Radical Instrument

IT is changing the exercise of power. Radical Instrument is picking up the signals.

Crowdsourcing the hunt for bin Laden

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USA Today summarizes a fascinating paper released today in MIT International Review. In it, UCLA geography professors Thomas W. Gillespie and John A. Agnew use biogeographic theory, public reporting,and satellite imagery to develop a hypothesis about the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden…narrowing it down to a choice of compounds in Parachinar, in Kurram, one of Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas.

Leaving aside the validity of the model – although a suspected U.S. drone conducted the first attack in Kurram on Monday – the most striking point of the authors’ analysis is in the conclusion:

“…For instance, in an attempt to aid disaster relief efforts after the October 8, 2005 earthquake in Kashmir, numerous international aid agencies posted high-resolution satellite images on the web.  The Pakistani government forced these images to be removed because they feared that the security of the Kashmir region might be compromised.  Perhaps it is past time to embrace this technology and create a public database concerning models or hypotheses about bin Laden’s current location [emphasis added]. … Altogether, the US intelligence community spent over $50 billion on intelligence activities last year alone.  Ideally, some of this money should have been spent looking for bin Laden and the US intelligence community could make public a report based on all data collected  from 2001 to 2006. … These methods are repeatable and could easily be updated with new information obtained from the US intelligence community on his last known location.”

It’s a point worthy of debate. There have been applications of related knowledge-transfer techniques inside the U.S. government, but the authors appear to be advocating for something akin to a crowdsourcing model to expand the resource capacity of the intelligence community. The counter-argument will, of course, be based in security. But could a “public database” such as advocated by the authors have appropriate filters in place to protect security considerations? Could development or testing be released to the public domain in such a way that the testers cannot distinguish between, say, an analysis of building types in Pakistan and an analysis of buildings in a fictional environment?

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Written by Mark

February 17, 2009 at 11:11 pm

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