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The social network that gets spies talking

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You think you have collaboration problems? No matter how ironclad your silos are, no matter how insular your corporate culture is — chances are you’ve got nothing on the 16 federal agencies that make up the national intelligence community.

Secrecy isn’t a byproduct of intelligence; it’s a job requirement. Yet too often that caution keeps agencies from working together, said Dr. Michael Wertheimer, technical director at the National Security Agency, during a presentation at Social Media for Defense and Government.

The intelligence community relies on the judgment of experts to bridge the gap between what an agency knows and what it seeks to know, Wertheimer said. But analysts acting alone can actually be counterproductive “because your expertise anchors you to the status quo,” he said.

Most analysts approach that problem by trying to accumulate more information, but a glut of information is actually part of the community’s collaboration problem. According to Wertheimer, the 16 intelligence agencies collectively gather 10 million times more information than they have the capacity to analyze. The data can’t even be bundled together into meaningful chunks, since many organizations have trouble agreeing on the spelling of many foreign places and names — even for such high-profile figures as Osama Bin Laden.

Instead, the solution being promoted by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence is to increase collaboration between experts, so new perspectives can be used to find solutions faster. “Solutions to hard problems are almost always found by someone with a secondary connection to the problem coming at it from a new angle,” Wertheimer said.

Even with the top brass on board, some analysts were still reluctant to embrace collaboration, he noted. Wertheimer said some employees saw the value in collaborating but weren’t sure how to make collaborative processes a regular part of their day. More seriously, some analysts opposed collaboration out of fear that it would decrease their value as experts. Despite these concerns, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence launched its intelligence collaboration tool, A-Space, in September 2008 as tool to improve agencies’ use of classified information.

A-Space is a secure social network that was initially open to about 10,000 government employees who qualify as intelligence analysts. Users fill out profiles listing their subject expertise. The network can suggest other members a user might want to connect with based on interests. Very little personal information is mentioned, so users will judge each other on based on what they know, not on other factors such as age or gender.

Users are able to post discussion topics, share information and collaborate on an unofficial level — which often leads to official collaborative products down the line.

Wertheimer cited an example of how the network has helped analysts do their job better and faster.

Analysts were debating if a photo believed to be of a Chinese submarine had been doctored or not. Subject-matter experts were measuring the angle of the lighting in the photo and trying to determine the size of the waves in the photo to calculate how quickly the sub was moving — yet none of these efforts were yielding a concrete answer. Finally, one user with an amateur interest in photography pointed out that the photo exhibited slight imperfections that were tell-tale signs of being touched up in Adobe Photoshop. The photo was undoubtedly a fake. While the subject-area experts might have figured this out eventually, they were able to find an answer much faster because of an outsider’s observation.

While many officials were worried about getting analysts to sign up for the network, those fears have turned out to be unfounded. At launch, just 10,000 analysts were eligible for A-Space access, but a little more than a year later, the network has about 15,000 members. Wertheimer says the extra 5,000 members are intelligence employees who applied for analyst status so they could gain access to the network.

If the intelligence community can manage 150% buy-in for its collaboration efforts, maybe there’s hope for your organization yet.