Tag Archives: open source

Using radar expands the idea horizon

An interesting opposing thought to “not invented here”:

I really dig this interview that Helen Walters recently conducted with Alan MacCormack.  In it, MacCormack uses the metaphor of a radar system to express a way of viewing the world that is quite consistent with behaviors I’ve seen expressed on a repeated basis by creative individuals and innovative organizations alike.

I particularly like his emphasis upon establishing “innovation radars” to tap in to high-variance information streams that will help you see and understand what is coming next.  For example, MacCormack talks about taking R&D funds and spending them on external organizations via mechanisms such as research grants.  In that example, the notion of information streams comes to play not in the grants themselves, but in the array of grant applications you’ll receive as a result of announcing that you’re giving money away; the resulting stack of applications allows you to see future trend patterns emerge without having to leave the office.

It’s worth getting over the arrogance of thinking that the only good ideas come from your own head or organization.  Tapping into the open-source thinking all around can be a powerful source of creativity and focus.

[Image via elanso.com.]

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Week in Public Organizations, 21Sep2008

Climate change, role-playing games, leadership shifts, open-source intel, nationalized oil, juries and policy, paradoxes of attention, and thoughts on torture.  These were some of the stories involving organizations in public life this week:

WP: Intel agencies predict climate change challenges

Danger Room: Terror plots could be hatched in online role-playing games

Hayden: bin Laden no longer al Qaeda’s manager

OSINT contractor shares thoughts on improving the process

Slate: National oil companies hold political future

Judge: Juries do not engage in policy analysis

O&M: Your well-being is guaranteed

May, Workman, and Jones: Bureaucracy faces paradox of attention

APA: We probably shouldn’t aid in torture

OSINT contractor shares thoughts on improving the process

Noah Shachtman of Wired’s Danger Room has a few insights from an Open-Source Intel (OSINT) contractor:

“Open source” intelligence – material taken from newspapers, Internet postings, and TV shows – is starting to play a major role in the nation’s spy agencies. But it’s still got a ton of problems, says one contractor working in the “OSINT” field. He offers his thoughts on how Open Source can be upgraded.

Well worth a read.  From an organizational perspective, I was mildly surprised to see some traditional bureaucratic problems: “brain drain”, training, standards of practice.  OSINT, while shiny and new, faces the same challenges organizations have been working with for decades.  It will be interesting to see whether some of the best practices of high-performing teams and organizations make it into the OSINT field.  My suspicion is that the transplant may not take due to some inherent and persistent problems in the bureaucracy.  I’d like to be proven wrong on that.

My interest in OSINT springs from some work and writing in the reform of intel organizations and the role of extra-organizational mass collaboration, or “crowdsourcing”.  A distinction I would like to see reflected more clearly in OSINT discussions is between open-source collection, which fits the definition above and gets most of the attention, and open-source analysis, which involves crowdsourced processing of the collection inputs.  This excerpt from a draft of an article I’ve been working on addresses the significant obstacles to embracing open-source analysis as a complement to the IC’s bureaucracies:

This is the open-source paradox: despite the traditional obscurantist models of keeping and unearthing secrets, the plummeting transaction costs of mass collaboration are translating into a mode of intelligence that hides in plain sight.  Without security clearances, dedicated satellites, wiretapping, or travel budgets, a loose collective is crowdsourcing the collection and analysis of publicly available information sources to create estimates that complement and compete with the products of the Intelligence Community (IC) and its global counterparts.

Yet the well-intentioned efforts of the IC are attempts to structure, control, and hide open-source intel.  The IC appears to be trying to impose the values and norms of a bureaucratic culture onto an extra-organizational mass collaboration, reinforcing modes of thought that open-source intel promises to broaden.  Aside from the certain resistance of mass collaborators to imposed control, attempts to engage with open-source intel, if successful, would work to diminish its value.

This isn’t a problem for the communities of mass collaboration, though; they neither wait for permission nor take their lead from the IC.  The collective is amorphous, autonomous, and quirky.  Its membership changes, but its contribution is very much on its own terms.  Communities of mass collaboration in open-source intel are moving far faster than the IC’s ability to understand, engage, or control them.

Open-source intel is becoming a fact of foreign affairs whether acknowledged or not.  It is currently playing at the edges of the organizations traditionally responsible for the craft of intelligence.  Understood for its strengths and weaknesses, this “wisdom of the crowd” could become a complementary input to the President’s Daily Briefing, National Intelligence Estimates, and a broad spectrum of foreign policy instruments.  It could also make cheap mistakes in the lieu of the IC making expensive ones.

By the way, this is the second time I have linked to Danger Room this week on the topic of OSINT.  If this is a topic of interest for you, their posts are among the most thoughtful pieces available on the subject.

Hayden: bin Laden no longer al Qaeda’s manager

Osama bin Laden is spending a great deal of his energy merely surviving, CIA Director Tom Hayden says.

CNN reports that al Qaeda has experienced a leadership transition but omits some pretty important details:

Osama bin Laden is no longer believed to be the head of al Qaeda’s day-to-day operations, but the United States’ capturing or killing him would still have a powerful effect on the organization, CIA Director Michael Hayden said Tuesday.

There is no greater security threat facing the United States than al Qaeda and its associates, Hayden said in a speech to the Los Angeles World Affairs Council.

The CIA’s top issues, however, also include nuclear proliferation — particularly in countries like Iran, North Korea and more recently Syria, he said. The greatest challenge lies in detecting those countries who might be developing in secret, Hayden said, as access to sensitive technologies is no longer the exclusive domain of a few advanced nations.

No word on who leads the organization now, or for how long that person has occupied that role.  Of course, al Qaeda is a less-than-traditional organization, but there are reasons to believe that it has a day-to-day management structure.  Also, Hayden failed to specify (or CNN failed to report) what that “powerful effect on the organization” might be.  I would surmise from what I have read and heard that one effect on the organization might be to further radicalize potential converts and make bin Laden a recruiting-poster martyr.  Despite bin Laden’s ideological leadership, it’s hard to imagine that taking him out would disrupt the organization’s management.

Hayden also omits to compare the threat posed by al Qaeda to that of traditional state actors such as Iran, Russia, and North Korea.  Among the three, it’s hard to imagine al Qaeda being more threatening.  Although al Qaeda’s successes tend to be dramatic, its actual power is probably far less than that of the organized state actors, at least at this stage.  While the organization may be a potentially greater threat, that potential is as yet unrealized.  This could be mitigated through cooperation with a state actor, especially one with nuclear weapons as Pakistan has.

Nuclear proliferation, on the other hand, is increasingly serious as society and organizations move increasingly toward open-source information.  Take the piracy challenges faced by the film and recording industries as an example.  Institutions with clear profit motives and staggering resources are largely unable to stem their losses, and their attempts are usually seen as heavy-handed or laughable.  In fact, many believe illegal downloads are no big deal.  It’s no stretch to imagine extremely loose networks with state and non-state participation passing nuclear technologies to those who seek them.  Governments are ill-equipped to prevent these exchanges.  There are potential remedies, but entrenched cultures make these difficult to explore and adopt.

Despite my respect for Director Hayden, I believe he missed another key opportunity in his address:

In response to a question about how the next president can help the agency focus on its core mission of protecting the homeland, Mr. Hayden replied “do nothing,” as the overall current structure of the Central Intelligence Agency is functioning well.

There is a great deal of evidence to the contrary, most thoroughly detailed in Tim Weiner’s Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA as well as in former National Security Agency Director William Odom’s Fixing Intelligence: For a More Secure America.  There are few leaders of organizations who would allow themselves the hubris to claim that their organizations could not be continually improved.  This seems a little out of character for Hayden, but there may be other reasons for his curt response.  Incidentally, the mission of the CIA is not directly protecting the homeland, but rather providing national security intelligence to senior US policymakers.  It is those policymakers who decide how to use the intelligence to develop policy that protects the homeland.  The strategic implications of this distinction are far beyond semantic.

There is much to consider in Hayden’s speech, and many questions that remain unanswered (and sometimes unanswerable).  It would be useful to hear more high-profile briefings of this nature from the Director of National Intelligence, a role designed to provide comprehensive oversight and management of the intelligence community.  While much of the content of intel is by nature classified, the processes of intel–by Odom’s own advice–are and should be open and subject to discussion and debate.

UPDATE: I wasn’t aware that Odom passed away last Friday.  In addition to being a fellow Tennessean, Odom was distinguished for having a keen eye for intel organization reform and for being very clear-eyed about the rather benign threat posed by Iraq prior to the US-led invasion:

“Vindication is not pleasing,” Mr. Odom told The Washington Post last year. “Even some of my friends have noted: The more vindicated I’ve been, the more irritable I’ve become.”

His parting advice may prove to be similarly prescient:

“Current U.S. policy toward the regime in Tehran will almost certainly result in an Iran with nuclear weapons. The seemingly clever combination of the use of ‘sticks’ and ‘carrots,’ including the frequent official hints of an American military option ‘remaining on the table,’ simply intensifies Iran’s desire to have its own nuclear arsenal. Alas, such a heavy-handed ‘sticks’ and ‘carrots’ policy may work with donkeys but not with serious countries.”

MORE: Embassy bombings aside, R notes some other threats that are probably greater than al Qaeda, including HIV/AIDS, water shortages, and, by the intel community’s own analysis, climate change.