From Intellipedia to Conflict Early Warning?

I recently attended a presentation by Intellipedia‘s developers. Intellipedia uses the same software and approach as Wikipedia does and includes a Wiki space, a blog space and a multimedia space called iVideo, the intel version of Youtube. Intellipedia also includes a tagging tool that closely resembles, an instant messaging functionality as well as RSS feeds. Most of the tools used by Intellipedia are open source and the 2-person team behind the initiative deliberately limit the modifications and new features they add to these tools in order to benefit from the rapidly innovating information economy. “We cannot keep up with the Internet otherwise,” one of the presenters commented.

Intellipedia embraces the three core principles of social software in enterprise: work at the broadest audience possible; think topically, not organizationally; and replace existing business processes. During their presentation, the team emphasized that Intellipedia serves to capture the informal dynamics and knowledge generated within the intelligence community. The Web 2.0 platform is particularly useful when contradictory information surfaces. In the past, deconfliction of intelligence reports typically meant choosing one report over the other, thus losing valuable information (particularly when intelligence becomes highly politicized).

With Intellipedia, the debate is documented and allowed to continue. This sometimes leads to agreement and other times not. The salient point here is that all views are allowed to compete and evolve. This is like depicting the probable path of a hurricane using a cone shape icon. Initially, all future paths within this event horizon are likely, but ultimately, only one point will be hit, or real.

Intellipedia seeks to facilitate a similar process albeit with intelligence information. (Incidentally, the UN Secretary-General’s Policy Committee specifically documents any differences that arise during meetings). There is no final product within Intellipedia, the wiki and blog entries are all live and evolving. Interestingly, there have been several incidents when high level personnel within the intelligence community have requested that some pages on the wiki be removed since they were too sensitive. What is stunning however is that these sites were exact copies of pages on Wikipedia. More than 90% of intelligence information is collated from open sources.

The templates used by Intellipedia are kept deliberately simple in order emphasize the focus on information and knowledge rather than form and display. This not only helps build institutional memory over time, it provides a foundation upon which future intelligence can be based. For example, an analyst began posting information on the Beijing Olympics some two years ago and continued doing so on weekly basis. While no one was particularly interested in the topic at the time, the wiki on the Olympics is now particularly active.

The Intellipedia platform itself gets some 6,000 hits/edits per day and a hundred new registered users everyday. Users are provided with incentives to contribute to the platform, e.g., an exceptional contribution award presented the CIA director and an Intellipedia shovel prize which is particularly popular. Mini contests are also held and contribution to Intellipedia is increasingly incorporated in work performance plans. The most active contributer to Intellipedia is a 69 year-old retired intelligence officer who has worked within the intelligence agency for 40 years. He still comes to work on weekends in order to write as much as he can about his experience and lessons learned. The next step in the Intellipedia project is to use or develop new tools to crawl or mine the Intellipedia space to extract knowledge.

On the handle: “I dig Intellipedia: It’s wiki wiki baby”

In concluding the presentation, the team shared that the hardest part of Intillepedia was encouraging users to let go of control; that there was no ownership as such within Intellipedia. So for example many users wanted their contribution to wikis to remain unchanged. The team was steadfast however, and encouraged those users to vent about their disagreements with the changing text on their own blogs. This is precisely what users are doing now when they feel outvoted on the wikis. These users subsequently receive many comments on their own blogs. “When you let go of control, you unleash creativity… People want to contribute, want to have a say, want to do it right, so let them.” Wisdom of the Wikis?

There is a lot that our field of conflict early warning can learn from the Intellipedia project. Following are the most critical insights we should draw on when designing (or improving) our own conflict early warning systems:

  • Let go of our ego-centric tendencies for control
  • Decentralize user-generated content and access
  • Utilization of tagging, IM, online video posting
  • Use open source tools and make minimal modifications
  • Capture tacit and informal knowledge qualitatively via blogs and wikis
  • Keep user-interfaces simple and minimize use of sophisticated interfaces
  • Provide non-monetary incentives for information collection and sharing
  • Shift from quality control mindset to soap box approach

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