Intellipedia’s next act
Conferences for spies, soldiers and Silicon Valley start-ups do not usually have much in common. But recently, dozens of intelligence officials, Pentagon brass and invited guests gathered in a Washington, D.C., restaurant to spend a day informally discussing a different kind of intelligence project — one that depends on mass collaboration rather than secrecy.
The topic was how to advance the Office of the Director of National Intelligence’s (ODNI) efforts to use online collaboration to bolster sharing across the intelligence community.
About 70,000 users from the intelligence community, other federal agencies and local law enforcement, along with sponsored academics and experts, can search, add and edit entries in Intellipedia, a wiki for the intelligence community. It is the best known of ODNI’s Web 2.0 collaboration tools.
Although Intellipedia has been successful gaining participants in the past two years and encouraging postings and mass collaboration, the community’s organizers said they are anxious to move forward to a more advanced level.
“There [are] a lot of awesome topics, but many of them are kind of neutral,” said Chris Rasmussen, a social-software knowledge manager and trainer at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. Rasmussen also promotes social-software use in the intelligence community at large.
“People haven’t really got to the real hard part,” Rasmussen said. The hard part is creating finished intelligence products that are authored collaboratively on the wiki. That is a greater challenge than simply posting individual agencies’ intelligence reports.
Rasmussen was one of the presenters at the May conference that included 45 people physically present and others who participated via streaming video and online chat. The meeting was informal so that participants move about as they wanted. There were no programmed breaks.
Participants focused for short periods on several topics in the morning and chose the ones to delve into more deeply later in the day.
Andrea Baker, a consultant at Navstar who helped coordinate the conference, described it as a state-of-the-wiki event. Baker said getting people together who had previously met only virtually was important. “The human interface part is definitely still key.”
Meeting people in person after getting to know them from electronic interaction is always helpful, Rasmussen said. “When you form all these weak ties collaborating with people online, you want to meet them after a while.”
Proponents say the wiki helps people sort out the acronyms that float around the intelligence community, and it provides an initial base of knowledge on a wide range of topics and helps streamline administrative processes.
David Karger, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said three areas of future focus for Intellipedia should be creating more user-friendly interfaces, going beyond text applications and getting nonusers to understand why it benefits them to participate.
Intellipedia “is a principal tool that we are using to further the [ODNI’s] objective of responsibility to share,” said Robert Waller, chief of the ODNI team that oversees Intellipedia. “It works best when many people use it.”
Rasmussen and Baker added that there was also discussion about reaching more people who may not know about these tools and attracting more users and content. The most content currently resides on a top-secret network, which is used by the intelligence community.
“This is all about culture, process, change and doing things differently,” Rasmussen said.
Ben Bain is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.