Gov 2.0 Summit Preview: Info Sharing In Afghanistan

At the upcoming Gov 2.0 Summit in Washington, a U.S. intelligence expert will discuss a new program that makes Internet access and collaboration tools available to the Afghan public.
In a bid to increase collaboration and information sharing among non-governmental organizations, military and local citizens in Afghanistan, the military and intelligence community have recently begun piloting a project to provide Internet access and information sharing tools to Afghan communities.

Michele Weslander Quaid, the director of national intelligence's senior representative to the Secretary of Defense's Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance Task Force, will discuss the program, called UnityNet, in a session titled "Stability Out Of Chaos From Information Sharing" on Sept. 7 at the Gov 2.0 Summit in Washington, D.C.

In an interview previewing her talk, Weslander Quaid said that as combat operations in the Middle East evolve into counter-insurgency and stability operations, the military's success depends increasingly on working with the local population and non-governmental organizations, and not just against the militants.

"What matters most in this arena is not really finding information about the bad guys, but understanding the needs and concerns of the population," she said. "That data is primarily available in open source. We need access to that information, and there are others who could benefit from it. There's also information we could provide that would be helpful."

The UnityNet pilot will begin in 5 sites in key regions in Afghanistan where the military will provide open Internet connectivity, scanners and information sharing tools that the public, non-governmental organizations and others on the ground can use to access and share information with one another.

The military will use commodity hardware and mostly open source software in support of UnityNet to keep costs down, and hopes ultimately to leave the infrastructure in place even after the United States leaves the area. "This is something we can do relatively inexpensively," said Weslander Quaid.

Among the information the military hopes to seed the effort are detailed maps and pictures of the local area, both to give people context of where they are living and working and to enable them to mark up the maps with information and share that with interested parties. Maps are a key part of the strategy -- Weslander Quaid repeatedly noted both their importance in getting aid to the right places after the Haitian earthquake, as well as the public's role in improving those maps.

Weslander Quaid said that cultural barriers remain to effective information sharing with non-military parties, including a history of sometimes uneasy relationships with NGOs and a lack of a history in the intelligence community of sharing information in the open arena. However, while military culture and skills have traditionally focused on fighting and not community outreach, UnityNet will leverage capabilities DoD has built to assist in disaster areas like the Haitian earthquake and Pakistani flood zones.

Weslander Quaid sees an increasing willingness to share information. "There's something that wasn't there before as people realize that when it comes to stability operations we're all in this together," she said.