Intelligence Community is getting social

CIASpyspace, Spookbook, and MySpy are just few of the names that the blogosphere has been jokingly throwing around about the new CIA DIA “A-Space” project. A-Space, in case you haven’t heard of it yet, is the intelligence community’s first (?) foray into social networking. Lots of ink has been spilled about the project [1] [2] [3] [4], and we’ve seen lots of silly comments about the project, like questions of flirting and dating vs. data analysis improvements.

The Financial Times outlines the project:

The Director of National Intelligence will open the site to the entire intelligence community in December. The move is the latest part of an ongoing effort to transform the analytical business following the failure to detect the 9/11 terrorist attacks or find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

Thomas Fingar, the deputy director of national intelligence for analysis, believes the common workspace – a kind of “MySpace for analysts” – will generate better analysis by breaking down firewalls across the traditionally stove-piped intelligence community. He says the technology can also help process increasing amounts of information where the number of analysts is limited.

While it may seem silly, I’d support the idea that this is a brilliant move. We’ve seen (or at least heard about) other moves within the Intel Community (IC) to use more social tools in their work, such as Intellipedia and blogs, so this certainly isn’t the first time they’re going in this direction. Clearly the IC is interested in learning and trying more – just the agenda of this week’s Intelligence and National Security Alliance event. And it’s the right way to go.

Michael Scheuer, the former head of the CIA’s special bin Laden unit, said he had long believed that “90 percent of what you need to know comes from open-source intelligence.”

After 9/11 there seemed to be only one thing that the IC could agree on – that the IC didn’t interact enough with each other. We’ve now heard countless stories about a lack of information sharing between agencies and even departments within agencies. Some of this stems from security concerns, but it seems like even more stems from a lack of (or perhaps interest in) cooperation. That, and as this article states: “The spy agencies were saddled with technology that might have seemed cutting edge in 1995.”

But despite that situation, far from hidden from the world, I’ve read a number of stories with quotes similar to this one:

Speculation is rife that the CIA’s A-Space will also allow spies to swap photos, flirt and throw virtual food at each other.

The running joke is that A-Space is somehow going to be a dating site for spooks. Since I don’t have a Level 40 Security Clearance, I can’t know for sure what the tool will or will not have. That won’t stop me from making a few suggestions/comments about what a potential social networkingesque site(s) for the IC might benefit from!

Create and empower an implementation strategy
One of the most crucial elements to the success of a project of this nature, regardless of sector or industry is the strategy for implementation. This project (as well as similar efforts) are primarily social, not primarily research. A social network, like any other social tool, is based on social connection not data collection. While del.icio.us, for instance, could be consider nothing more than a data resource (bookmarks), it’s the social component that makes it powerful. That social component is driven off of emotion needs and desires, not from logic and stats.

Additionally, this project will need it’s “Cruise Director” (aka Community Manager). Someone empowered to drive usage, encourage participation, and reach out to those involved to connect with them. Perhaps this is already in play (there’s that Level 40 issue again). I sure hope so, because this project is going to struggle against adoption issues just like any other organization going down this path. Here’s a few of the common pain points I suspect the project leaders will hear:

  • “I’m already so busy, I don’t have time for yet another thing to keep up with”
  • “I’m too old for this youth-oriented foolishness”
  • “This is just a toy that will fall by the wayside soon enough”

Don’t shy away from the personal
It may be a joke that people in the IC can swap photos or throw virtual food at each other, but this is actually a fantastic method of building connection between people. These seemingly pointless activities are what often lead to discussions, thoughts, ideas and connections that are major breakthroughs. I just finished reading Merchant of Death and was struck by a story about the value of a BBQ event in the process of attempting to take down the “Lord of War“.

A member of the intelligence community decided to host a Viktor Bout party to acquaint people from different government agencies with each other, given their common interest in the elusive Bout. Several dozen people turned up for the gathering, which took place under the cover of a weekend cookout in a Virgina suburb south of Washington, D.C. THe mood was festive. Spouses and children were invited, and as the burders and hot dogs sizzled in the fading light of dusk, those working on Bout clustered into small groups to discusses the latest developments in their hunt for the arms trafficker. With the NSC interest spearheaded by Wolosky, government resources for the operation had expanded and key policymakers had been won over. To this small but dedicated group that included officials from the CIA, DIA, NSA, NSC, the wind seemed to have shifted in their favor.

“The idea of thirty of forty people showing up on this one issues was remarkable,” said one attendee. “Our spouses had no idea why we were there, but there would be little cliques of people off in the corner who talked about Bout. It was fun.”

Imagine that – doing your job and having it be fun. Fun is a powerful force when shooting for effectiveness. Like Lee asks, “Is your community a party?

Focus on the hunches, not the connections
While connection between people in the IC is going to benefit the IC at large, that’s simply the first step (of about 4,332,756 steps) in making this effort valuable. Bringing the Social Web (even a Top Secret one) to the IC means that you’re creating and maintaining relationships between people-data-activity. Think of the connection as the initial handshake. It’s quick, good manners require it, and it’s an entrance point into something bigger.

The hunches are the key to the IC Social Web – bringing people together in order to provide a positive, effective, quick, smart way to share hunches, ideas, concepts, and gut feels, and insights in a way that yields better intelligence. This isn’t going to happen simply by making the introductions.

Continue to evolve
You often hear horror stories about big organizations (government and private alike) feeling locked into ineffective tools simply because those tools were expensive, or technically/politically difficult to implement. This type of project will absolutely evolve over time, and what works when it launches is not going to work 2 years from now. Project lead Mike Wertheimer, says:

“We are willing to experiment in ways that we have never experimented before”

Fantastic. Just don’t forget that social experiments require time to get on their feet.

Make participation transparent
How can you get busy people to participate in a social project like? Don’t tell them they’re participating! This isn’t the same thing as hiding things from them, it just means make their participation in something inherent in an experience that they’re already doing. Google, for instance, doesn’t rely on overt action of users saying “this is my favorite content”. Instead they rely on behavior that already exists – the creation of links, with each link being a vote. Amazon’s algorithms include not only overt action (rating/review creation, for instance), but also other activities like which pages you look at, which pages other people you match well with looked at, etc.

There is some indication this is already being considered:

A-Space will be equipped with web-based email and software that recommends areas of interest to the user just like Amazon suggests books to its customers. The site will also allow users to create and modify documents, and determine user privileges, in a similar fashion to Google Documents.

Very smart.

This project is a fantastic effort that should be applauded and supported. As this article points out, “Despite the revolutionary technical developments of recent years, people remain the Intelligence Community’s most vital resource.” With a community that includes no fewer than 16 separate agencies, has budgets in the hundreds of billions of dollar, currently employees tens (or hundreds) of thousands of people, and deals with mountains of data daily, I say anything that can help drive smarter connections amongst the analysts is a good thing.

From my discussions with IC insiders, people in different parts of the community, the discussion seems to be mainly the same questions:

  • “What about [pick an agency, but especially DoD, Pentagon, Homeland Security]? They need it more than anybody!”
  • “When can I start using it??”
  • “Where is this concept going? Is it another pet project or does it have serious buy-in?”

Clearly there’s potential, there’s interest, and there’s tech being put in place. Hopefully that all comes with a side order of implementation strategy.

UPDATE: Lewis Sheperd expands the background of the project.