Feb 19, 2009

Twitter as a global Intelligence tool?

Posted by in category: defense

Announcing $35M in new funding last Friday Twitter was one of the few bright spots in a collapsing economy. The micro-blogging service has been attracting increasing attention within the mainstream, as the political classes adopt the service – most notably, congressman Pete Hokestra (R-Mich.) who produced a stream of tweets detailing his location as he traveled from Andrew’s Air Force base to Baghdad and back. Besides the disbelieving head shaking this particular series of political tweets attracted, it does highlight the amorphous nature of Twitter — it isn’t clear what it really is.

Certainly, the revenue model remains unclear, as does its true utility or even what the unintended consequences of using the service may be. In a National Security sense Twitter emerged as a powerful networked communications platform during the Mumbai terrorist attacks, when a stream of tweets marked #Mumbai (# being the global tagging system Twitter employs) gave a seemingly real-time commentary on events as they unfolded in Mumbai. Similarly, Twitter has been used to communicate the message and activity surrounding the riots in Greece using the #Griot tag. These are examples of the network effect working with a rapid communications platform and developing a powerful narrative from many different observation points. The style is anarchic but increasingly compelling.

Therefore, one argument regarding the long-term use of Twitter, in the National Security space at least, is that Twitter in conjunction with other tools, continues the trend of making ordinary citizens active producers of potentially actionable intelligence. This equally applies to Microsoft Photosynth and the meshing of user created digital platforms is a future trend, which doesn’t seem too far away. One of Twitter’s more recent high profile moments was the picture of the USAirways plane in the Hudson taken by an ordinary citizen who happened to be on a ferry, which went to the scene. This picture quickly and succinctly explained the situation to any emergency service in the area. This same principal can clearly be globally extended in terms of data and geographic reach. In fact it is the increasing penetration of mobile devices, which would seem to offer a bright future for the Twitter platform.

An area, which the Twitter platform excels in are the tools that can be used to manipulate the information within Twitter. This is where the open feel of the service suggests it somehow has more potential than the well designed social networking platforms such as Facebook. Information is messy and Twitter fits around this principle.

In order to examine Twitter we established a Twitter feed at www.twitter/In_Terrain. The idea behind this was to use the RSS feed Twitter tool TwitterFeed to push content of interest to a Twitter account and then examine ways in which this could be consumed. The results so far have been impressive. Twitterrific available for Apple products displays the security information feed in a very useful way. Tweetr for windows does a similar thing for Microsoft based systems and of course TwitterBerry enables access from a Blackberry. If users join Twitter they can chose to ‘follow’ the In_Terrain feed and receive the same information and potentially reply to specific tweets they find interesting – thus creating the ‘conversation’ Twitter, desires. Similarly, if other security and intelligence focused twitter feeds become apparent the In_Terrain twitter feed can ‘follow’ those conversations – thus beginning the network effect.

Clearly, this is still experimental and there are other avenues to explore with regard to GPS Twitter applications. The aim with the In_Terrain Twitter account is to generate tweets from mainstream information sources as well as the ‘lower frequencies’. Starting a National Security focused tweet seems like an interesting idea right now – so I welcome Blog readers to ‘join the conversation’ – and please make suggestions for improvements or content additions. Maybe it will even become useful.

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