2008 GCN Award winner: ODNI employs wiki technology to promote information sharing through Intellipedia<@VM>SIDEBAR: Secrets of sharing: Use everyday technology
- By Joab Jackson
- Oct 17, 2008
IN THE AFTERMATH OF THE 2001 terrorist attacks, the intelligence
agencies were criticized for their inability to share information.
Seven years later, however, analysts across the CIA, FBI and other
agencies swap what they know with one another through an internal
Web destination called Intellipedia. The result is a collective
intelligence that can go beyond the smarts of any one agency.
The site is the work of the Office of the Directory of National
Intelligence, which was formed in 2003 to help intelligence
agencies pool their information. ODNI now manages Intellipedia,
along with a number of other cross-agency collaborative
'The fundamental goal of creating DNI was to give us a far
more comprehensive view of what the intelligence community has, to
make it far more interoperative and drive us toward decision
Richard Russell, a deputy associate director of national
intelligence at ODNI. Russell now leads ODNI's office for
Intelligence Community Enterprise Solutions, which oversees
Intellipedia. Russell said most of the work needed to facilitate
information sharing was political, not technological. But what
should not be underestimated is how quickly the agency's
Enterprise Solutions office has moved to install systems that
analysts everywhere can easily use, in effect providing the tools
that allow ODNI to carry out its duty.
The agency's most well-known piece of information-sharing
technology ' though it's the only one ' is
Intellipedia, a 600,000-page-and-growing wiki platform that
analysts across the different federal agencies use to share what
Intellipedia grew from a much larger and older research and
development initiative, called Intelink. Initiated by the CIA in
the mid-1990s, Intelink sought new and innovative ways to pool
resources in the intelligence community. At first the idea would be
to give each office a Web page that could be updated.
But it was the deployment of easily updated commercial wiki
software that took hold. The idea was simple: Set up a Web site
where intelligence officers and other personnel could easily post
information they thought would be of interest to the community.
Others can add to this information, link it to other facts or
refute it. Unlike the pages posted on Intelink, information does
not have to be sent up the chain of command for approval.
The idea was to replicate, on a set of closed networks with
appropriately cleared users, the massively popular online
encyclopedia Wikipedia. With Wikipedia, the sum total of knowledge
is aggregated from participants around the globe and potentially
represents a much larger body of knowledge than could be assembled
by any one organization.
'In that collaboration, we come out with a really good,
concise and valid set of information about what we think is going
on,' Russell said.
With input from more than 160 agencies, the site gets more than
65,000 edits each day. Intelligence analysts search the site more
than 2 million times a month. Its reach has extended beyond the
intelligence community and into the Defense Department and even
many civilian agencies. The State Department has mandated that some
of its personnel use Intellipedia to communicate diplomatic
information. The traditional approach of alerting diplomats via
cable worked well enough, but if that same information was posted
to a wiki page, others could incorporate that information, too.
Intellipedia gathers what has not been routinely gathered
before. Each intelligence agency has its own specialty: The
National Security Agency keeps its ears peeled to foreign
communications. The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency
collects satellite imagery. 'Every agency has its own
take,' said Ramon Barquin, president of business intelligence
consulting firm Barquin International. ODNI performs an essential
task by bringing together all the information under one roof so
that when the time comes to make a decision about some vital
matter, all the supporting evidence can be easily consulted,
ODNI is also smart enough to understand the new generation of
intelligence analysts is far more accustomed to using Web 2.0
technologies as a way to communicate, Barquin said.
In particular, one Web 2.0 technology, the wiki, attracted
millions of users who otherwise bypassed commercial collaboration
technology because a wiki has the virtue of being a 'bottomup
rather than top-down' technology, said Tony Byrne, co-founder
of the CMS Watch. As a more casual medium, wikis encourage more
participation without the stigma of making participation an
The intelligence community is smart to use wikis and even
smarter for using them in a controlled fashion. Both Byrne and
Barquin praised ODNI for understanding that projects such as
Intellipedia should be managed loosely ' but still be
managed. A project needs more direction than relying on the wisdom
of the masses, as Byrne puts it.
'In the last two years that I have been involved in this,
I have seen us make progress that most people would have never
thought possible,' Russell said of the agency's
information-sharing activities. 'We have made more progress
in the past two years than in the 20-some years before
Not an agency to rest on its laurels, ODNI is working on a
number of additional projects, along with other agencies, to extend
the shared space. One will be what Russell called an analytic
enclave, called A-Space. This work area will allow analysts to post
their research, so that others can read and add information. It
includes video and document-sharing services and a search service.
DNI is also working with the intelligence agencies on a shared
repository of materials, called the Library of National
Intelligence. It already has more than 640,000 reports and
eventually will be used by all 16 intelligence agencies.
The idea is to broaden the reach of data being shared, and,
eventually, fuse historical knowledge with real-time data, Russell
'Fundamentally, the conundrum is, can you discover
everything we know? Can you get access to everything we've
produced? And if you can, then you can leverage that
information,' Russell said.
The Office of the Director of
Intellipedia and other
Intelink services represent a
fresh round of thinking for
government agencies: relying
on commercial and
open-source software or
applications and applying
the new work methods they
Intellipedia uses opensource
the same used by Wikipedia.
Likewise, other services on
the agency's Intelink platform
use Web 2.0 software.
A video-sharing service on
Intelink, called iVideo, is
built on the Flash Video
Format (FVF), the same format
used by YouTube. A
photo-sharing service is built
on the same foundation used
by Flickr, and a tagging service
is loosely based on the
popular Del.ico.us Web
The Library of National
Intelligence uses an Oracle
10 relational database system,
along with an Apache
Web server, the Mongrel
server for delivering services
from Ruby-based programming
Microsystems provides the
servers and storage.
'Every line of custom code
is a stovepipe to the rest of
the world,' said Richard
Russell, an ODNI deputy
associate director of national
intelligence. 'We want
We use service-oriented
architecture standards so
that everyone can utilize [a
service], no matter what
platform they are on.'
If ODNI wants changes, it
contacts the company or, if
the software is open source,
the developers try to get
changes made. With that
type of service, all users of
the software, not just the
federal government, can
enjoy the improvements.