COMMUNICATIONS/NETWORKS

Intellipedia suffers midlife crisis

Service wants formal commitment from intell agencies

The U.S. intelligence agencies' internal wiki Intellipedia has gotten glowing press reports and accolades, as well as input from thousands of analysts. However, the wiki still struggles to make a permanent home in the spy agencies, according to one of its evangelists.

"We are struggling to take it to the next level," said Chris Rasmussen, a social-software knowledge manager and trainer at the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, speaking by phone to the Semantic Community–Semantic Exchange Workshop held yesterday in Falls Church, Va. "Grass roots will only get you so far. [Intellipedia] is going well. But we're not replacing the big-agency systems," he added.

The problem? The growth of the collective intelligence site so far largely has been fueled by early adopters and enthusiasts, according to Rasmussen. About all those who would have joined and shared their knowledge on the social networking site have already done so. If the intelligence agencies want to get further gains from the site, they need to incorporate it into their own formal decision making process, he contended. Until that happens, the social networking aspect of Intellipedia is "just a marginal revolution," he said.

Established in 2005, Intellipedia, now managed by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence,  has approximately 100,000 user accounts. Open to anyone with a government e-mail account, it has social bookmarking tool, a document repository, a home page for each user, and collaboration spaces.

Some agencies already have incorporated it into their official routines, Rasmussen said. The Defense Department's Joint Chiefs of Staff uses Intellipedia as the official conduit for vetting and publishing its weekly reports. State Department diplomats use it as the internal communication of record for some reports.

In each of those cases, the agency uses the site for its official records, rather than using it as a duplicate or shadow system. For true change to occur, other agencies must use Intellipedia as their official conduit, at least for some functions, Rasmussen said. Otherwise, it is just creating additional work for contributors.

"Out of the fear of the unknown, many people are doing the same [work] two or three times," Rasmussen said. An agent may have had an informative conversation on Intellipedia, but then documents the exchange on some agency's official system as well. "If you move the content and the conversation over to the new space, why maintain the old?"

Another problem is that managers may not worry that their employees would not be comfortable contributing information to a social-networking tool. Rasmussen said he talked with one executive who said employees may not want to contribute personal items to their home page.

" 'Are you kidding?' " Rasmussen responded. "This is work. We force people to do stuff [they don't want to do] all the time — we make people come in sober and wear clothes. In certain cases top-down may not work, but in certain cases it does."

Rasmussen said the site is also experiencing some other growing pains. For example. contributors tag their articles in ways that can be too agency-centric. He mentioned a page on former Cuban president Fidel Castro that was tagged in the topic header as coming from the FBI. The FBI is not the subject of the article, so the tag was unnecessary. Contributors need to learn to accept "an agency-neutral non-ownership" stance to their articles, he said.

Another problem is that participating agency employees still tend to work in more classified spaces than necessary, thus discouraging true collaboration. "If you bring too many locks into an overly cautious culture, that's all you get: locks," Rasmussen said. He also mentioned that mashups remain to be too difficult for non-programmers to create, and social networks continue to be held, presumably unfairly, by higher standards than other technologies.

"If I put inappropriate content on the office door, you don't ban the office door. These tools are held to higher standards than any other thing that I ever seen," he said. He noted that a lot of the concerns around "inappropriate content and the unwashed masses messing everything up hasn't materialized in the four years."

About the Author

Joab Jackson is the senior technology editor for Government Computer News.

Reader Comments

Fri, Feb 20, 2009 Chris Rasmussen

Can the moderator please delete my previous comment and use this one? I mis-spelled something in other. @Mark Patrick I don’t re-call if I used the word “official” or not but I was referring to the J6’s standard operating procedure to vet and syndicate Weekly Activity Report using the wiki to aggregate and the blog to syndicate. I used this as an example of how these tools and processes are “real work” not an adjunct as they are often viewed. The J6 story is also a good one because it shows that executive backing is crucial. Admiral Brown supports this process and that helped move people into this process. I think the nature of a record is up for interpretation. I don’t see how storing records in a database that is indexed by a search engine and probably socially bookmarked with tags is not as good as a record in Documentum ECM. The Documentum system may seem more “orderly” but electrons are electrons so I’m having trouble understand the legal argument? The author of the piece could probably have picked a better title like “Intellipedia Growing Pains” but for someone with limited context and not privy to the massive nuances of this largely internal debate and me talking on the phone very quickly the over-all summary is not bad.

Fri, Feb 20, 2009 Chris Rasmussen

@Mark Patrick I don’t re-call if I used the word “official” or not but I was referring to the J6’s standard operating procedure to vet and syndicate Weekly Activity Report using the wiki to aggregate and the blog to syndicate. I used this as an example of how these tools and processes are “real work” not an adjunct as they are often viewed. The J6 story is also a good one because it shows that executive backing is crucial. Admiral Brown supports this process and that helped move people into this process. I think the nature of a record is up for interpretation. I don’t see how storing records in a database that is indexed by a search engine and probably socially bookmarked with tags is not as good as a record in Documentum ECM. The Documentum system may seem more “orderly” but electrons are electrons so I’m having trouble understand the legal argument? The author of the piece could probably have picked a better title like “Intellipedia Growing Pains” but for someone with little content and me talking on the phone very quickly the over-all summary is not bad.

Fri, Feb 20, 2009

"Open to anyone with a government e-mail account" -- well, that would be why the spy agencies, being secret and all, aren't using it more.

Thu, Feb 19, 2009 Mark Patrick DOD - The Joint Staff

I have responsibility for Records Management at the Joint Staff (and oversee the Combatant Commands RMP as well). The Joint Staff is NOT keeping official records in Intellipedia. They are using it for collaboration. The intellipedia terms of use say: "(U) Official Federal Agency Record Responsibilities:
(U) Section 3101 of title 44 U.S.C. requires the head of each Federal agency to make and preserve records containing adequate and proper documentation of the organization, functions, policies, decisions, procedures and essential transactions of the agency and designed to furnish the information necessary to protect the legal and financial rights of the Government and of persons directly affected by the agency's activities. Federal employees have three basic obligations for making and keeping records of their work including—

(U) Creating records needed to do the business of their agency, record decisions and actions taken, and document activities for which they are responsible
(U) Taking care that records are kept so that information can be found when needed. This means setting up good directories and files, and filing materials (in whatever format) regularly and carefully in a manner that allows them to be safely stored and efficiently retrieved when necessary
(U) Carrying out the disposition of records under their control in accordance with agency records schedules and Federal regulations
(U) Management of record material created or used as a consequence of the use of these Services, is the responsibility of the individual user and his/her agency." There is a DOD standard for electronic records (DOD 5015.2-STD). Intellipedia is non-compliant. The Joint Staff is using the Documentum ECM system for content and records. We create many records that are permenant (i.e., "life of the republic") and must abide by DOD and NARA standards, tedious as they may be. So, it's not exactly "fear of the unknown" that drives duplication, it's respect for the law. There's grounds for a debate here and I'm a big fan of intellipedia...but this is enough for now... I'll paste this to Mr. Rasmussen's talk page!

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