Contributing to Intelligence Innovation

Below are two ways to contribute to innovation in government, and specifically in intelligence matters. One is for you to consider, the other is a fun new path for me.

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Your choice, Dataviz as event or book

A friend wrote asking if I could make it to an event happening this week near DC. I can’t make it, but fortunately he also mentioned as consolation that he has a cool new book on the cusp of release – and I’ve now ordered my copy.

The Friend: legendary visualization and HCI guru Ben Shneiderman (Wikipedia entry). Ben is a computer-science professor at the University of Maryland and the founder of its well-known Human-Computer Interaction Laboratory (HCIL), as well as an ACM Fellow and AAAS Fellow.  He has done government a million favors over the years, consulting for agencies, including his recent work on the Recovery.gov site to help that platform of data – from hundreds of thousands of sources – organize, host, and visualize the data for millions of visitors.  I first got to know Ben through his support for better intelligence analysis – he helped invent a longtime intelligence analytics tool, Spotfire (see his article “Dynamic queries, starfield displays, and the path to Spotfire“).  Ben’s also well-known for his award-winning 2002 book Leonardo’s Laptop: Human Needs and the New Computing Technologies, which I enjoyed and still think about when brainstorming new techie toys.

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Bing vs Google, the quiet semantic war

On Wednesday night I had dinner at a burger joint with four old friends; two work in the intelligence community today on top-secret programs, and two others are technologists in the private sector who have done IC work for years. The five of us share a particular interest besides good burgers: semantic technology.

Oh, we talked about mobile phones (iPhones were whipped out as was my Windows Phone, and apps debated) and cloud storage (they were stunned that Microsoft gives 25 gigabytes of free cloud storage with free Skydrive accounts, compared to the puny 2 gig they’d been using on DropBox).

But we kept returning to semantic web discussions, semantic approaches, semantic software. One of these guys goes back to the DAML days of DARPA fame, the guys on the government side are using semantic software operationally, and we all are firm believers in Our Glorious Semantic Future.

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Simon Moves On

Jim Simon at the Library of Alexandria, Egypt

One indulgent use of a personal blog is to drop a nod in the direction of a salutary individual, and I’d like to do so for my departing boss, Jim Simon.

Jim has been the founding Director of the Microsoft Institute since 2004, when Bill Gates and Craig Mundie personally decided to establish a small outfit to use the benefits of Microsoft’s advanced research and development activities against intractable problems for the global public sector. They had been talking with Jim for several years, back when he was a senior executive at the Central Intelligence Agency and after, to understand how to improve government’s adoption of modern technologies.

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Slate of the Union Day

Today is “Slate of the Union” day, when the two most charismatic individuals in recent American history go on stage and attempt to reclaim mantles as innovators. I’ll leave aside the fellow with lower poll numbers for now (President Obama). More eyes in the tech world will be watching as Steve Jobs makes his newest product announcement, the Apple tablet/Tabloid/iSlate thing iPad (it’s official).

Back in the late 1980s I worked for the legendary “Mayor of Silicon Valley” Tom McEnery (he was actually the mayor of San Jose), and we did many joint projects with Apple, particularly with CEO John Sculley, a great guy.

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To fix intelligence analysis you have to decide what’s broken

“More and more, Xmas Day failure looks to be wheat v. chaff issue, not info sharing issue.” – Marc Ambinder, politics editor for The Atlantic, on Twitter last night.

Marc Ambinder, a casual friend and solid reporter, has boiled down two likely avenues of intelligence “failure” relevant to the case of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab and his attempted Christmas Day bombing on Northwest Airlines Flight 253.  In his telling, they’re apparently binary – one is true, not the other, at least for this case.

The two areas were originally signalled by President Obama in his remarks on Tuesday, when he discussed the preliminary findings of “a review of our terrorist watch list system …  so we can find out what went wrong, fix it and prevent future attacks.” 

Let’s examine these two areas of failure briefly – and what can and should be done to address them.

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Gunning the Microsoft Semantic Engine

New Bing Maps Beta with embedded data layers from Twitter and other social feeds, click to enlarge screenshot

There’s a lot of information on the Internet already. Every day, more is added – a lot more. And while there are a concomitant number of new analytic or sense-making tools on the web, they butt up against the fact that the data – the all-important data – is held in multiple places, formats, and platforms.

How are we going to deal with all this? One approach is almost mechanical: ensuring that datasets can be accessed commonly, as in our new Microsoft Dallas platform associated with the Windows Azure cloud platform.  In the government realm, the anticipated reliance on “government-as-a-platform” (a meme popularized by Tim O’Reilly) holds promise in allowing somewhat aggregated datasets, openly accessible.

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