[OSI] Open Source on the Web

Skunk BaxterSpeakers:
* Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, Senior Fellow and Member of the Board of Regents, Potomac Institute for Policy Studies
* Richard P. O’Neill, President, the Highlands Group
* Don Cooke, Chief Scientist, TeleAtlas
* Tim Thomas, Analyst, Foreign Military Studies Office (FMSO), Fort Leavenworth

The format was very short presentations, followed by a Q&A. It’s a little strange to be at a conference where people aren’t really presenting research, but just talking about “what’s going on” and “things to think about” sorts of issues.

Jeff Baxter

Baxter started out with a plea for open source: “human beings are open source,” we gather information from around us from the outset. Despite the section topic, he spoke more broadly about the work of the LAPD anti-gang efforts and how that translates to anti-terrorism. One of the themes of the section was the degree to which those who have been concerned with strategic intelligence are now looking at urban policing (in Iraq as well) to gather information about threats. A second theme was the use of unobtrusive measures and surrogates.

Baxter noted that one of the best sources of information about gangs came from the letters section of Lowrider Magazine. (Apparently I was one of a pair of people in the audience who had ever actually cracked the cover of Lowrider.) Many of their letters came from prison, and from gang members who didn’t expect the cops to be reading it. If the audience here was any indication, that was probably not a misplaced belief. Reminds me a lot of the surprise when people find their boss is reading their blog–something that happens all the time. People write with a model audience in mind, and despite their better judgment, seem to forget that publishing something in a low friction media world means that it is very much out there.

He went on to suggest that there was a desperate need in the intelligence community for cultural anthropologists, and especially, virtual ethnographers. He noted that one of the ways that advertisers have used to come to understand an unfamiliar culture was to watch their soap operas and understand what the culture values and what motivates them. (I won’t touch that but to note that the literature is clear on that front: reading soap operas from outside the culture may not result in better understandings!) He also plugged the Second Life hype (is there anywhere that doesn’t turn into an SL discussion lately?), suggesting that it would be a good place to gather information, as would World of Warcraft. He noted that Chinese dissidents had used WoW to stage demonstrations, and not opening a dialog with them was a missed opportunity.

Richard O’Neill

O’Neill pushed for what he called “strategic listening”, and suggested that the US does a lot of broadcasting, but not nearly as much listening. A radical idea that: not just hearing, but “co-creating a dialog” with those whom we want to learn about. He drew on Margaret Meade’s idea of “smelling the dirt,” and suggesting that we need to not just collect information, but understand the cultural context in order to have good intelligence. “Paying attention is what strategic listening is all about.”

He ended by talking a bit about the long tail, describing what it is, and suggesting that the intelligence community needed to pay much more attention to it, as it promised “novelty, surrogacy [i.e., sources of surrogate measures], and diversity.”

Later, in the Q&A, O’Neill joined Thomas to suggest the kinds of transparency that I had hoped (but not expected) would be a possible direction for open source intelligence efforts moving forward.

Don Cooke

Cooke spoke a bit about the open availability of geospatial data. He talked a little bit about his work, and showed a picture of one of their sensor encrusted mapping van, and moved on to laud the open availability of the TIGER data, and noted that because of US law, even private data tends to make its way out into the public domain. He then went on to discuss the rise of the “neogeographer” and showed some ways in which people are making use of APIs for mashups–something readers of this blog are intimately familiar with.

Tim Thomas

Thomas, an area expert on Russia and China, gave an interesting talk on the role of tracking “extremist militant networking,” and the cybermolilization effort. He suggested that in a couple of cases (discussions over helicopters and UAVs) the information was out there, being discussed, that predicted future strategies. He argues that victory occurs before the first battle, and watching this planning is vital.

He claimed that there are “no experts in this area.” Although there may not be, I got the distinct impression that they are not particularly keyed into the discussions going on among social internet researchers recently. Surely some of the papers that show up at HICSS would be of interest.


The Q&As went a little quick, but a couple were particularly interesting.

One of the questions was about terrorists’ use steganography on the web. Thomas (I believe) noted that a lot of the stuff is more nudge-nudge than actual encryption. He noted, as an example, that a photograph of a white stallion (the symbol of al Qaeda) might be shown with a foot raised to signal an attack. Indeed, especially for signaling (rather than more complex communication) that can be very effective.

Another question, from a New York Times reporter (didn’t catch her name) was about the release of analysis to an open audience, and dialog with the analysts in an open way. They noted that they didn’t directly engage discussion of their results, but they did think it was worth getting stuff out there. As one person noted “we all benefit from keeping things as open as possible.” There was a complaint (strange to hear at an intelligence conference) about over-classification. Particularly if data is collected in an open way, it should not be classified. It just makes people re-collect the same data at expense to the American people.

Someone noted and the possibility of new kinds of open discussion and expertise on the web. It didn’t get very far, but this kind of harnessing of expertise is precisely what the open web is good with.

There was also a question about training analysts. One of the panelists argued for more interdisciplinary social science education that draws in multi-methods and perspectives, and draws on a technology component. Hell, yeah.

In all, I hope that the panelists represent a significant portion of the intelligence community. There were some interesting ideas here. Given the breadth of the people attending this conference (when the steganography question was asked, people on either side of me were puzzled as to what “steganography” was), it had to be a very broad presentation. I wish, however, that they could have gotten down to real brass tacks. I hope there is some depth there.

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