Saturday, April 12, 2008

Sunday Funnies: Save The Antelope (

No comment. Just watch...


Instant Business/Competitive Intel Link Diagrams (NewsVisual via Information Aesthetics)

Information Aesthetics (one of the best blogs out there covering the world of information visualization) posted a link to NewsVisual, a 9 month old site that combines current news with link charts generated automatically using SEC data and IntellectSpace's proprietary link analysis software.

The site should be of particular interest to competitive intelligence and externally focused business intelligence professionals. I was a little disappointed in the load times for the full charts and was very disappointed to see that the charts only opened up in IE Explorer (Firefox users will have to get the IE Tab add-on to see the full charts). It was worth the effort though as the charts (see screenshot below for an example) add real depth and nuance to the stories.

Friday, April 11, 2008

First Rate Overview Of Refugee Situation In Iraq, Chad, Columbia, Sudan (UNHCR And Google Earth)

The UN's High Commissioner For Refugees (UNHCR) has teamed up with Google Earth to produce a very informative overlay that provides general information about not only UNHCR activities in Iraq, Chad, Columbia and Sudan but also the challenges faced by refugees in those countries in meeting the demands of everyday life. In addition to the main countries listed above, the overlay also includes some UNHCR activities in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt (primarily in the context of the Iraqi refugee crisis).

The news and information is designed to inform rather than outline the specifics of each UNHCR mission. As a result, this overlay is perhaps best used as it was clearly intended to be used, as a background piece. Each individual entry is quite interesting, however, and, while it may take a moment to load, they are all worth exploring. It would be particularly helpful for individuals who were not at all familiar with the UNHCR and the work it does around the globe.

If you do not have Google Earth, then you will need to download it (its free). Once Google Earth is installed, you can download the .kml file that contains the overlay. Double clicking on the .kml file should open up the overlay and Google Earth. Within the "Refugee's Life" menu, there are a number of options (See image to the right). You can start at the top with the introduction or go straight to one of the other items by double clicking on it in the menu. I found the "Let's Visit A Camp" link to be particularly interesting (see image at bottom of post).

If I have one beef is is that double clicking on some of the items in the menu takes you to strange places. For example, double clicking on the "Regional Overview" item takes you to a spot over North Africa but at an elevation that does not allow you to see any of the UNHCR icons. My recommendation is to zoom in and out on the named countries in order to be able to see what is there. Aggravating, but not fatally so.

All in all, this is a good overview product and well worth a teacher's or a student's time. It might also a good way to orient young soldiers, analysts, contractors and others who might not otherwise be familiar with the UNHCR's activities using an engaging and interactive tool.

Art Theft And Organized Crime (ISN)

Morgan Russell, a graduate student here at Mercyhurst, just had a short article published by ISN concerning the connection between art theft and organized crime. The article was a bit of an eye-opener for me as I was not aware of just how much money (upwards of $6 billion) organized crime is making off of art theft.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Mercyhurst Featured On Fox Business News (

Mercyhurst made a little bit of news in recent weeks by shifting the way it provides financial aid. The College announced in March "its decision to directly provide federal student loans, a move intended to shield its students from recent upheaval in the student loan market."

Of interest primarily to students (or potential students), parents, alumni and academics at other institutions, the video below from Fox Business News (who are on campus all day today) features the Mercyhurst president, Dr. Thomas J. Gamble, using some intelligent (and some decidedly "intelligence-sounding"!) phrases to talk about Mercyhurst's new policy.

Open Source Intelligence: A Strategic Enabler Of National Security (ISN)

I have known Chris Pallaris, the Executive Editor at the International Relations And Security Network (ISN), for a little over a year and have always found him to be intelligent and articulate on intelligence and international relations topics. He has demonstrated this skill once again in his recent short paper on the value of Open-Source Intelligence.

There is little here that will be new to an experienced intelligence professional but that does not appear to be the article's intended audience. Instead, I think that Chris seeks to inform and (to put it bluntly) influence those strategic decisionmakers who don't know what they are missing by failing to pick up on the RIA ("Revolution in Intelligence Affairs").

In this respect, this short (3 page) article succeeds admirably. Chris outlines the strengths and weaknesses of OSINT clearly and concisely and even provides a sketch of what he thinks would constitute a robust and cost-effective OSINT Center.

Worth the read but, more importantly, worth passing to those who make decisions about intelligence budgets.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Live Help Online When You Need It (Qunu)

Qunu is an answer service unlike any that I have seen before. It taps into what it claims is a fairly large number of volunteers to provide instant answers over Instant Messenger for a wide variety of computer and other technical issues. The most popular tags seem to be open source initiatives such as Ubuntu and Thunderbird but there seem to be some proprietary pieces of software in there as well (like Photoshop).

What really caught my eye, though, was Firefox. We use Firefox an awful lot in our intel studies program here at Mercyhurst. We recommend it to our students because it can easily be configured to work the way the individual analyst works. Any service which could answer questions about Firefox would be enormously useful to our students.

So...try it out and leave a comment for others!

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Conceptual Modeling And Its Role In Intelligence Analysis

I had an opportunity to have an interesting email discussion with one of our grad students regarding the use and value of "conceptual modeling" in intelligence analysis and thought I would capture my part in that exchange in order to encourage some discussion on what I consider an important topic.

I understand that "conceptual modeling" has both a more formal definition as well as a more generic one (in much the same way that "mind-mapping" can be either in reference to Tony Buzan's work or used to describe any information visualization with nodes and lines). Here I am using it in the more generic sense but at a particular place in the analytic process.

I see it as a step that falls somewhere between a full understanding of the intelligence requirement and the beginning of collection. It is, in short, the process of identifying the kinds of information you think you will need to conduct the analysis. For example, if you were analyzing the level of stability in a particular country, you would want to know about its politics, demographics, communications, military, etc. In order to do the conceptual modeling, you would not be looking for specific sources or pieces of information (that comes later), merely the categories of information you might need. In this respect, I think what I am talking about here would resonate with the taxonomists and ontologists in the audience (Note: Some of the insights above came specifically from a conversation I remember having several years ago with Dax Norman at the National Cryptologic School and, to the extent that my ideas have any value at all, I would be remiss not to mention his contribution to them).

This model, then, informs the collection planning process and, at the end, should bear some relation to analytic confidence (if you have very little info from an area that you considered important, you might still be able to make an estimate but I would argue that your confidence in that estimate should be lower).

I would also argue that we all conceptually model before we start to analyze but that there are very strong reasons to make that model explicit. First, just as making an outline helps a writer keep track in a paper, creating a conceptual model (and they seem to work best as mind/concept/knowledge maps -- probably because so many people are visual learners) helps an analyst keep track of the pieces of the puzzle and the relationships between them. We can only keep 5-9 things in our head at a time and we have a bias for the most recent and vivid ones. Making this model explicit not only serves as a storage system but helps us go beyond our cognitive limitations as well.

Second, in group work at least, having each analyst make their model explicit up front allows the individuals in the group to rapidly identify areas of broad agreement and disagreement (We use a combination of individual and group brainstorming to help make these models explicit in our project work). While I am not suggesting that the conceptual modeling process should be used to force consensus, making these models explicit and then comparing them can help narrow the range of the argument by identifying the areas of legitimate disagreement.

Third, making the model explicit provides a useful tool in the oversight process. It helps analysts, their supervisors and other managers more effectively audit the process to see what an analyst did right or wrong.

I also usually like to say that conceptual models should be "written in pencil not pen." As new info comes in, the analyst needs to update the model. As info that is inconsistent with the current view of the target becomes available the analyst(s) should re-consider the model.

One further point worth making: I don't see conceptual modeling as a "method" or "analytic technique" but a tool like brainstorming or devil's advocacy. I think it is most useful when integrated into the broader analytic process that would include techniques (such as Analysis Of Competing Hypotheses or Social Network Analysis) that can more fully support estimative conclusions. I call these types of processes (that support the overall analytic effort but do not, by themselves, support estimative conclusions) "analytic multipliers" (an homage to the military concept of force multipliers, I suppose...).

Related Posts:
Analytic Confidence Defined...Finally!

Law Enforcement Intel: Materials Theft Background And Resources (CSO, ISRI via LII)

I don't write much about law enforcement intel here. We have three experts on staff at Mercyhurst and others (such as Deborah Osborne over at Analyst's Corner and David Jimenez at Intelligence Is The Future) cover this topic with much more authority than I do.

I ran across these two articles on materials theft recently, however, in the Librarian's Internet Index (an excellent source of reliable open source material) and, since I had not seen them elsewhere, I thought I would write a quick post about them.

Red Gold Rush: The Copper Theft Epidemic is a good introductory article concerning the process of metal theft including some good intelligence indicators like this one:
"What he had found was a regular burn site for metal thieves. In fact, it is the perfect burn site, with a concrete surface to burn on and available running water to control and put out fires. Also, the site is surrounded by metal to steal. A nearby communications tower had already been looted so much that, at one point, 911 service was knocked out. Plus, there is a scrap yard nearby where the stolen metal can be sold."

The Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries also seems to provide a number of good resources about how to identify and prevent metal theft including a document on Recommended Practices and Procedures for Minimizing the Risks of Purchasing Stolen Scrap Materials.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Sunday Fun: "It's 1750 And You're A Detective In London..." (Channel4 via Jayisgames)

Prostitutes. Gin. Murder. Quill pens. It's 1750 and crime is out of control in London. The judges get together and put together an elite unit of what we would call "detectives" but what they called the "Bow Street Runners". Sounds like an interesting premise for a game and it is.

This free, online, flash based game is a companion to the UK's Channel 4 series called "City Of Vice". In it you are a Bow Street Runner working for a local judge trying to solve crimes and put bad guys behind bars. Far better than your average point and click online shooter, this game takes you into the gritty world of 1750's London and makes you think to catch your man (or woman, as the case may be). You collect evidence, search crime scenes and interview witnesses before you present your case to the judge.

The graphics are detailed and realistic (See the screenshot below) which makes the game fun to play but also means you really need a broadband connection to enjoy it. The story lines definitely appear to be PG-13 as well, though I have not played through all of the "Episodes". In addition, some of the few hand-eye coordination tasks in the game (like picking a lock) seem too easy for the video game crowd but might prove annoying to anyone older than 40.

Still, the heart of the game is figuring out the crime and here is where the game shines. The interface is easy to use and there is just enough complexity to the Episodes to keep you engaged without making them so difficult you can't solve them.

I found Bow Street Runners first on If you are looking for other great casual games (AKA "something to take your mind off taxes"), Jayisgames is a very good site for reviews and recommendations.