study

In addition to periodic think-pieces here at Shepherd’s Pi, I also contribute a monthly online column over at SIGNAL Magazine on topics relating to intelligence. This month I keyed off a recent discussion I had onstage at the 2015 AFCEA Spring Intelligence Symposium with Elon Musk, particularly a colloquy we had on implications of the emerging cleavage (post-Edward Snowden) between Silicon Valley technology companies and their erstwhile innovation partners, U.S. intelligence agencies.

That discussion sparked some thinking on the public/private sector divide on tech innovation – and on basic operational performance in building or adopting new technologies. It’s always been a hobbyhorse topic of mine; see previous pieces even from way back in 2007-08 like “Pentagon’s New Program for Innovation in Context,” or “A Roadmap for Innovation – From the Center or the Edge?” or “VC-like Beauty Contests for Government.”

I have an excerpt from my new SIGNAL piece below, but you can read the entire piece here: “The Twitter Hare Versus the Government Turtle.”

Is the public/private divide overstated? Can the government compete? Without going into the classified technology projects and components discussed at the symposium, let’s try a quick proxy comparison, in a different area of government interest: archiving online social media content for public use and research. Specifically, since Twitter data has become so central to many areas of public discourse, it’s important to examine how government and private sector are each addressing that archive/search capability.

First, the government side. More than half a decade ago, the Library of Congress (LoC) announced in April 2010 with fanfare that it was acquiring the “complete digital archives” of Twitter, from its first internal beta tweets. At that time, the LoC noted, the 2006-2010 Twitter archive already consisted of 5 terabytes, so the federal commitment to archiving the data for search and research was significant…

  … Fast forward to today. Unbelievably, after even more years of “work,” there is no progress to report—quite the opposite. A disturbing new report this week in Inside Higher Education entitled “The Archive is Closed” shows LoC at a dead-stop on its Twitter archive search. The publicly funded archive still is not open to scholars or the public, “and won’t be any time soon.”

  … Coincidentally this week, just as the Library of Congress was being castigated for failing in its mission to field a usable archive after five years, Twitter unveiled a new search/analytics platform, Twitter Heron—yes, after just six months [after releasing its previous platform Twitter Storm]. Heron vastly outperforms the original version in semantic throughput and low latency; yet in a dramatic evocation of Moore’s Law, it does so on 3 times less hardware.

Twitter Storm vs Twitter Heron

Oh, and as the link above demonstrates, the company is far more transparent about its project and technology than the Library of Congress has been.

All too often we see government technology projects prove clunky and prone to failure, while industry efforts are better incentivized and managerially optimized for success. There are ways to combat that and proven methods to avoid it. But the Twitter search case is one more cautionary example of the need to reinvigorate public/private partnerships—in this case, directly relevant to big-data practitioners in the intelligence community.

 – Excerpts from SIGNAL Magazine, “The Twitter Hare Versus the Government Turtle.” © 2015 AFCEA International.

Meet the Future-Makers

Question: Why did Elon Musk just change his Twitter profile photo? I notice he’s now seeming to evoke James Bond or Dr. Evil:

twitter photos, Elon v Elon

I’m not certain, but I think I know the answer why. Read on…


“Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.”

      – Niels Bohr, winner of the 1922 Nobel Prize for Physics

“History will be kind to me for I intend to write it.”

      – Winston Churchill

If you take those two quotations to heart, you might decide to forego the difficulty of predicting the future, instead aiming to bend the future’s story arc yourself. In a nutshell, that’s what R&D is all about: making the future.

Who makes the future for the intelligence community? Who has more influence on the future technologies which intelligence professionals will use: government R&D specialists, or private-sector industry?

On the one hand, commercial industry’s R&D efforts are pulled by billions of invisible consumer hands around the globe, driving rapid innovation and ensuring that bold bets can be rewarded in the marketplace. Recent examples are things like Web search, mobile phones and tablets, and SpaceX launches.

To be fair, though, the US IC and DoD have the ability to focus intently on specific needs, with billions of dollars if necessary, and to drive exotic game-changing R&D for esoteric mission use. During my time in government I saw great recent successes which are of course classified, but they exist.

If you want to explore both sides and you have a Top Secret clearance, you’re in luck, because you can attend what I expect will be an extraordinary gathering of Future-Makers from inside and outside the IC, at next month’s AFCEA Spring Intelligence Symposium.

Spring IntellLast fall, the organizing committee for this annual classified Symposium began our planning on topics and participants. We decided that this year’s overall theme had to be “IC Research & Development” – and we decided to depart from tradition and bring together an unprecedented array of senior leaders from inside and outside, to explore the path forward for IC innovation and change.

The May 20-21 Symposium, held at NGA’s Headquarters, will be a one-of-a-kind event designed to set the tone and agenda for billions of dollars in IC investment.  On the government front, attendees will witness the roll-out of the new (classified) Science & Technology 2015-2019 Roadmap; see this article for some background on that. Attendees will also meet and hear R&D leaders from all major IC agencies, including:

  • Dr. David Honey, Director of Science and Technology, ODNI
  • Dr. Peter Highnam, Director, Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA)
  • Glenn Gaffney, Deputy Director for Science & Technology, CIA
  • Stephanie O’Sullivan, Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence
  • Dr. Greg Treverton, Chairman, National Intelligence Council
  • The IC’s functional managers for SIGINT, MASINT, GEOINT, HUMINT, OSINT, and Space

Meanwhile from the private sector, we’ll have:

  • Elon Musk, CEO/CTO of SpaceX, CEO/Chief Product Architect of Tesla Motors, CEO of SolarCity, Co-founder of PayPal
  • Gilman Louie, Partner at Alsop Louie Venture Capital, former CEO of In-Q-Tel
  • Bill Kiczuk, Raytheon VP, CTO, and Senior Principal Engineering Fellow
  • Zach Lemnios, IBM VP for Research Strategy and Worldwide Operations
  • Pres Winter, Oracle VP, National Security Group

When I first proposed that we invite an array of “outside” future-makers to balance the government discussion with a different perspective, I said to my colleagues on the planning committee, “Wouldn’t it be awesome to get someone like Elon Musk…”

Well, we did, and next month I’ll be welcoming him on stage.

These are dark and challenging times in international security, but for scientists, technologists, and engineers, there’s never been a more exciting time – and like them, intelligence professionals should stretch their horizons.

I’m looking forward to the conference… and here’s your link to register to join us.

PS: Just to whet your appetite: new video of this week’s SpaceX revolutionary Falcon9 first-stage landing attempt on a drone barge at sea – nearly made it, very exciting:

Insider’s Guide to the New Holographic Computing

In my seven happy years at Microsoft before leaving a couple of months ago, I was never happier than when I was involved in a cool “secret project.”

Last year my team and I contributed for many months on a revolutionary secret project – Holographic Computing – which is being revealed today at Microsoft headquarters.  I’ve been blogging for years about a variety of research efforts which additively culminated in today’s announcements: HoloLens, HoloStudio for 3D holographic building, and a series of apps (e.g. HoloSkype, HoloMinecraft) for this new platform on Windows 10.

For my readers in government, or who care about the government they pay for, PAY CLOSE ATTENTION.

It’s real. I’ve worn it, used it, designed 3D models with it, explored the real surface of Mars, played and laughed and marveled with it. This isn’t Einstein’s “spooky action at a distance.” Everything in this video works today:

These new inventions represent a major new step-change in the technology industry. That’s not hyperbole. The approach offers the best benefit of any technology: empowering people simply through complexity, and by extension a way to deliver new & unexpected capabilities to meet government requirements.

Holographic computing, in all the forms it will take, is comparable to the Personal Computing revolution of the 1980s (which democratized computing), the Web revolution of the ’90s (which universalized computing), and the Mobility revolution of the past eight years, which is still uprooting the world from its foundation.

One important point I care deeply about: Government missed each of those three revolutions. By and large, government agencies at all levels were late or slow (or glacial) to recognize and adopt those revolutionary capabilities. That miss was understandable in the developing world and yet indefensible in the United States, particularly at the federal level.

I worked at the Pentagon in the summer of 1985, having left my own state-of-the-art PC at home at Stanford University, but my assigned “analytical tool” was a typewriter. In the early 2000s, I worked at an intelligence agency trying to fight a war against global terror networks when most analysts weren’t allowed to use the World Wide Web at work. Even today, government agencies are lagging well behind in deploying modern smartphones and tablets for their yearning-to-be-mobile workforce.

This laggard behavior must change. Government can’t afford (for the sake of the citizens it serves) to fall behind again, and  understanding how to adapt with the holographic revolution is a great place to start, for local, national, and transnational agencies.

Now some background… Continue reading

Intelligence Technology, Waiting for Superman

…or Superwoman.

Amid the continuing controversies sparked by Edward Snowden’s whistleblowing defection revelations, and their burgeoning effects on American technology companies and the tech industry worldwide, the afflicted U.S. intelligence community has quietly released a job advertisement for a premier position: the DNI’s National Intelligence Officer for Technology.

You can view  the job posting at the USAJOBS site (I first noticed it on ODNI’s anodyne Twitter feed @ODNI_NIC), and naturally I encourage any interested and qualified individuals to apply. Keep reading after this “editorial-comment-via-photo”:

How you'll often feel if you take this job...

How you’ll often feel if you take this job…

Whether you find the NSA revelations to be infuriating or unsurprising (or even heartening), most will acknowledge that it is in the nation’s interest to have a smart, au courant technologist advising the IC’s leadership on trends and directions in the world of evolving technical capabilities.

In the interest of wider exposure I excerpt below some of the notable elements in the job-posting and description…. and I add a particular observation at the bottom.

Job Title: National Intelligence Officer for Technology – 28259

Agency: Office of the Director of National Intelligence

Job Announcement Number: 28259

Salary Range: $118,932.00  to  $170,000.00

Major Duties and Responsibilities:

Oversees and integrates all aspects of the IC’s collection and analytic efforts, as well as the mid- and long-term strategic analysis on technology.

Serves as the single focal point within the ODNI for all activities related to technology and serves as the DNI’s personal representative on this issue.

Maintains senior-level contacts within the intelligence, policymaking, and defense communities to ensure that the full range of informational needs related to emerging technologies are met on a daily basis, while setting strategic guidance to enhance the quality of IC collection and analysis over the long term.

Direct and oversee national intelligence related to technology areas of responsibility; set collection, analysis, and intelligence operations priorities on behalf of the ODNI, in consonance with the National Intelligence Priorities Framework and direction from the National Security Staff.

In concert with the National Intelligence Managers/NIOs for Science and Technology and Economic Issues, determine the state of collection, analysis, or intelligence operations resource gaps; develop and publish an UIS which identifies and formulates strategies to mitigate gaps; advise the Integration Management Council and Integration Management Board of the gaps, mitigation strategies, progress against the strategies, and assessment of the effectiveness of both the strategies and the closing of the intelligence gaps.

Direct and oversee Community-wide mid- and long-term strategic analysis on technology. Serve as subject matter expert and support the DNI’s role as the principal intelligence adviser to the President.

Oversee IC-wide production and coordination of NIEs and other community papers (National Intelligence Council (NIC) Assessments, NIC Memorandums, and Sense of the Community Memorandums) concerning technology.

Liaise and collaborate with senior policymakers in order to articulate substantive intelligence priorities to guide national-level intelligence collection and analysis. Regularly author personal assessments of critical emerging technologies for the President, DNI, and other senior policymakers.

Develop and sustain a professional network with outside experts and IC analysts, analytic managers, and collection managers to ensure timely and appropriate intelligence support to policy customers.

Brief senior IC members, policymakers, military decisionmakers, and other major stakeholders.

Review and preside over the research and production plans on technology by the Community’s analytic components; identify redundancies and gaps, direct strategies to address gaps, and advise the DNI on gaps and shortfalls in analytic capabilities across the IC.

Determine the state of collection on technology, identify gaps, and support integrated Community-wide strategies to mitigate any gaps.

Administer National Intelligence Officer-Technology resource allocations, budget processes and activities, to include the establishment of controls to ensure equities remain within budget.

Lead, manage, and direct a professional level staff, evaluate performance, collaborate on goal setting, and provide feedback and guidance regarding personal and professional development opportunities.

Establish and manage liaison relationships with academia, the business community, and other non-government subject matter experts to ensure the IC has a comprehensive understanding of technology and its intersection with global military, security, economic, financial, and/or energy issues.

Technical Qualifications:

Recognized expertise in major technology trends and knowledge of analytic and collection issues sufficient to lead the IC.

Superior capability to direct interagency, interdisciplinary IC teams against a range of functional and/or regional analytical issues.

Superior interpersonal, organizational, and management skills to conceptualize and effectively lead complex analytic projects with limited supervision.

Superior ability to work with and fairly represent the IC when analytic views differ among agencies.

Superior communication skills, including ability to exert influence with senior leadership and communicate effectively with people at all staff levels, both internal and external to the organization, to give oral presentations and to otherwise represent the NIC in interagency meetings.

Expert leadership and managerial capabilities, including the ability to effectively direct taskings, assess and manage performance, and support personal and professional development of all levels of personnel.

Superior critical thinking skills and the ability to prepare finished intelligence assessments and other written products with an emphasis on clear organization, concise, and logical presentation.

Executive Core Qualifications (ECQs):

Leading People: This core qualification involves the ability to lead people toward meeting the organization’s vision, mission, and goals. Inherent to this ECQ is the ability to provide an inclusive workplace that fosters the development of others, facilitates cooperation and teamwork, and supports constructive resolution of conflicts. Competencies: Conflict Management, Leveraging Diversity, Developing Others, and Team Building

Leading Change: This core qualification involves the ability to bring about strategic change, both within and outside the organization, to meet organizational goals. Inherent to this ECQ is the ability to establish an organizational vision and to implement it in a continuously changing environment. Competencies: Creativity and Innovation, External Awareness, Flexibility, Resilience, Strategic Thinking, and Vision.


You will be evaluated based upon the responses you provide to each required Technical Qualifications (TQ’s) and Executive Core Qualifications (ECQ’s). When describing your Technical Qualifications (TQ’s) and Executive Core Qualifications (ECQ’s), please be sure to give examples and explain how often you used these skills, the complexity of the knowledge you possessed, the level of the people you interacted with, the sensitivity of the issues you handled, etc. Your responses should describe the experience; education; and accomplishments which have provided you with the skills and knowledge required for this position. Current IC senior officers are not required to submit ECQs, but must address the TQs.

Only one note on the entire description, and it’s about that last line: “Current IC senior officers are not required to submit Executive Core Qualifications, but must address the Technical Qualifications.”  This is perhaps the most important element in the entire description; it is assumed that “current IC senior officers” know how to lead bureaucratically, how to manage a staff – but in my experience it cannot be assumed that they are necessarily current on actual trends and advances in the larger world of technology. In fact, some might say the presumption would be against that currency. Yet they must be, for a variety of reasons never more salient than in today’s chaotically-evolving world.

Good luck to applicants.

[note: my title is of course a nod to the impressive education-reform documentary “Waiting for Superman“]


Debating Big Data for Intelligence

I’m always afraid of engaging in a “battle of wits” only half-armed.  So I usually choose my debate opponents judiciously.

Unfortunately, I recently had a contest thrust upon me with a superior foe: my friend Mark Lowenthal, Ph.D. from Harvard, an intelligence community graybeard (literally!) and former Assistant Director of Central Intelligence (ADCI) for Analysis and Production, Vice Chairman of the National Intelligence Council – and as if that weren’t enough, a past national Jeopardy! “Tournament of Champions” winner.

As we both sit on the AFCEA Intelligence Committee and have also collaborated on a few small projects, Mark and I have had occasion to explore one another’s biases and beliefs about the role of technology in the business of intelligence. We’ve had several voluble but collegial debates about that topic, in long-winded email threads and over grubby lunches. Now, the debate has spilled onto the pages of SIGNAL Magazine, which serves as something of a house journal for the defense and intelligence extended communities.

SIGNAL Editor Bob Ackerman suggested a “Point/Counterpoint” short debate on the topic: “Is Big Data the Way Ahead for Intelligence?” Our pieces are side-by-side in the new October issue, and are available here on the magazine’s site.

Mark did an excellent job of marshalling the skeptic’s view on Big Data, under the not-so-equivocal title, Another Overhyped Fad.”  Below you will find an early draft of my own piece, an edited version of which is published under the title A Longtime Tool of the Community”:

Visit the National Cryptologic Museum in Ft. Meade, Maryland, and you’ll see three large-machine displays, labeled HARVEST and TRACTOR, TELLMAN and RISSMAN, and the mighty Cray XMP-24. They’re credited with helping win the Cold War, from the 1950s through the end of the 1980s. In fact, they are pioneering big-data computers.

Here’s a secret: the Intelligence Community has necessarily been a pioneer in “big data” since inception – both our modern IC and the science of big data were conceived during the decade after the Second World War. The IC and big-data science have always intertwined because of their shared goal: producing and refining information describing the world around us, for important and utilitarian purposes

What do modern intelligence agencies run on? They are internal combustion engines burning pipelines of data, and the more fuel they burn the better their mileage. Analysts and decisionmakers are the drivers of these vast engines, but to keep them from hoofing it, we need big data.

Let’s stipulate that today’s big-data mantra is overhyped. Too many technology vendors are busily rebranding storage or analytics as “big data systems” under the gun from their marketing departments. That caricature is, rightly, derided by both IT cognoscenti and non-techie analysts.

I personally get the disdain for machines, as I had the archetypal humanities background and was once a leather-elbow-patched tweed-jacketed Kremlinologist, reading newspapers and HUMINT for my data. I stared into space a lot, pondering the Chernenko-Gorbachev transition. Yet as Silicon Valley’s information revolution transformed modern business, media, and social behavior across the globe, I learned to keep up – and so has the IC. 

Twitter may be new, but the IC is no Johnny-come-lately in big data on foreign targets.  US Government funding of computing research in the 1940s and ‘50s stretched from World War II’s radar/countermeasures battles to the elemental ELINT and SIGINT research at Stanford and MIT, leading to the U-2 and OXCART (ELINT/IMINT platforms) and the Sunnyvale roots of NRO.

In all this effort to analyze massive observational traces and electronic signatures, big data was the goal and the bounty.

War planning and peacetime collection were built on collection of ever-more-massive amounts of foreign data from technical platforms – telling the US what the Soviets could and couldn’t do, and therefore where we should and shouldn’t fly, or aim, or collect. And all along, the development of analog and then digital computers to answer those questions, from Vannevar Bush through George Bush, was fortified by massive government investment in big-data technology for military and intelligence applications.

In today’s parlance big data typically encompasses just three linked computerized tasks: storing collected foreign data (think Amazon’s cloud), finding and retrieving relevant foreign data (Bing or Google), and analyzing connections or patterns among the relevant foreign data (powerful web-analytic tools).

Word Cloud Big Data for IntelligenceThose three Ft. Meade museum displays demonstrate how NSA and the IC pioneered those “modern” big data tasks.  Storage is represented by TELLMAN/RISSMAN, running from the 1960’s throughout the Cold War using innovation from Intel. Search/retrieval were the hallmark of HARVEST/TRACTOR, built by IBM and StorageTek in the late 1950s. Repetitive what-if analytic runs boomed in 1983 when Cray delivered a supercomputer to a customer site for the first time ever.

The benefit of IC early adoption of big data wasn’t only to cryptology – although decrypting enemy secrets would be impossible without it. More broadly, computational big-data horsepower was in use constantly during the Cold War and after, producing intelligence that guided US defense policy and treaty negotiations or verification. Individual analysts formulated requirements for tasked big-data collection with the same intent as when they tasked HUMINT collection: to fill gaps in our knowledge of hidden or emerging patterns of adversary activities.

That’s the sense-making pattern that leads from data to information, to intelligence and knowledge. Humans are good at it, one by one. Murray Feshbach, a little-known Census Bureau demographic researcher, made astonishing contributions to the IC’s understanding of the crumbling Soviet economy and its sociopolitical implications by studying reams of infant-mortality statistics, and noticing patterns of missing data. Humans can provide that insight, brilliantly, but at the speed of hand-eye coordination.

Machines make a passable rote attempt, but at blistering speed, and they don’t balk at repetitive mindnumbing data volume. Amid the data, patterns emerge. Today’s Feshbachs want an Excel spreadsheet or Hadoop table at hand, so they’re not limited to the data they can reasonably carry in their mind’s eye.

To cite a recent joint research paper from Microsoft Research and MIT, “Big Data is notable not because of its size, but because of its relationality to other data.  Due to efforts to mine and aggregate data, Big Data is fundamentally networked.  Its value comes from the patterns that can be derived by making connections between pieces of data, about an individual, about individuals in relation to others, about groups of people, or simply about the structure of information itself.” That reads like a subset of core requirements for IC analysis, whether social or military, tactical or strategic.

The synergy of human and machine for knowledge work is much like modern agricultural advances – why would a farmer today want to trudge behind an ox-pulled plow? There’s no zero-sum choice to be made between technology and analysts, and the relationship between CIOs and managers of analysts needs to be nurtured, not cleaved apart.

What’s the return for big-data spending? Outside the IC, I challenge humanities researchers to go a day without a search engine. The IC record’s just as clear. ISR, targeting and warning are better because of big data; data-enabled machine translation of foreign sources opens the world; correlation of anomalies amid large-scale financial data pinpoint otherwise unseen hands behind global events. Why, in retrospect, the Iraq WMD conclusion was a result of remarkably-small-data manipulation.

Humans will never lose their edge in analyses requiring creativity, smart hunches, and understanding of unique individuals or groups. If that’s all we need to understand the 21st century, then put down your smartphone. But as long as humans learn by observation, and by counting or categorizing those observations, I say crank the machines for all their robotic worth.

Make sure to read both sides, and feel free to argue your own perspective in a comment on the SIGNAL site.

Bullshit Detector Prototype Goes Live

I like writing about cool applications of technology that are so pregnant with the promise of the future, that they have to be seen to be believed, and here’s another one that’s almost ready for prime time.

TruthTeller PrototypeThe Washington Post today launched an exciting new technology prototype invoking powerful new technologies for journalism and democratic accountability in politics and government. As you can see from the screenshot (left), it runs an automated fact-checking algorithm against the streaming video of politicians or other talking heads and displays in real time a “True” or “False” label as they’re speaking.

Called “Truth Teller,” the system uses technologies from Microsoft Research and Windows Azure cloud-computing services (I have included some of the technical details below).

But first, a digression on motivation. Back in the late 1970s I was living in Europe and was very taken with punk rock. Among my favorite bands were the UK’s anarcho-punk collective Crass, and in 1980 I bought their compilation LP “Bullshit Detector,” whose title certainly appealed to me because of my equally avid interest in politics :)

Today, my driving interests are in the use of novel or increasingly powerful technologies for the public good, by government agencies or in the effort to improve the performance of government functions. Because of my Jeffersonian tendencies (I did after all take a degree in Government at Mr. Jefferson’s University of Virginia), I am even more interested in improving government accountability and popular control over the political process itself, and I’ve written or spoken often about the “Government 2.0” movement.

In an interview with GovFresh several years ago, I was asked: “What’s the killer app that will make Gov 2.0 the norm instead of the exception?”

My answer then looked to systems that might “maintain the representative aspect (the elected official, exercising his or her judgment) while incorporating real-time, structured, unfiltered but managed visualizations of popular opinion and advice… I’m also a big proponent of semantic computing – called Web 3.0 by some – and that should lead the worlds of crowdsourcing, prediction markets, and open government data movements to unfold in dramatic, previously unexpected ways. We’re working on cool stuff like that.”

The Truth Teller prototype is an attempt to construct a rudimentary automated “Political Bullshit Detector, and addresses each of those factors I mentioned in GovFresh – recognizing the importance of political leadership and its public communication, incorporating iterative aspects of public opinion and crowd wisdom, all while imbuing automated systems with semantic sense-making technology to operate at the speed of today’s real world.

Real-time politics? Real-time truth detection.  Or at least that’s the goal; this is just a budding prototype, built in three months.

Cory Haik, who is the Post’s Executive Producer for Digital News, says it “aims to fact-check speeches in as close to real time as possible” in speeches, TV ads, or interviews. Here’s how it works:

The Truth Teller prototype was built and runs with a combination of several technologies — some new, some very familiar. We’ve combined video and audio extraction with a speech-to-text technology to search a database of facts and fact checks. We are effectively taking in video, converting the audio to text (the rough transcript below the video), matching that text to our database, and then displaying, in real time, what’s true and what’s false.

We are transcribing videos using Microsoft Audio Video indexing service (MAVIS) technology. MAVIS is a Windows Azure application which uses State of the Art of Deep Neural Net (DNN) based speech recognition technology to convert audio signals into words. Using this service, we are extracting audio from videos and saving the information in our Lucene search index as a transcript. We are then looking for the facts in the transcription. Finding distinct phrases to match is difficult. That’s why we are focusing on patterns instead.

We are using approximate string matching or a fuzzy string searching algorithm. We are implementing a modified version Rabin-Karp using Levenshtein distance algorithm as our first implementation. This will be modified to recognize paraphrasing, negative connotations in the future.

What you see in the prototype is actual live fact checking — each time the video is played the fact checking starts anew.

 – Washington Post, “Debuting Truth Teller

The prototype was built with funding from a Knight Foundation’s Prototype Fund grant, and you can read more about the motivation and future plans over on the Knight Blog, and you can read TechCrunch discussing some of the political ramifications of the prototype based on the fact-checking movement in recent campaigns.

Even better, you can actually give Truth Teller a try here, in its infancy.

What other uses could be made of semantic “truth detection” or fact-checking, in other aspects of the relationship between the government and the governed?

Could the justice system use something like Truth Teller, or will human judges and  juries always have a preeminent role in determining the veracity of testimony? Will police officers and detectives be able to use cloud-based mobile services like Truth Teller in real time during criminal investigations as they’re evaluating witness accounts? Should the Intelligence Community be running intercepts of foreign terrorist suspects’ communications through a massive look-up system like Truth Teller?

Perhaps, and time will tell how valuable – or error-prone – these systems can be. But in the next couple of years we will be developing (and be able to assess the adoption of) increasingly powerful semantic systems against big-data collections, using faster and faster cloud-based computing architectures.

In the meantime, watch for further refinements and innovation from The Washington Post’s prototyping efforts; after all, we just had a big national U.S.  election but congressional elections in 2014 and the presidential race in 2016 are just around the corner. Like my fellow citizens, I will be grateful for any help in keeping candidates accountable to something resembling “the truth.”


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 6,779 other followers

%d bloggers like this: