Connecting the dots with Intellipedia

U.S. intelligence agencies are using an internal wiki for knowledge sharing.

This April, Intellipedia celebrated its fourth anniversary. As the federal government considers building a new internal social network, “Fedspace,” the lessons learned from Intellipedia are worth considering. Last week, I spoke with Don Burke and Sean Dennehy, two long-time CIA officers who have been both the public faces of Intellipedia and internal evangelists since its inception.

So is Intellipedia working? Read more, after the jump.

Intellipedia’s past, present and future

Screenshot-Intellipedia.jpgThe picture isn’t entirely rosy, given the various challenges that Chris Rasmussen cited last year in describing Intellipedia’s “midlife crisis.” Rasmussen, a social-software knowledge manager and trainer at the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, said then that they’re struggling to take it to the next level, in terms of getting agencies to use Intellipedia as their official conduit. Rasmussen also spoke with Ari Herzog in January of last year in an interview on government 2.0 social tools, including wikis.

For another perspective, I turned to MIT professor Andrew McAfee’s blog post on whether Enterprise 2.0 “is a crock.” (As one might expect from the man who coined the term, he strongly argued for the opposite.) He’s been studying the use of social software in large organizations for years, including Intellipedia’s growth. McAfee aggregated responses from the intelligence community on the following vexing problem: How can we connect the dots among all the pieces of potentially relevant information about terrorist attacks and other intelligence issues?

McAfee’s own answer was simple: pursue Enterprise 2.0. He wrote:

In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, which highlighted poor information sharing among America’s sixteen federal intelligence agencies, ESSPs were deployed across all of them, including the CIA, FBI, NSA, and DIA (Defense Intelligence Agency). An internal report [pdf] concluded that these tools, which include blogs and the Intellipedia wiki, are “already impacting the work practices of analysts. In addition, [they are] challenging deeply held norms about controlling the flow of information between individuals and across organizational boundaries.”

In the same blog post, McAfee included comments he received from analysts across the intelligence community that reinforced that viewpoint.

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From a DIA analyst: “These tools have immensely improved my ability to interact with people that I would never have met otherwise… Enterprise 2.0 tools have helped considerably in exposing new information, new projects, and bringing new thought leaders . . . to the forefront. People that would never have been visible before now have a voice. . . .”

From an NSA analyst: “Before Intellipedia, contacting other agencies was done cautiously, and only through official channels. There was no casual contact, and little opportunity to develop professional acquaintances—outside of rare [temporary duty] opportunities, or large conferences on broad topics… After nearly two years of involvement with Intellipedia, however, this has changed. Using Intellipedia has become part of my work process, and I have made connections with a variety of analysts outside the IC. None of the changes in my practices would have been possible without the software tools… I don’t know everything. But I do know who I can go to when I need to find something out.

From an NSA engineer: “ . . . there’s now a place I can go for answers as opposed to data. In addition, using that data and all the links to people associated with that data, I can find people who are interested in helping me understand the subject matter. Since I’ve been involved in Web 2.0 activities, I have met many new people throughout the IC. They are a great resource for me as I continue my career. Their helpful attitude makes me want to help them (and others) in return.”

From a DIA scientist: “IC blogs allow me to connect to people that I would not otherwise know about. I can see what they are working on, and use it to make a real introduction.”

From a CIA analyst: “The first aspect that comes to mind when I contemplate how these tools have improved my ability to do my job is the ease of shar[ing] ideas and working collaboratively with intelligence professionals around the world . . . I am actively involved in an early stage project that would be impossible without these tools. The ability to link information and people together, as wikis and blogs do, makes possible an activity that I truly believe will transform our Community. The tools fundamentally altered the course of this project.”

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Alex Voultepsis, who works on IntelLink for the Office of the Director for National Intelligence, told Federal News Radio that Intellipedia now has more than 250,000 users, with more than 75,000 contributors to the top secret area, more than 72,000 at the secret area and more than 36,000 on the unclassified segment of the site.

According to Voultepsis, users search the secret section of Intellipedia 1.3 million times every week and the top secret portion more than 1 million times a week. Users send more than 1 million instant messages daily using an internal client. Burke told Federal News Radio that more tools are coming this year, including data mashups, geospatial data, embeddable video and RSS feeds. You can download Federal News Radio’s interview with Don Burke on Intellipedia as an MP3.

When you add up the features, it appears that the nation’s intelligence agencies have constructed an internal tool that parallels many of the Internet’s functions, collectively embodying the characteristics of an emergent social software platform. Given the utility of the Internet for its users and the direction Burke and Dennehy describe, a canny bettor might wager that Intellipedia is helping intelligence agencies work better.

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  • Frymaster

    Would love to hear more about the role Intellipedia played in recent events like the underpants bomber and the Times Square bomb.

    Of course, that’s super unlikely any time soon.

    BTW, is the unclassified section public? Back at E2.0 in 2008 when these guys first emerged as SM rock stars, I got a chance to chat. I asked about World Fact Book. (Was Cheney editing at night when he couldn’t sleep? Sean looked away, Don, not amused.) Don said it should be an open wiki, which it should.

    I wonder if the unclassified Intellipedia can ever connect over to WFB. (A nerd can dream!)

  • das

    The unclassified Intellipedia is not public. It’s available to those who meet the eligibility criteria for access to Intelink-U/DNI-U, which is available here: http://ra.intelink.gov/eligibilitycriteria.pdf

  • Peterson

    Took me time to read all the comments, but I really enjoyed the article. It proved to be Very helpful to me and I am sure to all the commenters here! It’s always nice when you can not only be informed, but also entertained! I’m sure you had fun writing this article.

  • Lance Strzok

    I will echo Chris’s sentiments – Having these tools is great – BUT – Until these tools are part of a unified documentation and production process (not in addition to one), we have not achieved much other than another place to hang content. Analysts are torn on where to spend time and energy. If these tools are not considered valid work, then for all the good they may be convinced they can do- they will continue to use defunct tools and processes to do their work. I hope we can find a way to move agencies into production environments that use these tools instead of agency specific production processes that make collaboration and discovery more difficult in the critical part of the process (creation), rather then once the work has been completed.