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10 June 2007

Current intelligence and situational awareness

We have often been struck by the volume and scope of activities which are labeled intelligence which are simply descriptive, “current” processing and production (with the occasional value-added analysis if a senior enough professional is at hand, but otherwise the powerpoint bullets stick to the “facts”). This is a particularly pre-dominant function within watch desks and fusion centers – presumably due to the fact that their primary customer base are more senior analysts or SME’s with deeper target knowledge, no matter what many might claim otherwise.

This is not to say that such activities are not valuable in their own right. There is much to be had in the time, accurate presentation of material regarding complex, ambiguous, and rapidly changing events and actors. Once upon a time, this was regarded as the sine qua non of warfighter support – to the point that the intel function itself was supposed to atrophy, absorbed into the common operational picture as just one more source of information.

The reality has been much different, of course. Fusion (or horizontal integration, if you prefer the newer buzzword) rarely exceeds the most basic steps. Organizational, cultural, legal, and technological hurdles remain, preventing true automation. Most systems and programs, such as the much talked about HSIN, continue to fail to accomplish basic information sharing needs – let alone integration- due to design flaws, poor implementation, or agency politics. Meanwhile, the best programs tend to be bootstrapped affairs, where the emphasis is not on the software or engineering but on lightweight technologies to enable user contributions in the most open and accessible manner possible.

This does not mean that automation does not offer potential – it just has to be done right, a devilishly tricky detail. We fully support, and strongly advocate, the introduction of technology to free the human analyst to focus on implications, projection, and insight. The discipline of intelligence-driven situational awareness has emerged as a professional sub-specialty in its own right, fraught with all the difficulties of both technology and tradecraft applied to a unique convergence of intelligence and operational tasks and environments.

We continue to be fascinated by the many tools and techniques which are being developed in this area. One of the more interesting of such that crossed our desks in recent days is the iMOUT application, profiled here by Bruce Sterling. We do love new toys…