Intelligence community developing virtual world analysis tools

The research arm of the U.S intelligence community has kicked off a project to tap into virtual world technologies, such as Second Life, to develop innovative decision support systems for intelligence analysis. The Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity project is directed by Jeffery Morrison, who runs the Analyst Space for Exploitation (A-SpaceX) program. Morrison says his project is designed to harness technologies to help the 15 agencies that report to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to change from a "need to know" culture to a "need to share" culture. Under development is a new workstation to help analysts marshal and screen data, formulate data, and tell stories. It will support a creative process much like that used by a journalist, Morrison told Government Executive. He said he wants to find tools and technologies that support the analytical thought process, a true killer application that does not exist today. Bits and pieces of various synthetic world technologies can aid in development of such an application, Morrison believes. Morrison hopes the new analyst workstation will support that thought process through information organization and decision support tools he called "mind snaps," involving visualization of information. Analysts often start a project and then are shunted off to another, and "clean desk" security rules require them to put already organized work away. That means they have to start the organizational process all over again when they return to the first task. Morrison said he would like to create a synthetic workspace where ongoing projects can be easily stored and then reaccessed. A-SpaceX also is working on developing a virtual time machine that could include a virtual representation of the real world, and real-world events, backed up video streams and other tools that would allow analysts to move back and forth in time as they studied events and places, Morrison said. Avatars, which are virtual representations of people found in Second Life and closed worlds developed by Forterra Systems for the Defense Department -- will play a role in A-SpaceX when needed. "You're not going to have an avatar just for the sake of having one," Morrison said. But, he added, it would make sense for analysts to have an avatar to exchange information with other analysts populating a synthetic environment. He also sees a use for avatars to assigned to live on "cultural islands" that represent different places in the world, allowing analysts to learn how to interact in synthetic cultures as practice for interaction in real ones. Earlier this year the intelligence community launched its own internal version of social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace to help break down barriers within the community, and Morrison said he viewed A-SpaceX as a "visionary exercise" to exploit new synthetic world technologies in a long-term applied research project. A-SpaceX is an unclassified project that wants to take advantage of research done around the world, though Morrison expects to use his classified research budget to both gather and exchange information in what he called a "knowledge sharing" environment. Morrison has been detailed to IARPA for four years from the Space and Naval Systems Command in San Diego. He doesn't expect to complete a full virtual world for intelligence analysts in four years, but said he intends "to get the best minds in the country to help define the problem....and field interim products." Bernie Skoch, a consultant with Suss Consulting in Jenkintown Pa., and a retired Air Force general with extensive experience in military information systems, said if synthetic virtual worlds can improve the decision-making process in the intelligence community it could be "golden for the future of predictive analysis." Skoch added, A-SpaceX must not focus on fielding technology for the sake of the technology, but instead focus on delivery of actionable intelligence for key decision-makers. Paulette Robinson, assistant dean for teaching, learning and technology at the Information Resource Management College at the National Defense University in Washington, said Morrison and IARPA are taking virtual worlds and "thinking about them at a higher level" than any other federal agency. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has an island in Second Life but uses it to display information already available on the Web, such as weather maps. Robinson believes using virtual worlds as tools for analysis constitutes a more powerful and sophisticated use of the environment, and IARPA could lead the way for other federal agencies in more advanced applications. Robinson said growing interest in use of virtual worlds by federal agencies is reflected in registration for NDU's Exploring Virtual Worlds conference later this month at Fort McNair in Washington. More than 40 organizations are sending representatives to the conference. IARPA's Morrison will be there to spread the word about A-SpaceX.
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