Intellipedia Seeks Ultimate Information Sharing

October 2007
By Robert K. Ackerman
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The system continues to evolve, but its adoption is not universal.

The intelligence community’s one-year-old Intellipedia already is paying benefits to its users, according to Central Intelligence Agency officials. However, a majority of the community remains unfamiliar with its benefits and uncomfortable with its use.

The characteristics of the Intellipedia compel a revolutionary cultural change in the nature of intelligence information processing, analysis and dissemination. To exploit its capability fully, users must abandon their old way of producing intelligence products. This is on a par with changing from need-to-know to need-to-share.

The Intellipedia’s Web 2.0 approach offers huge benefits, say its advocates. Intellipedia users already are learning how to meld larger amounts of information into more accurate intelligence products. But both the newness of its approach and the radical changes it impels on its users have discouraged many from diving into the Intellipedia and exploiting it to its fullest.

The Intellipedia is less about technology and more about culture, declares Don Burke, Intellipedia doyen at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Directorate of Science and Technology. “It’s about how we do our job and the kind of things that we use to do that job.”

As its name indicates, the Intellipedia adapts from the popular Wikipedia. Burke explains that it simply is a wiki where information can be aggregated from a variety of sources and repositories to create a public shared drive of information for the intelligence community. He adds that the Intellipedia is part of an emerging set of software that allows organizations to move from information channels to platforms. This represents a departure from stovepipe shared drives, e-mail, instant messaging and telephony toward an environment that enables discussion and debate. Information can be repurposed for better accuracy and currency.

One discovery that surprised Burke during the Intellipedia’s development is just how much the intelligence community duplicates work. He says that the loss of information is pervasive because it has been captured in shared drives and e-mail, for example. “It really has been eye-opening to me just how much we all think that we are the only ones doing particular work and we are the only ones that have the right information,” he recounts.

Sean Dennehy, chief, CIA Intellipedia development in the Directorate of Intelligence, describes Intellipedia as part of a suite of Web 2.0 tools that is being deployed throughout the intelligence community. These relatively new tools are favored by pockets of individuals in various organizations, but they have not caught on yet with the intelligence community at large.

The Intellipedia and its Web 2.0 brethren are a disruptive technology, he continues. While a new generation of analysts and officers is familiar with wikis and blogs, longtime intelligence community personnel are reluctant to adopt the technologies’ revolutionary approach. This touches on Burke’s description of moving from channels to platforms.

Terrorism effectively is a distributed Web 2.0-like organization, Burke declares. Attacking that construct from a hierarchical system is difficult when intelligence personnel lack vital information on relationships and relevant linkages. Instead, people must come together and self-organize in “dynamic communities of interest,” he warrants. “These tools allow people to identify themselves through a variety of relationships as being interested in a topic and join in a discussion or debate.”

Advocates for Intellipedia and other innovative tools are trying to encourage a bottom-up approach to their adoption, Dennehy adds. Users tend to see the benefits offered by these new systems as they try them.

Burke offers that Intellipedia training has illuminated how the intelligence community still is “not very Web-savvy.” The classified world long has featured closed networks with proprietary systems that were not Web-enabled. Some intelligence community personnel need to be educated on how to exploit a Web browser’s capabilities.

“It’s hard for people to get to the point where they say, ‘What? You want me to have a debate publicly with another part of the intelligence community?’ So it’s a really big cultural hurdle to say, ‘Yes, we actually need to be debating with ourselves,’” Burke emphasizes.

Burke explains that the Intellipedia encompasses three core principles to help organizations overcome hurdles to adopting the new technology and its culture. The first is to work topically rather than organizationally. Information does not have to bear the seal of the organization. Instead, the community is better served with the Intellipedia aggregating information on a topic. This permits all appropriate members of the community to work topically, which also helps eliminate territoriality with regard to authorship. Debate can focus on the topic instead of on its source organization.

The second core principle involves the audience. Dennehy allows that Intellipedia users are encouraged to work to the broadest audience possible, which again runs counter to the prevailing culture of specialization amid need-to-know. He notes that many students who have participated in a sabbatical program want to interact with military and diplomatic colleagues who often have Secret, rather than Top Secret, network access. With Intellipedia residing on those two networks along with the sensitive-but-unclassified network, this interaction is enabled through the secret Internet protocol router network (SIPRNET).

Burke adds that one hurdle to this principle is that the audience is changing. Formerly, the audience would be defined by the network level to which the broadest audience has single-click access. The solution is to encourage users to work as broadly as they can where they can access easily without needing to switch between systems.

The third key principle is to replace existing processes. Burke relates that many prospective users believe that they are too busy to learn a new tool or to deposit information in more than one place. What they perceive as additional tasks dissuades them from adopting the Intellipedia. The third principle aims to convince these users to replace their current processes with the new ones that represent a more efficient and effective way of doing business instead of adding more duties.

“We all gather information today, and we put Word or Excel documents within shared drives,” he explains. “Instead of using those tools to aggregate your information, simply aggregate it on a wiki page.

“Or, if you’re going to have a debate and normally would do that in an e-mail, instead blog your idea and then use e-mail to do what it’s best at—reach out and touch a group of people and have them join the debate on this blog,” he continues. That will achieve the goals of greater transparency without adding new duties to the user’s job set.

A fourth challenge that is not part of these core principles involves the authoritativeness of the intelligence data. Both Burke and Dennehy observe considerable resistance to using Intellipedia tools because many users demand to know if the data is authoritative. Burke says that this attitude is not the right way to look at the issue.

“This is no different from having a telephone conversation or a debate in e-mail,” he analogizes. “This [Intellipedia approach] is the same thing, but now it’s in a way in which we all can stand on each others’ shoulders and develop that and extend it.

“There is a spectrum of knowledge, and that knowledge goes from the most nascent early stages of information up to what we call managed product,” Burke continues. “These tools should not be seen as competing with managed product—they should be seen as complementary to managed product. [The Intellipedia] is the place where the organization can discuss and debate and learn from each other as they move up to producing their managed product for their customer set at that particular moment.

“It’s a way of improving and enhancing the thoroughness and comprehensiveness of the managed product that is going out the door,” he declares.

These tools also offer many capabilities for assessing the information contained in the wiki articles. Burke notes that they could include the complete edit history of an article, the user page naming the author and describing his or her expertise, and the article’s sourcing—or lack thereof. The result is a greater degree of insight into an article’s authoritativeness than with many official products today, he claims.

In the same vein, Intellipedia coverage of a topic can be debated on a page. This helps build products requiring coordinated assessment, Dennehy observes.

Burke imparts that a tremendous amount of information—perhaps a vast majority—never reaches the level of publication in a finished intelligence product. Much of this might be useful background material that never appears as a finished product. But a wiki article can include or connect to this wealth of information to provide valuable context, he says.

Burke allows that the Intellipedia approach helps remove the need for metadata tagging. “You cannot get to a point where you put that metadata on every piece of information,” he declares. “Nor can you also know how a given piece of information will be used in the future. You can never know everything.”

To articulate the new approach, he refers to the Internet term folksonomy. It draws from taxonomy, which is a top-down driven architecture that has strict rules defining how elements relate to each other. A folksonomy is a Web 2.0 environment in which every individual can assign relationships and relevance to any given article—a wiki, a blog or even a link. The human identifies the relationship, and the machine creates the links.

“A formal taxonomy, a formal ontology, imply that you know the answer with great certainty,” Dennehy remarks. “That’s not usually true in intelligence. The more you can allow people to create relationships and create relevance—and then debate and discuss—[it] will lead to a greater understanding of those issues, particularly if we reduce our structures that say, ‘I know the answer.’”

Dennehy allows that the academic community is debating the effects—especially cultural ones—of bringing these tools behind the firewall of the intelligence community. One discussion centers on whether the Intellipedia represents an evolution or a revolution in the community.

Many of the pioneering users of the Intellipedia have been individuals who have recognized that their conventional way of operation was not as effective as it should have been, Burke says. These individuals are willing to explore other ways of doing business and to explore new avenues. After trying the new tools, they begin replacing some of their work processes with these tools. Their success through the power of these tools shows others the advantages that they can gain.

“The perception is that wikis are chaos, and that there is no way of knowing anything, and they’ll only lead to bad things,” Burke relates. “But what you see, when you get people replacing processes, is a pervasive quiet understanding that this is a better way of doing business.”

Dennehy relates that change often comes amid resistance. “When they first introduced copying machines to the intelligence community, when they first introduced e-mail to the intelligence community, when they first introduced instant messaging to the intelligence community, initially there was skepticism and security concerns,” he points out. “But eventually these were adopted because of necessity.

“Individuals can make their own decision whether or not they are going to use these tools,” he continues. “But it’s critical for the organizations themselves to adopt them, because they must continually evolve.”

Burke professes that organizations really do not have a choice whether they adopt these tools. The world is moving so quickly that individuals no longer can gather the information they need fast enough to respond to that quickening pace. This applies to non-intelligence topics in the public realm, particularly in breaking news, he imparts.

The future of the Intellipedia may lie in perpetual data. Burke offers that its tools are living organisms that begin reflecting the living nature of organizations. Both the organizations and their tools must continue to grow and develop. These tools will continue to offer new capabilities as time progresses.

So a new business line needs to be developed for people called gardeners. These are people who live and work within the space but do not necessarily take a particular interest in any given article. Instead, they are interested in ensuring that articles are well-sourced, have good categories and good linkage, and serve users effectively. These people would be a new concept for any organization, he confirms, and creating the necessary structures for these gardeners will be a big challenge.

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