Data, WikiLeaks and War

I’m not going to get into the rights and wrongs of the WikiLeaks thing. Nor am I going to look at the bigger implications for the balance of power between governed and governing, and between the U.S. and its allies and foes. Others have written much better than I can on these topics.

I want to look at what the cables tell us about the sorting, sifting and accessing of this information. In short, what does this tell us about how the world’s most powerful nation organized some of its most prized data?

To start, with, I want to revisit a conversation I had sitting in the garden of a Kabul pub called the Gandermack a few weeks back when it struck me: the biggest problem facing NATO in winning the war in Afghanistan is data.

I was talking to a buff security guy—very buff, in fact, as my female companions kept remarking—who was what might have once been a rare breed, but are now in big demand in Afghanistan. He was a former marine (I think), but was also a computer guy with an anthropology or sociology degree under his black belt somewhere. This guy knew his stuff.

And he was telling the NATO forces where they were going wrong: data management.

The problem, he explained, is not that there isn’t enough of it. It’s that there’s too much of it, and it’s not being shared in a useful way. Connections are not being made. Soldiers are drowning in intelligence.

All the allied forces in Afghanistan have their own data systems. But, I was told, there’s no system to make sense of it. Nor is there one to share it. So data collected by a garrison from one country in one part of the country is not accessible by any of the other 48 nations.

On the surface it seems this problem was fixed. In the wake of 9/11 U.S. departments were told to stop being so secretive. Which is why we got to WikiLeaks–one guy apparently able to access millions of classified documents from pretty much every corner of the planet. If he could do then so could thousands of other people. And, one would have to assume, so could more than a few people who weren’t supposed to have access. To give you an idea of the trove unearthed, WikiLeaks has released about 1,000 so far, meaning it’s going to take them nearly seven years to get all the cables out. Cable fatigue, anyone?

So, it would seem that the solution to the problem of not having enough pooled information is to just let anyone have it. But that, it turns out, isn’t enough. That’s because what we see from the WikiLeaks material is how old it looks.

I spent much of the early 1980s trawling through this kind of thing as a history student. Of course, they were all declassified documents going back to the 1950s, but the language was remarkably similar, the structure, the tone, the topics, the look and feel. A diplomatic cable in 2010 looks a lot like a cable from 50 years ago. In the meantime communication has gone from the telegraph to the fax to email to blogs to the iphone to twitter to Facebook.

This, to me, is the problem. It’s not that we’ve suddenly glimpsed inside another world: We would have seen a lot of this stuff at some point anyway, though it’s useful to see it earlier. Actually we can take some succour from the fact that diplomats seem to be doing a pretty good job of reporting on the countries they’re posted to. Journalists shouldn’t be surprised; we’ve relied on diplomats for a while. (And they might rightly feel somewhat aggrieved we now do this to them.)

No, the problem that WikiLeaks unearths is that the most powerful nation on earth doesn’t seem to have any better way of working with all this information than anyone else. Each cable has some header material—who it’s intended for, who it’s by, and when it was written. Then there’s a line called TAGS, which, in true U.S. bureaucratic style doesn’t actually mean tags but “Traffic Analysis by Geography and Subject”—a state department system to organize and manage the cables. Many are two letter country or regional tags—US, AF, PK etc—while others are four letter subject tags—from AADP for Automated Data Processing to PREL for external political relations, or SMIG for immigration related terms.

Of course there’s nothing wrong with this—the tag list is updated regularly (that last one seems to be in January 2008). You can filter a search by, say, a combination of countries, a subject tag and then what’s called a program tag, which always begins with K, such as KPAO for Public Affairs Office.

This is all very well, but it’s very dark ages. The trouble is, as my buff friend in the Kabul garden points out, there’s not much out there that’s better. A CIA or State Department analyst may use a computer to sift through the tags and other metadata, but that seems to be the only real difference between him and his Mum or Dad 50 years before.

My buff friend made a comparison with the political officer in today’s ISAF with a political officer (sometimes called an agent) back in the days of the British Raj. Back then the swashbuckling fella would ride a horse, sleep on the ground and know the Afghan hinterlands like the back of his hand, often riding alone, sipping tea with local chieftains to collect intelligence and use it to effect change (in this case meaning extend the already bulging British sphere of influence.) He would know the ins and outs of local tribal rivalries, who hated whom, etc. All of it stored in his head or in little notebooks.

His modern equivalent may actually have the same information, but it’ll be gleaned from the occasional photo opportunity, a squillion intelligence reports, all suitably tagged, and perhaps footage from a couple of drones. If the chieftain he’s interested in coopting straddles a regional command, chances are that he won’t be able to access anyone else’s information on him–assuming they have any.

In short, the problem in the military and diplomatic world is the same we’re facing in the open world. We have a lot more information than we can use—or keep track of—and it’s not necessarily making us any smarter. Computers haven’t helped us understand stuff better—they’ve just helped us collect, share, and lose more of it.

I must confess I’ve not made much progress on this myself. My main contribution is persuading a researcher friend to use a program called PersonalBrain, which helps you to join the dots between people, things, organisations, whatever you’re trying to figure out. It’s all manual though, which puts people off: What you mean I have to make the connections myself? Well, yes. Computers aren’t magic.

Yet. It’s clear to me that 10 years down the track, I hope, we’ll finally get that writing in prose, and then adding a hierarchy of labels to a document, is no longer the way to go. Instead, we’ll be writing into live forms that make connections as we write, annotate on the fly, draw spindly threads to other parts of our text, and make everything come to life. I will be able to pull into the document visuals, audio, other people, old records, chronologies, maps, and work with the data in three dimensions.

If this sounds familiar, it’s probably because it sounds like science fiction, something like Minority Report. But it’s not; it’s a glimpse inside the mind of our imperial political agent; how he would make those connections because they were all in his head—neurons firing transmitters, axons alive, binding synapses.

If I were the U.S. government, I would take Cablegate as a wake up call. Not at the affrontery of this humiliation, but as a chance to rethink how its data is being gathered and made use of. Cablegate tells us that the world of the cable is over.

Afghanistan’s TV Phone Users Offer a Lesson

By Jeremy Wagstaff

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There’s something I notice amid all the dust, drudgery and danger of Kabul life: the cellphone TVs.

No guard booth—and there are lots of them—is complete without a little cellphone sitting on its side, pumping out some surprisingly clear picture of a TV show.

This evening at one hostelry the guard, AK-47 absent-mindedly askew on the bench, had plugged his into a TV. I don’t know why. Maybe the phone gave better reception.

All I know is that guys who a couple of years ago had no means of communication now have a computer in their hand. Not only that, it’s a television, itself a desirable device. (There are 740 TVs per 1,000 people in the U.S. In Afghanistan there are 3.)

But it doesn’t stop there. I’ve long harped on about how cellphones are the developing world population’s first computer and first Internet device. Indeed, the poorer the country, the more revolutionary the cellphone is. But in places like Afghanistan you see how crucial the cellphone is as well.

Electricity is unreliable. There’s no Internet except in a few cafes, hotels and offices willing to pay thousands of dollars a month. But you can get a sort of 3G service over your phone. The phone is an invisible umbilical cord in a world where nothing seems to be tied down.

Folk like Jan Chipchase, a former researcher at Nokia, are researching how mobile banking is beginning to take hold in Afghanistan. I topped up my cellphone in Kabul via PayPal and a service based in Massachusetts. This in a place where you don’t bat an eyelid to see a donkey in a side street next to a shiny SUV, and a guy in a smart suit brushing shoulders with a crumpled old man riding a bike selling a rainbow of balloons.

Of course this set me thinking. For one thing, this place is totally unwired. There are no drains, no power infrastructure, no fiber optic cables. The cellphone is perfectly suited to this environment that flirts with chaos.

But there’s something else. The cellphone is a computer, and it’s on the cusp of being so much more than what it is. Our phones contain all the necessary tools to turn them into ways to measure our health—the iStethoscope, for example, which enables doctors to check their patients’ heartbeats, or the iStroke, an iPhone application developed in Singapore to give brain surgeons a portable atlas of the inside of someone’s skull.

But it’s obvious it doesn’t have to stop there. iPhone users are wont to say “There’s an app for that” and this will soon be the refrain, not of nerdy narcissists, but of real people with real problems.

When we can use our cellphone to monitor air pollution levels, test water before we drink it, point it at food to see whether it’s gone bad or contains meat, or use them as metal detectors or passports or as wallets or air purifiers, then I’ll feel like we’re beginning to exploit their potential.

In short, the cellphone will become, has become, a sort of Swiss Army penknife for our lives. In Afghanistan that means a degree of connectivity no other medium can provide. Not just to family and friends, but to the possibility of a better life via the web, or at least to the escapism of television.

For the rest of us in the pampered West, we use it as a productivity device and a distraction, but we should be viewing it as a doorway onto a vastly different future.

When crime committed is not just saved on film—from Rodney King to the catwoman of Coventry—but beamed live thro to services that scan activity for signs of danger, the individual may be protected in a way they are presently not.

We may need less medical training if, during the golden hour after an accident, we can use a portable device to measure and transmit vital signs and receive instruction. Point the camera at the wound and an overlay points out the problem and what needs to be done. Point and click triage, anyone?

Small steps. But I can’t help wondering why I’m more inspired by the imaginative and enterprising use of cellphones in places like Afghanistan, and why I’m less than impressed by the vapid self-absorption of the average smart phone user in our First World.

Now I’m heading back to the guard hut to watch the late soap.

Lost in the Flow of The Digital Word

my weekly column as part of the Loose Wire Service, hence the lack of links.

By Jeremy Wagstaff

A few weeks ago I wrote about the emergence of the digital book, and how, basically, we should get over our love affair with its physical ancestor and realize that, as with newspapers, rotary dial phones and reel-to-reel tape decks, the world has moved on. Digital rules, and ebooks now make more sense than papyrus.

Not everyone was happy. My bookseller friends won’t talk to me anymore, and don’t even mention my author ex-buddies. One person told me I was “brave” (I think he meant foolhardy) in saying something everyone else thought, but didn’t yet dare mention.

But the truth is that a lot of people have already moved on. Amazon is now selling more ebooks than hardbacks. It’s just about to bring out a Kindle that will sell for about $130. When it hits $100—by Christmas, probably—it’s hard not to imagine everyone getting one in their stocking.

By the end of next year, you’ll be more likely to see people reading on a digital device than a print version. Airlines will hand them out at the beginning of the flight instead of newspapers, along with a warning during the security demonstration not to steal them. (I was on a flight the other day that reminded people it was a serious offence to steal the lifejackets. What kind of people take planes and then steal the one thing standing between them and a watery grave?)

But what interests me is the change in the pattern of reading that this is already engendering. (The ereading, not the theft of flotation devices.) I go to Afghanistan quite a bit and it’s common to see Kindles and Sony eBook Digital Book Readers in the airport lounge. Of course, for these guys—most of them contractors, aid workers or soldiers—the ereader makes a lot of sense.

There are indeed booksellers in Kabul but it’s not exactly a city for relaxed browsing, and lugging in three or four months’ worth of reading isn’t ideal—especially when you can slot all that into one device that weighs less than a hardback, and to which you can download books when you feel like it.

Those who use Kindles and similar devices say that they read a lot more, and really enjoy it. I believe them. But there’s more. Amazon now offers applications for the iPhone (and the iPad) as well as the Android phone and the BlackBerry. Download that and you’re good to go. 

The first response of friends to the idea of reading on a smart phone is: “too small. Won’t work.”

Until, of course, they try it. Then opposition seems to melt away. One of my Kabul colleagues, no spring chicken, reads all his books on his iPhone 4. When the Android app came out a few weeks ago I tried it on my Google Nexus One.

And that’s when I realized how different digital books are.

Not just from normal books. But from other digital content.

I look at it like this: Written content is platform agnostic. It doesn’t care what it’s written/displayed on. We’ll read something on a toilet wall if it’s compelling enough (and who doesn’t want to learn about first-hand experience of Shazza’s relaxed favor-granting policies?)

We knew this already. (The fact that content doesn’t care about what it’s on, not how Shazza spends her discretionary time.) We knew that paper is a great technology for printing on, but we knew it wasn’t the only one. We also knew the size of the area upon which the text is printed doesn’t matter too much either. From big notice boards to cereal packets to postage-stamps, we’ll read anything.

So it should come as no surprise that reading on a smartphone is no biggie. The important thing is what Mihály Csíkszentmihályi defined as flow: Do we lose ourselves in the reading? Do we tune out what is around us?

Surprisingly, we do. Usually, if I’m in a queue for anything I get antsy. I start comparing line lengths. I curse the people in front for being so slow, the guy behind me for sneezing all over my neck, the check-in staff for being so inept.

But then I whip out my phone and start reading a book and I’m lost. The shuffling, the sneezing, the incompetence are all forgotten, the noise reduced to a hum as I read away.

Now it’s not that I don’t read other stuff on my cellphone. I check my email, I read my Twitter, Facebook and RSS feeds. But it’s not the same. A book is something to get absorbed in. And, if you’re enjoying the book, you will. That’s why we read them.

So it doesn’t really matter what the device is, so long as the content is good (and this is why talk of turning ebooks into interactive devices is hogwash. All-singing, all-dancing multimedia swipe and swoosh is not what flow is all about—and what books are all about.)

This is what differentiates book content from other kinds of digital content. We’re actually well primed to pick up the thread of reading from where we left off—how many times do you notice that you’re able to jump to the next unread paragraph of a book you put down the night before without any effort? Our brains are well-trained to jump back into the narrative threat a book offers.

There’s another thing at work here.

Previously we would only rarely have considered picking up a book to read for short bursts. But the cellphone naturally lends itself to that. You’ll see a few people in queues reading physical books, but the effort required is often a bit too much. It looks more defiantly bohemian than cozy. Not so with the phone, which is rarely far from our grasp.

This is one reason why friends report reading more with these devices. They may carve the process into smaller slices, but the flow remains intact.

And one more thing: The devices enable us to keep several books on the go at once. Just as we would listen to different music depending on our mood, time of day, etc, so with books we switch between fiction and non-fiction, humor, pathos, whatever. Only having a pile of books in your bag wasn’t quite as practical as having one by your bedside.

Now with ebooks that’s no longer an issue.

This is all very intriguing, and flies in the face of what we thought was happening to us in our digital new world: We thought attention spans were shrinking, that we weren’t reading as much as before, that we were slaves to our devices rather than the other way around.

I don’t believe it to be so. Sure, there are still phone zombies who don’t seem to be able to lift their gaze from their device, and respond to its call like a handmaiden to her mistress. But ebooks offer a different future: That we are able to conquer distraction with flow, absorb knowledge and wisdom in the most crowded, uncivilized of places, and, most importantly, enjoy the written word as much as our forebears did.

Praise be to Kindle. And the smart phone.