Open source cuts through intell community's red tape

Developer's Web-based analysis software will allow collaboration

Intelligence analysts will soon have a new idea- and decision-management tool. Called Analysis of Competing Hypotheses, the software is an open-source version of a proprietary program developed for  the intelligence community.

ACH allows analysts to start with a great deal of data and find those data points that support or undermine various hypotheses, but it is a single-user system. Matthew Burton, a Web strategy consultant and former Defense Intelligence Agency analyst, has tried for three years to develop a collaborative version so that multiple analysts could study the same hypotheses simultaneously, but he has been stymied by incompatibility with proprietary software specifications and licensing issues.

The single-user version is limited, Burton told GCN. "If you’re on a multi-analyst team working on a problem, you can’t very easily work on it remotely,” he said. In such situations, a conference room at a government agency will be reserved and the team will gather to work around a single laptop loaded with the software. He described this approach as “a big disaster.”

Now he's making the Web-based, open-source tool available free of charge to anyone who wants to use it. The software will be available before the end of August, he said. 

The Palo Alto Research Center (formerly Xerox PARC) developed the original software, which has to be installed on all users' desktops. Burton, on behalf of a consulting firm, developed the collaborative version on spec for the CIA.

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According to published reports, Burton's program was supposed to work with Analytic Space, an online workspace for intelligence operatives, but nobody could find the development specifications for the workspace. There was also the issue of licensing rights for the original ACH. Eventiually the project came to a halt..

Another factor is group dynamics. The ACH software mimics the original paper process by creating a grid to list hypothesis and the arguments that support or weaken it. The software presents information as a series of questions about how a piece of evidence applies to a certain hypothesis. But the PARC version does not record dissenting viewpoints in detail.

For examples, if you put 10 analysts in a room and ask them their opinion of a certain hypothesis, and nine of them agree, the lone dissenter has a decision to make. Sometimes the dissenter holds firm and gets outvoted, but often that person will decide to go along with the majority.

The Web-based tool Burton is preparing to release allows users to work and participate remotely from their desks, where they cannot be pressured by others. “There is always a record of everyone’s viewpoint, no matter how unpopular it was,” he said.

There was no mechanism in the original software to highlight the nature of the impasse; it only indicated that one had occurred. Burton said that this process led to arguments between analysts because it did not allow them to have constructive discussions. In the Web-based version, after the participants fill in their own views, the software pinpoints the disagreements.

An ACH project with both software types displays theories and possible solutions on a large grid or spreadsheet. All of the project participants fill in their own data. The open-source version highlights the cells in the spreadsheet with the most contention. “Instead of arguing about the case in general, the team can have a more focused discussion,” he said.

But he cautioned that “ACH is not an answer machine.” Although it does rank hypotheses, he said, it is designed to help analysts refine their thinking and argue their points.

Burton has funded the development of the open-source ACH software himself. He said that a key reason behind the move to open-source is that it is very difficult to support a software product in the intelligence community. There are various reasons for this state of affairs —software must be customized; personnel hired, cleared and those security clearances maintained.

Burton’s Web-based ACH software has recently been tested during a U.S. Strategic Command exercise and in several intelligence community test networks. These networks include Analytic Space-U, an unclassified testing area for A-Space. Once he releases the software, Burton plans to host both the repository and the binary on GitHub. He also plans to launch a demonstration site to allow users to work with the software.

The software is available to anyone, but it will be up to organizations to determine whether to install it on their networks. Burton said analysts usually cannot access the public Web from their work desktops, but they can load the software onto their home computers.


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