Information Plus Context Equals Knowledge

February 2002
By Maryann Lawlor
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Software tool connects the dots between related pieces of data.

The solution to information overload may lie in one of the key contributors to the phenomenon. Recently developed software now can address the complementary issues of managing data and making it more useful. Personnel at the U.S. Joint Forces Command Joint Experimentation Directorate are exploring systems that could transform military engagement methodology and usher in decision-based operations.

The increasing number of collection devices has databases overflowing with ones and zeros. However, without context, the advantages that information offers cannot be fully realized. One answer to getting a handle on the digital world is found in a biological model: the gray matter known as the human brain.

Software currently available from a firm in Santa Monica, California, aptly named TheBrain Technologies Corporation, offers a new way to integrate, visualize and manage information. The approach is based on the premise that individual pieces of data in disparate locations are useful, but synchronizing that information illuminates its significance and creates knowledge: The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. This capability would allow a commander to put the full force of information behind an operation, military experts agree.

Annette Ratzenberger explains that delivering the appropriate information, capabilities or experts to a crisis situation as well as day-to-day operations is one goal of experimentation. Ratzenberger is the chief of the Experimentation Engineering Department, U.S. Joint Forces Command (JFCOM) Joint Experimentation Directorate (J-9), Norfolk, Virginia. Ultimately, accomplishing this task should be possible at any time using an ad hoc network that personnel could plug into and engage immediately, she adds.

“We have a lot of information, so we have to have assistance to get at that knowledge. TheBrain is one of the tools that’s helping us organize for the future,” Ratzenberger states.

The J-9 has been examining the technology for approximately one year and began with a pre-beta version. Initially, directorate personnel used the company’s product for individuals, called PersonalBrain, to organize better the data visually on their desktops. The next step involved TheBrain Enterprise Knowledge Platform (EKP) and included experimentation to determine how it would benefit a larger group. “One philosophy of experimentation is that we use the technology first so we feel the pain before we give it [technology] to the troops,” Ratzenberger explains.

One of TheBrain’s key attributes is a format that not only is user friendly but also makes the connection between related information, according to Sam Gallucci, executive vice president and chief markets officer, TheBrain. In the traditional desktop format, information is presented in a hierarchical series of file folders that contain documents. TheBrain’s visual user interface—what a user sees on the screen—displays information as words called “thoughts” in a diagram that uses lines called “links” that show how individual pieces fit together. The visual representation resembles a story map where main themes branch out to subsets of information and in turn branch out even further to more specific items. Any piece of data can be linked to any other, which provides immediate access from multiple locations.

The software was developed based on several key business drivers, Gallucci explains. It provides real-time access across various applications and integrates this information across many different sources. TheBrainEKP addresses the current state of many organizations’ databases, which feature multiple pieces of information in various locations. The software’s synchronizing element takes unstructured content and integrates it with structured content.

Although other knowledge management products offer point solutions, TheBrain’s technology provides a comprehensive approach, Gallucci contends. “Solutions such as search engines or universal data access technologies are portals that give you proximity. One window may give you access to a file folder system. One window might be a financial application and another … Web sites. But what’s missing is how these different information parts work together. What’s missing is the context of how these are related,” he says.

The methodology is enhanced by the software’s collaboration features. “Integrated collaboration enables an integrated information thread and the integration of documents. It takes information from a local drive, categorizes it and allows the participants to share it in a discussion. For example, a task force investigating a person can use TheBrain to show all the available information about that person and not just bits and pieces,” Gallucci explains. If members of the group are aware of specific documents that would be useful, they can add them to the discussion and enhance the collaborative environment, he continues.

This capability leads to another benefit of the software: knowledge modeling. All of the pieces of information can be brought together into a working model, and an application can be built around how the parts of information relate to each other. Because the visual user interface enables the creation of an unlimited number of relationships, one piece of information can be connected to other data in multiple ways. This results in a many-to-many model, linking different items without duplication.

Harlan Hugh, president, chief technology officer and co-founder of TheBrain, points out that the technology is particularly useful in an environment where individuals hold more than one position. For example, in any organization the same person may be a top-level manager as well as the project manager. Structures are created that mirror relationships that exist in the real world. The knowledge model reflects business processes so that users share an understanding of how information is created, connected, accessed and used, Hugh relates.

According to Gallucci, the most powerful part of the technology is that it addresses the target objectives across the U.S. Defense Department and the intelligence community because it facilitates the integration of information across different departments. He is quick to point out, however, that TheBrain does not deal with policy issues such as determining who shares what information. It is, however, a technology that manages complex data.

To further examine TheBrainEKP in a military environment, the J-9 conducted a multinational collaborative limited objective experiment (LOE) that brought together a group of potential coalition partners as a virtual planning cell. Australia, Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States were the primary participants, and representatives from Canada observed the event.

According to Cmdr. Keith Curtis, USN (Ret.), member of the J-9’s Innovations Department and director of the multinational LOE, the event involved a single overarching scenario of an ongoing coalition operation in the Pacific in 2015. “Each vignette consisted of a developing situation presented to the planning teams through a warning order from the regional coalition commander. Two geographically dispersed planning teams, one using more traditional methods and the other using an integrated team approach, were tasked with developing a course of action in a matter of hours to deal with the situation. A vignette was six, eight or 10 hours long, and the course of action was due at the end of the vignette. Eight vignettes were done over a two-week period,” the commander explains.

Integrated team members had to rely on TheBrainEKP, which was populated with appropriate Internet sites chosen by JFCOM’s Intelligence Directorate. Only open source information was used.

Cmdr. Curtis relates that TheBrainEKP provided a quick and easy way to relate a lot of information. “We have to begin arranging the information we have, and most information is not organized well in a hierarchy. This technology gave analysts a way to organize the information quickly,” he relates.

Kenneth Gunter, a strategic knowledge management planner for the J-9, adds that TheBrainEKP allowed the cell to work on all of the data concurrently and produced results that were automatically generated and displayed. Once the information was presented, cross relationships could be determined.

This capability would be particularly useful in effects-based operations (SIGNAL, August 2001, page 57), Gunter allows. Because relationships and not just data are displayed, commanders could see the multiple effects one action would create. Using simulations, Ratzenberger submits, the technology could be employed to develop approaches that would design and examine the desired effects.

While it is still too early to determine exactly how useful tools such as TheBrainEKP could be, Cmdr. Curtis relates that experiment participants liked the software because it was intuitive and easy to use. He emphasizes, however, that some issues still need to be resolved. “Right now at J-9, when you link two thoughts together a link is a link is a link. We think it needs to be characterized—something that identifies why it is linked. I believe the next version addresses this problem,” he indicates.

The commander also recounts that at times it is difficult to determine how one arrived at the current thought. “There needs to be a way to see a larger tree of thoughts,” he suggests.

Technologies such as TheBrain could support other concepts the J-9 is exploring such as operational net assessments. Because information can be constantly updated and viewed, it becomes a living model, Cmdr. Curtis points out. Situational awareness increases as groups like the intelligence community can add evaluations and coalition partners can contribute ideas and insight from their perspectives.

Gunter adds that the technology could help move information up the chain of command. Occasionally, a situation has changed by the time the troops receive orders, making the specified action unwise or impossible to carry out. By using technologies like TheBrain, information can be shared up and down the chain of command faster.

Ratzenberger agrees. Tools that facilitate effective collaboration among all levels of command could foster understanding and collapse planning time, she says. “Because everyone was in on the discussions and understands how the decision was arrived at, when the commander makes a decision, all the lower echelons understand why that decision was made,” she says.

Training will be required in this process. This is the cultural element, and as with all the transformation efforts in the military today, cultural change is a challenge, she adds.

Current acquisition processes are another obstacle to implementing some of the concepts and technologies quickly. “Acquisition of software is difficult in the Defense Department and the government. We hope that this is something that other people will help us take on so we can take advantage of these things faster. As we experiment with them, we have to get them out into the field,” Ratzenberger notes.

“TheBrain is not the full answer. We’ve got to have collaborative tools and ad hoc networks, and they all have to bring the information together,” Ratzenberger states. Targeting mishaps that have occurred in Afghanistan have been in part because information could not be shared in a timely manner, she opines. “Once you can tie together the Pentagon, commanders, pilots and weapons, everyone has the same information quicker. They look at the whole picture. It has to be plug-and-play. We don’t have six months to interconnect,” she explains.

The lessons learned in the J-9’s experiments also apply to businesses, according to Charles Luce, senior analyst, Delphi Group, Boston. “The typical ways of looking at information are hierarchical, and that is not intuitive. … It’s also not reflective of how people work. So, when we talk about knowledge in the modern work force, if someone were looking over your shoulder, they would have a difficult time understanding why you were doing what you were doing. All the synthesis is occurring in the gray matter of the individual. TheBrain has an alternative desktop or a metaphor for organizing the knowledge,” Luce offers.

“Over the past few decades, it’s become increasingly obvious to business people that the economy is knowledge driven. When you look at the old economy, value was created with stuff—cars, locomotives, steel. In today’s economy, value is driven by people staring into computer terminals and creating code. The value is knowledge. If you accept that premise, whatever you can do to explore the knowledge in their heads is beneficial,” he states.

“It has to get better from here. The tools today are still relatively primitive. The tools that do concept clustering and semantic analysis are still somewhat clumsy. They only mimic the human brain,” he shares.

But change is definitely on the horizon, Luce contends. “Desktops will become increasingly reflective and interactive, and information will become increasingly interactive. Intelligence will be built into the tools. To some extent the advances on the hardware side, like faster processing speeds, are enabling advances on the software side,” he concludes.

 

Additional information on TheBrain Technologies Corporation is available on the World Wide Web at http://www.thebrain.com.