U.S. Air Force intelligence analysts at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, Oct. 15, 2014.

U.S. Air Force intelligence analysts at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, Oct. 15, 2014. U.S. Air Force photo by Wesley Farnsworth

Pentagon Intel Analysts May Soon Use a Trick from Amazon's Book

A system copying Amazon's user experience could help coordinate the work of analysts at the Defense Department's National Ground Intelligence Center.

Since Col. Nichoel Brooks took the helm 18 months ago, the National Ground Intelligence Center has shrunk from 2,789 people to fewer than 1,500. Now, she said, her challenge is to help a dwindling staff access and process larger amounts of data.

The National Ground Intelligence Center provides geospatial intelligence on foreign ground forces and other military technology to the Defense Department. The agency has been searching for technology tools that can help analysts be more efficient about the questions they're working on, Brooks said. 

"Every time I go shopping at Amazon, it’ll tell me all the other things that I like," Brooks said. "Other customers who bought the same thing—it tells me what [they] like. Why can’t we do the same thing for an analyst?" Brooks asked at a recent government conference in Washington.

“Why can’t analysts go on there and say, ‘I want to know all the things about what’s going on in the Ukraine?' " she said. Then it might say, 'Well, did you know that [someone else] is looking at the same thing?' "

A system like that, Brooks said would promote better collaboration among analysts. "That creates transparency: You know what I’m working on, I know what you’re working on," she said. "We can collaborate.”

(Related: The CIA Is Bringing Amazon’s Marketplace to the Intelligence Community)

A few similar initiatives exist, she said, including the Army Knowledge Gateway, which Brooks described as a large map showing technology products already built, being planned as well as any requests for information, listed by country.

But what about the data sources analysts didn't have time to look for or that they didn’t even know existed, she asked. “How would that information change their assessment?”

For instance, she said, DOD should pay more attention to nontraditional, open source data, such as posts on Twitter and other social media sites.

When recently preparing for an upcoming post in Afghanistan, Brooks said, she was researching the potential ISIS threat in that country.

“I went on Google—‘ISIS in Afghanistan'—I got 2,000 hits. Clearly, on the open source, there’s things I could find. I didn’t get 2,000" hits from classified documents, she added.