According to a recent report on the DOD DefenseLINK site, the Air Force has begun to see the value of blogs as a potential source of intelligence.

The Air Force Office of Scientific Research recently began funding a new research area that includes a study of blogs. Blog research may provide information analysts and warfighters with invaluable help in fighting the war on terrorism.

Within blogs, hyperlinks act like reference citations in research papers thereby allowing someone to discover the most important events bloggers are writing about in just the same way that one can discover the most important papers in a field by finding which ones are the most cited in research papers.

One of the problems analysts may have with blog monitoring, Ulicny noted, is there is too much actionable information for the analyst to properly analyze.

"We are developing an automated tool to tell analysts what bloggers are most interested in at a point in time," Ulicny said.

"The fact that the web is a vast source of information is sometimes overlooked by military analysts," Kokar said. "Our research goal is to provide the warfighter with a kind of information radar to better understand the information battlespace."  {Sharp, "Blogs Study May Provide Credible Information", 2006}

The article indicates that the Air Force’s primary interest in blogs is in the area of pattern analysis, in looking at blogs in the aggregate to get an idea what the "blogosphere" is chatting about at any particular time.  This is, of course, one valuable approach to utilizing blogs as an intelligence source.  However, it should be hoped that the Air Force does not overlook the specific information that can be found within blogs.  Blogs can be a way of getting at the specific expertise of individuals that one would never have encountered otherwise.  Though blogs are meant for public consumption, they are often written with a more relaxed style and with more candor than something written for publication.  Thus, blogs may provide a nice bridge between the general and the specific, between technical and human collection.

A framework should be set up which allows pattern detection and analysis of the greatest possible number of blogs in an effort to get an idea what the "blogosphere" is chatting about.  However, there should also be a means for detecting and monitoring particular blogs which consistently provide relevant content.  In an iterative process, the general search for patterns should yield specific sources which can then be used to glean actionable intelligence as well as new search terms that can be used to refine the search for patterns and additional sources.

Even in the civilian world there are a number of free tools which allow users to see what the "blogosphere" is most interested in at the moment, as well as tools that allow users to track "conversations" related to particular web sites or topics.  IceRocket and BlogPulse allow users to display the level of "chatter" on a particular topic as a graph.  One can also compare up to three different topics on the same graph.  One can also get particular "profile" information for a blog site, including how often that blogger posts, who links to that blog, etc.  Both sites also allow users to track "conversations", as does a site called TalkDigger.  TalkDigger also provides the ability to set up a persistent search for a particular blog site.  The results can be delivered to the user as an RSS feed, allowing him or her to constantly monitor who is linking to/talking about a particular blog.  Of course, Technorati is one of the largest and most popular blog tracking sites (Technorati tags appear at the bottom of each of these posts).

So, there is precedent for the kind of monitoring and pattern detection tools that the Air Force is trying to develop for use on blogs.  Several useful, and free, services already exist for civilian users.  What the Air Force will need to do will be to create tools that are more capable, with better visualization capabilities, that better allow for the detection of relevant and reliable sources, and which include integrated analysis and reporting tools for the intelligence analyst.  Within one application, an individual analyst needs to have the ability to access overall "blogosphere" pattern data; to identify, monitor, and "drill down" into specific sources and topics; to analyze results and create reports; to share information and analysis with other analysts, warfighters, and commanders; and to inject new search terms back into the overall pattern detection system.

Again, the civilian market already provides hints as to what this kind of a system would look like.  For example, some RSS aggregators, like GreatNews, allow users to set up persistent searches for keywords within subscribed news feeds.  One can also create persistent searches on Google News or Google Blog Search, for example, which search a wide variety of blogs and deliver the results as RSS news feeds.  In this way, it is possible to set up two levels of search, one that casts a wider net looking for relevant sources, another which drills down into sources that have been subscribed to as a result of the first level of search.  The first level might be called "discovery" searches, and the second "drill-down" searches.

Next, many RSS aggregators, again GreatNews included, allow one to share articles with friends and colleagues via email, from within the aggregator itself.  Some aggregators will allow the user to save a copy of an item directly to an online archive, such as Furl.  Some will also allow the user to post an item to his or her own blog from within the aggregator.  Thus, there are a number of aggregators which provide a decent degree of sharing, saving, sorting, and reporting capability.  However, none provide any sort of framework for the analysis of the items they collect, nor for the detection and visualization of patterns.

Hopefully, the Air Force will study the pros and cons of the tools which already exist and create a product that will take the best, leave the worst, and add sorely needed capabilities.  Bloggers should hope that the system is a good one and that there is a civilian spin-off.  Though there are better tools now than ever, there is much work to be done in creating better tools for the monitoring, analysis, and reporting of news by individual bloggers.

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