Friday, September 12, 2008

We -- All Of Us -- Won! (DNI Open Source Conference)

According to the DNI's official blog for the Open Source Conference going on in DC right now, Mercyhurst College had one of the two winning entries in the Conference's Open Source Innovation Challenge!

As most of you already know, the challenge was to tackle one of two analytic questions using only open sources and to do it in one week. The Mercyhurst team consisted of Mike Butler, Ray Wasko, Shannon Ferrucci, Dan Somavilla, Drew Brasfield and Chris Hippner and was sponsored by the Director of the Institute of Intelligence Studies here at Mercyhurst, Bob Heibel. They addressed the question: "Using the best open sources to inform your answer, is Al Qaeda a cohesive organization with strong and centralized control, intent and direction?" The other winning entry came from iJet Intelligent Risk Systems but I don't have any additional details.

The students involved were all unpaid volunteers and gave up their Labor Day holiday and the week before classes started in earnest to participate in the challenge. Their ability to self-organize, manage the collection effort (more on that in a minute), synthesize and analyze the vast amount of information that streamed in and produce an innovative and original document amazed both the faculty and their peers.

(Note to employers: One of the biggest advantages of hiring a Mercyhurst grad as an entry level analyst is also one of the most difficult to explain: By coming here and staying in the program, these students self-select to become analysts. Typically they do so because they really like doing intelligence analysis. They like the time pressure, they like difficult problems and they shoulder the responsibility of "getting intelligence right" very well. We told these students at the outset that the competition would be fierce and that their chances of winning were slim. We knew that this would not matter because we have 350 more students here just like them...)

One of the cooler things this team did, of course, was to crowdsource their efforts. I helped them put out the call for input right after Labor Day and many thanks to HOTS, IntelFusion, Soob and all the other bloggers that picked up the call and re-broadcast it. Also thanks to the members of IAFIE, INTELST, all of the alumni and all of the friends of the program for all of their help getting the word out and contributing to the process. I have not yet seen the list of all of the contributors but I have been told it is lengthy. If, as the DNI's new Vision 2015 document tells us, commitment, courage and collaboration are the core values of the intelligence community then everyone who offered a bit of advice, analysis or information without any expectation of reward deserves some of the credit, in my opinion.

On the analytic side, the team was clearly standing on the shoulders of giants. They benefited enormously from a wide variety of previous authors on the topic and their meticulously sourced document gives full credit to them. I also think they benefited from the expertise of Mercyhurst's own experts, Bob Heibel, former deputy director for counter-terrorism at the FBI and Steve Marrin, who had many, if not all, of these students in his terrorism class last year.

The presentation of the products and the slide show they put together along with it are due to be presented later today at the conference. Sometime after that, I will post both the document and the slide show here for anyone interested in the results.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

DNI's Official Open Source Conference Blog Up And Running (DNI)

The DNI has a top secret blog (no links from the main conference site to the blog that I could find) and a couple of staffers (presumably) roped into live blogging the events at the ongoing Open Source Conference in DC. If you are interested in the conference but were not able to attend, the live-bloggers are doing a reasonably good job of keeping up with the content. Comments are enabled as well so it is a good way to be there without being there...

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

AFRICOM Transition Likely Smoother Than Many Expect (ISN)

Mercyhurst grad student Shannon Ferrucci makes the case in an ISN report published today that AFRICOM's transition to full operational status is likely to be less dramatic than many have feared. According to her analysis, the issues relating to AFRICOM are well known by most and have likely already been factored into the equation by dissenters and proponents alike, making the 1 OCT 08 activation date important only in a ceremonial sense.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

What Is The Color Of Duty? ( via Information Aesthetics)

Information Aesthetics points to an interesting website today called Cymbolism. Cymbolism is a site for designers "that attempts to quantify the association between colors and words, making it simple for designers to choose the best colors for the desired emotional effect." So, for example, many people associate the color red with "love" or "passion".

Not everyone, though. Take a look at the picture of "passion" below:

It is a little hard to tell but red and maroon seem to to take up only about two thirds of the spectrum. Other colors such as fuschia, black and brown seem to get a number of votes as well.

Words such as "duty" are even worse:

There seems to be little consensus and a designer using grey or black to communicate "duty" would be ignoring the collected minority opinions of about 75% of the population.

All this reminded me of the difficulty of using words to describe intelligence findings. Rachel Kesselman's thesis on the meanings and uses of the various words of estimative probability in NIEs sprung to mind, of course, but this effect is noticeable in many other aspects of intelligence as well. One man's "freedom fighter" is another man's "terrorist", for example.

Other, less trivial, examples also occurred to me. Recently, I began my strategic intelligence classes by having the students select their strategic projects. As usual, we have a wide range of projects, sponsored by business, law enforcement and national security decisionmakers. The student's first task, again, as usual, is to discuss the decisionmaker's intelligence requirement with that decisionmaker -- a process that is always fraught with difficulty on the surface but which pays enormous dividends to both the student team and the decisionmaker up front. It is fraught with difficulty because the students know little about the problem with which they are to be tasked and the decisionmakers (typically) know little about the capabilities and limitations of the student analysts in our program.

The benefit, however, comes from both sides having to explain themselves to each other. It is an axiom of education that really knowing a subject means being able to explain it simply and well. Forcing both parties in the intelligence requirements meeting to explain themselves, to define terms, to answer "stupid questions" seems to me to go a long way toward eliminating the problem of one side thinking "duty" is blue and the other side thinking "duty" is gray.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

A Must-Use Site: ISN Gets A Makover (ISN)

Over the last week I have written about Jeff Carr's fascinating open source project and our own modest efforts with regard to the DNI's Open Source Innovation Challenege (Thanks to everyone who helped!), but the 800 pound gorilla in the open source world is the International Relations and Security Network (ISN). Established in 1994, with over 3 million hits a month and hundreds of top quality partners, ISN dwarfs most other efforts at open source.

ISN, housed at the Swiss Federal Insitute Of Technology in Zurich (the Swiss MIT and one of the top 50 universities in the world), channels more content in a day than most organizations create in a year. The ISN is part of the Center For Security Studies (CSS) at the ETH (the German abbreviation for "Federal Institute of Technology") and the CSS produces some very interesting and well-researched content of its own. Establishing organizations like the ISN is, of course, the kind of thing the Swiss do, but the Swiss government (which partially funds the site), the ETH and the CSS are to be applauded for supporting this extraordinary international resource.

The ISN's content used to be bound up in a hard to navigate website but no more. Last week ISN unveiled its new website and I find it to be a significant improvement. The interface is clean and simple and sorting the various products by type, subject or region is now a snap. The search feature is much improved and I was particularly impressed with how easily the RSS feeds integrated with Google Reader (my preferred RSS feed reader).

Note: I will continue to share some of the more interesting things I find in ISN's feeds and from other feeds I monitor in the SAM's Shared Items box on the right hand side of this page. Content there changes pretty quickly so if you see something of interest, be sure to bookmark it. It will probably be gone the next time you come back.

The site has a robust current affairs section and a massive digital library including a substantial link list and a comprehensive International Relations Directory. My only beef here (and it is minor) is that there is no separate subject heading for intelligence (hint, hint...). What is particularly good about these resources is that they come from partner institutions all over the world, helping ensure that whatever biases are inherent in one document are, at least, balanced by reports from the other side of the argument.

Dealing with the ISN as a partner is dead easy. ISN hosts our thesis series and occasionally publishes analysis by our students under the "Intel Brief" banner. Everyone from editor extraordinaire, Jen Alic, to our partnership manager, Linda Popova, is incredibly easy to work with. Having had an opportunity to visit the offices of the ISN, I can tell all of their partners that if it seems like an easy relationship to maintain it is because the ISN staff works their tails off to make it look that way.

Of particular note for OSINT specialists and intel studies programs is Chris Pallaris, the head of OSINT for the ISN. Chris is a good friend but is also one of the true OSINT visionaries. An excellent writer and speaker, Chris comes to this side of the pond periodically and is always worth listening to when he does.