Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Part 2 -- What Is A Wiki And Why Is It So Different? (A Wiki Is Like A Room...)

Part 1 -- Introduction

While the word “wiki” is often interpreted as a "techie" term, most at home in the world of computers and information technology, a wiki is, in reality, nothing more than a collaborative tool, a resource. Without the active participation of a number of contributors it seems like a blank page, void of content (much like an empty room).

Wiki comes from the Hawaiian phrase “wiki-wiki”, meaning “very quick” and wikis are, according to Wikipedia (the definitive resource on this topic at least), simply “software that allows users to easily create, edit, and link pages together.” Wikipedia itself is probably the best known wiki. With over nine million articles in more than 250 languages, Wikipedia is one of the most popular internet sites and one of the largest repositories of knowledge on earth. While many criticize the effort, the large network of volunteers working on the project and its low cost make it generally reliable and extremely cost effective as a tertiary source.

The popularity and size of Wikipedia tends to dominate the popular image of what a wiki is and how it can be used, however. So pervasive (and powerful) is this image that it is nearly impossible for many people to imagine a wiki used in any other way. It was no surprise then when the US Intelligence community decided to copy the model with its own classified version, Intellipedia. In a recent speech, DDNI For Analysis, Thomas Fingar, stated that Intellipedia was growing, in its early stages, more rapidly than Wikipedia had grown in its early stages.

The success of these two wikis is misleading. If a wiki is a tool, then there should be a number of uses for it (just as a room can be used by an analytic team or to hold a birthday party). In fact, the 15 wiki-based analytic products that make up the data set for this series of posts are not like Wikipedia at all. While a relatively large number of students (20+) sometimes worked on these wikis and they often sought the advice of experts or other volunteers to help with specific tasks, these 15 wikis were closed to the public and, unlike Wikipedia, were only editable by members of the analytic team assigned to them.

Also, unlike Wikipedia, which is an on-going project, these student projects had to be completed in 10-14 weeks and delivered, not as an in-progress collection of articles, but as a coherent intelligence product, complete in all its details and ready for the team to present to a decisionmaker.

Finally, and most importantly, the wikis produced by my students were estimative in nature rather than merely descriptive. Wikipedia is about facts, about describing as accurately as possible the topic under discussion. The intelligence reports produced by my students have facts, but only as the basis for an estimate. It is this estimate – what is likely to happen as a result of the relationship of these facts to each other – that differentiates these products from the popular perception of a wiki.

The first such wiki–based product produced by my students, the 2007 strategic intelligence estimate on the impact of chronic and infectious diseases on US national interests worldwide (see screenshot below), broke, as a result, entirely new ground.

At that time, to the best of my knowledge, no one, inside or outside the intelligence community, had completed a strategic level, wiki-based intelligence analysis product. The student-analysts in my class had nothing to go by, no example to follow. Their ability to envision a new way to use a wiki to collect, analyze and produce finished intelligence was, in my mind, due to the fortuitous intersection of a tight-knit, intelligent and creative group of students with a general flair for both analysis and technology combined with an incredible work ethic. Also of significant importance in the success of the project was the support of Elizabeth Moore, the Deputy National Intelligence Officer for Global and Economic Issues at the National Intelligence Council and Fred Hassani, a human factors specialist associated with the application of new technologies working with the NIC, who were willing to simply give these students a chance.

Tomorrow -- The Origins And Scope Of The Data

1 comment:

Steve Mandzik said...

great post and since you are an academic you might find this interesting. In hawaiian the term wiki does not actually mean very fast, it means "do it quick". Only a slight difference but most wiki-folk understand the difference.