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Defense Must Share Information to Empower Local Authorities

February 2007
By Cmdr. Gregory E. Glaros, USN (Ret.)

Enabling collaboration and interoperability depends on complex social issues.

In his book Capitalism and Freedom, Nobel Laureate Milton Friedman states that government by its nature contributes “enormous inertia—a tyranny of the status quo—in governmental arrangements. Only a crisis, actual or perceived, produces real change.” As a result of the crises caused by Hurricane Katrina and the tsunami that ravaged Indonesia, Congress pressured the U.S. Defense Department to deliver government-based information-sharing services to assist citizens struck by natural or manmade disasters. The need to access, share and disseminate information to save lives by rapidly coordinating humanitarian relief is paramount.

Networked architectures today—designed to work for tomorrow—must be amenable to change, capable of absorbing emerging technology and adaptive to a dynamic environment. What is not clear is how to bring all of the complex data elements together for coherent purpose.

Current government information sharing, built on classical enterprise solutions, has been designed for static and predictable problems, but it is inadequate for large-scale catastrophes. Relief efforts will require multidimensional information infrastructures that take into account the ad hoc impact and the speed of destruction created by these kinds of disasters. Future information-sharing designs must take into account that the volume of information will only grow, the relevance of the social networking activities involved will increase and the nature of the environment where relief is provided will be unpredictable.

It is not enough simply to make information broadly available. Society depends on immediate access to trusted information to help those in distress. But how does the Defense Department build trust, speed and value into information architectures when the flood of data overwhelms current architectures? The simple answer is that the department cannot do it alone.

As web-based data increasingly is published in many forms from numerous sources, information is harder to share, correlate and integrate. Applications that can search and publish documents do not easily network, link or provide relational corroboration between the volumes of data generated daily. There are only two ways of coordinating the activity of thousands of individuals armed with petabytes of information. One is centrally driven, involving rigid design parameters and the use of coercion—such as in totalitarian states. The other involves the decentralized cooperation of individuals. The coordination of voluntary cooperation rests on the foundation that those within a free market benefit when the transaction is voluntary, informed and bilateral.

This free market model is what Friedman calls “competitive capitalism.” The incentives for adopting a decentralized method increase information flow made possible by division of labor and specialization of function. While this adds initial complexity to the design, the outcome is that the sharing of information and resources occurs because value is provided to those who contribute most.

These social interactions operate on many levels ranging from small local groups to entire global communities. Social networks reveal important relationships either between individuals or among the information that flows between individuals and groups. Each contributor plays a critical role in determining the way the problems are solved, how organizations are run and the degree to which individuals will and can participate in achieving the group’s goals. When individuals are socially able to declare their skills, have those skills endorsed by the community and allow the community to assign tasks or resources toward common objectives then the complexity of the challenges dissipates into far more manageable problems.

The result of these socially interactive acknowledgments is that users are able to access those with relevant skills worldwide, determine who is responsible for an activity then provide the necessary resources toward their collective objective—in this case, saving lives. As the mavens and the connectors, also known as social brokers, emerge naturally, the decisions and actions needed to solve complex problems occur without central control.

But can the Defense Department capture this diverse talent in an information architecture? In spite of the geographical dispersal of information and decentralization of federated data-nodes, social networks that use multidimensional architectures can act as a coherently coordinated community, clustered toward a single purpose. This powerful social framework reaches beyond immediate friendships. It extends to trusted individuals who can participate rapidly with worldwide responders for common purpose.

The Defense Department is in the unique position of being able to catalyze, direct and provide a venue that does not now exist. It possesses the global perspective and has sufficient resources to create a multidimensional network.

The science of social networking as a foundation of this framework adds significant new value. The issue isn’t better requirement articulation or more clearly defined network standards. Instead, the Defense Department must focus on establishing an adequate operational framework capable of dealing with the growing importance of global community participation.

This approach would create an adaptive architecture open to all comers, accessible in an austere environment and capable of handling the unpredictable events of tomorrow. The only question that remains is will the Defense Department provide the necessary multidimensional framework described, or will it become the “inertia” that Friedman asserts?