A mandate to innovate in intelligence analysis

Federal 100 award winner Lt. Col. Al Di Leonardo ran a start-up operation that has given intelligence analysts a faster, more reliable way to process data.

As told to Henry Kenyon

Lt. Col. Al Di Leonardo has spent the past five years building a new approach to analyzing intelligence data at the Special Operations Command. The result is the Skope Cell, which is now being used to solve the command’s most pressing counterterrorism challenges. His team has developed technologies and processes that streamline data gathering and analysis and relay trusted information where it is needed most. The cell has grown to support users throughout the Defense Department and the intelligence community (IC) and is meeting needs that were not being filled by traditional intelligence analysis techniques. It has become what many analysts and senior officers call a world-class, innovative intelligence organization.

Our innovation cell was essentially a start-up company in the special operations community. The concept behind our “business” was not initially embraced by many in the DOD and the IC. Indeed, as with any start-up venture, there was no guarantee we’d achieve success.

I knew that the Skope Cell had a good customer in USSOCOM and great ideas that could be operationalized. Our success didn’t happen overnight. It took many years, and I had the privilege to stay with the cell until we consistently achieved success with our cutting-edge analytical techniques and algorithms. It required a series of success stories — not just technology innovations — to convince most. Soon we were routinely telling others about our business model.

We would not have overcome the natural bureaucratic hurdles without support from senior officers in USSOCOM, the director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, and a handful of operators and analysts who saw the potential and provided us time in their respective organizations to fine-tune our techniques and capabilities. In the end, our ultimate success was largely due to the perseverance of our highly talented team, who stayed with the cell until we were firmly established in multiple communities.

It was the highly talented and passionate leadership team that I helped assemble that broke down barriers and bureaucracies to create a unique, integrated intelligence model. It proved that the right ideas and environment — combined with access to data and technology, chartered with a mandate to innovate — can act as an agent of change in USSOCOM and the IC.

Collaboration was the key to innovation, and I was committed to transitioning the Skope Cell’s capabilities to other organizations. We were asked to brief every combatant command and intelligence agency in the past five years, and we’ve transitioned tools across the DOD via Web access and other means. We also had some of our ideas used and developed in different forms by many intelligence agencies, ranging from something as mundane as setting up a floor plan for collaboration to the innovative technology applications we’ve developed and employ on a daily basis.

As others began to use our ideas and tools, we started to become a brand name within the IC and USSOCOM as one of the most productive analytical innovation cells within the U.S. government. We were originally known for geospatial hot-spotting techniques that are commonplace today in the IC. As time passed, we continued to develop various innovative tools and techniques in social networking and geospatial and data technologies.

Yet, I always go back to the power of the team and the flexible technology environment that we created at Skope. Today, we are better known for high-quality analytics than for any particular technique, and we have demonstrated this through product, process and software application sharing across the DOD and IC.

Read more about the 2011 Federal 100 award winners.

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