Another View: From hunter-gatherer to information cultivator

Brian Buck

It's time to get up to date on how you manage all that information; here are six steps

For all our sophisticated, Information Age gadgetry, we are still a society of primitive hunter-gatherers in dealing with the information bombarding us daily.

According to January's edition of the geospatial intelligence magazine Pathfinder, agency analysts spend as much as 80 percent of their time collecting information to support their work, pulling bits and pieces from everywhere data lives. In security agencies, so much time is spent hunting down information, there is precious little left to analyze that data and act on leads.

Decision-makers, overwhelmed by the nonstop stream of information, often resort to gut-level decisions, less concerned about whether they're good or bad than about just getting them off their plates.

What can intelligence managers do to help their organizations even keep up with this data deluge, let alone make good use of it? The ones doing a better job tend to follow a few important principles:

1. Work with all your data at once, in real time. Federal agencies'especially those involved in law enforcement and homeland security'can't afford to spend 80 percent of their time hunting down details. Find a solution that automates data collection and can handle high-volume, high-rate data streams. Multimedia data, sensor data and RFID streams are all in your future, even if you don't utilize them now. Everything changes too quickly these days to rely on last month's records in a data warehouse.

2. Focus on facts, not documents. Move beyond working directly with raw documents. Imagine a search that returns 100,000 documents, every one conceivably relevant. How many would an analyst read before giving up? Information management systems should automatically analyze documents, extract interesting facts and present a high-level, visual summary with drill-down for details. The payoff will be huge gains in productivity and in the thoroughness of research.

3. Find the patterns. Most unexpected events actually have precedents, but we often miss the indicators. Choose a solution able to find the hidden patterns in your data, so your agency can stop reacting to surprises and start planning.

4. Detect important changes and react quickly. Find tools that act as intelligent assistants, able to recognize what's new, what's important and what's actionable. These tools should prioritize the actionable information, so you can spend your time pursuing your best leads while they are still actionable.

5. Fit your workflow. A good solution should support the way your analysts work, not the other way around. At the very least, you need a painless way for decision-makers to create and share their work quickly and easily, while automatically documenting the decision-making process.

6. The big picture. The best information management systems are tools that take the load off decision-makers' and analysts' backs while improving the quality of actionable intelligence. They are technologies that automate mundane tasks that eat up too much of our time, energy and staff talent. They facilitate rapid understanding through modeling and by presenting information visually. Most important, they enable faster responses with more thorough understanding and less risk; they help your organization work smarter, not harder.

Nothing is going to stop the e-mail, phone calls, meeting reminders or knocks on the door. But the most effective agencies will be those who move beyond primitive information hunting and gathering, using technology to become information cultivators.

Brian Buck is chief technology officer at RiverGlass Inc., Champaign, Ill. He can be reached at

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