A-Space melds social media and intelligence gathering

Built with commercial tools, the social-networking site brings analysts together for information sharing, collaboration

With the much-praised Intellipedia, the intelligence community learned to use a Wikipedia-like information repository to share information. Now the Defense Intelligence Agency is taking the next step on social media, with a shared workspace project named A-Space.

Like Intellipedia, A-Space seems to be taking hold in the intelligence community.

When it was launched in September 2008, the program was scheduled to be a one-year pilot project. It got bumped up into operational status early this year, and several of the 17 agencies that use the DIA service have decided that A-Space will be the official workspace for their analysts, the place where they store their working documents and hold electronic conversations.

"It acts like a knowledge repository, where the aggregate knowledge of all the specialists come together," said Ahmad Ishaq, project manager for A-Space.

Ishaq declined to estimate the number of A-Space users, adding that a vast majority of analysts who have access to A-Space use the service.

A-Space offers analysts from across the intelligence community "access to a common framework to do analysis and share information," Ishaq said.

During the past several years, Intellipedia, hosted by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, has received a lot of media attention for its success in allowing analysts in the federal intelligence communities to share information. Set up like Wikipedia, Intellipedia offers a wide range of pages about topics of interest and has more than 100,000 users.

With the success of Intellipedia, what’s the need for A-Space? "Intellipedia is more like an encyclopedia. The information is finished.” Ishaq said. “A-Space is where ideas get finalized. It's more conversational." DIA wanted to extend electronic collaboration into the creation of intelligence, where a lot more material resides and can be reused.

The service already has proved its value, not only by the number of participants but also by the number of problems it has solved.

A Homeland Security Department analyst needed to identify a person whose face was found posted on several street and stop signs in a region of the United States. So he posted a scan of the poster on A-Space and received information and photos from seven other agencies. With that information, he could run an image search of the face, which ultimately provided identification.

In another case, A-Space allowed analysts from multiple agencies to get up-to-speed on rapidly emerging situations. In December 2008, terrorists launched a coordinated attack of multiple shootings and bombings across Mumbai, India. Experts from multiple agencies immediately convened in A-Space to share what they knew.

"A-Space is an environment in which analysts collaboratively create new meaning out of the diverse ideas and perspectives they collectively bring to an issue," wrote knowledge management expert Nancy Dixon, who studied how A-Space is used and published her results in June. "Through this collaboration, analysts have the potential to break through long-held assumptions to provide new ways of thinking about complex problems."

To build A-Space, the first step was to establish an index of expertise.

A-Space features a Facebook-like interface. All analysts have profiles, which they fill in with e-mail addresses, phone numbers, contact information and areas of expertise. The site maintains an index of specialties and can generate common areas of interest. Each user gets a list of other users who are interested in the same topics. Someone at the FBI who specializes in Afghanistan could be introduced to someone who specializes in Afghanistan at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.

"That by itself has been invaluable," Ishaq said. "Many analysts have been able to meet and network with peers that work similar topics. You could imagine how that has improved the quality of their analysis."

Before A-Space, an analyst who needed to find a subject-matter expert on some topic faced a tedious, hit-or-miss process of sending e-mail messages and phoning around to colleagues, Ishaq said.

Another critical component of A-Space is the workspace, the bread and butter of A-Space, Ishaq said. Workspaces are common areas where different communities of interest can share documents and conversations. For example, an analyst could post a document, thus starting a conversation that others can comment on. The person who posted the document might return to it and find a lot of new information. Workspaces can be made public — so any member could view documents — or private and limited to a specific group.

DIA built much of A-Space from commercial technologies. Much of it is built around software called SBS (formerly Clearspace), from Jive Software. "It was a tool that met most of our baseline requirements,” Ishaq said. “In the beginning, we did very minimal customization."

A-Space has a number of other features, including geospatial capabilities. Two or more people can share a map and post comments or pictures on it. The site also offers two different types of searches. One is an internal search for users and experts. The second, more comprehensive search, which is still in development, combs all user-generated content for material.

Hooking the different intelligence agencies to A-Space wasn't a formidable problem because most had access to the Joint Worldwide Intelligence Communications System, a Defense Department intelligence network. The A-Space software is Web based, so no client software is necessary.

The larger concern is how to get analysts from all the different agencies to participate. "How do you bring down these walls that the agencies have put up," Ishaq said. "We still face some organizational challenges in who allows who to participate."

The good news is that the intelligence community workforce is changing, and many recent college graduates are well-versed in Web 2.0 tools. "This is stuff they do in their everyday lives," he said. "So when they come online and see A-Space, they recognize faster how to leverage the tools." 

However, allowing analysts to share all this information is only the first step of A-Space. Ishaq and his team are exploring ways of making all the information that is being generated machine-readable. Ishaq would like to incorporate elements of the Semantic Web tools, which would allow them to draw inferences from existing material.

"Right now, the communication is between person and machine,” he said. “We're trying to take it a step further, to machine-to-machine. So the end-user logs in to the computer, and everything he could possibly want would be there, without doing searches or clicking around." /p>

About the Author

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


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