The Analysis Chasm

I’ve recently heard a couple of government people (in different countries) complain about the way in which intelligence analysis is conceptualized, and so how intelligence organizations are constructed. There are two big problems:

1.  “Intelligence analysts” don’t usually interact with datasets directly, but rather via “data analysts”, who aren’t considered “real” analysts. I’m told that, at least in Canada, you have to have a social science degree to be an intelligence analyst. Unsurprisingly (at least for now) people with this background don’t have much feel for big data and for what can be learned from it. Intelligence analysts tend to treat the aggregate of the datasets and the data analysts as a large black box, and use it as a form of Go Fish. In other words, intelligence analysts ask data analysts “Have we seen one of these?”; the data analysts search the datasets and the models built from them, and writes a report giving the answer. The data analyst doesn’t know why the question was asked and so cannot write a more helpful report that would be possible given some knowledge of the context. Neither side is getting as much benefit from the data as they could, and it’s mostly because of a separation of roles that developed historically, but makes little sense.

2. Intelligence analysts, and many data analysts, don’t understand inductive modelling from data. It’s not that they don’t have the technical knowledge (although they usually don’t) but they don’t have the conceptual mindset to understand that data can push models to analysts: “Here’s something that’s anomalous and may be important”; “Here’s something that only occurs a few times in a dataset where all behavior should be typical and so highly repetitive”; “Here’s something that has changed since yesterday in a way that nothing else has”. Data systems that do inductive modelling don’t have to wait for an analyst to think “Maybe this is happening”. The role of an analyst changes from being the person who has to think up hypotheses, to the person who has to judge hypotheses for plausibility. The first task is something humans aren’t especially good at, and it’s something that requires imagination, which tends to disappear in a crisis or under pressure. The second task is easier, although not something we’re necessarily perfect at.

There simply is no path for inductive models from data to get to intelligence analysts in most organizations today. It’s difficult enough to get data analysts to appreciate the possibilities; getting models across the chasm, unsolicited, to intelligence analysts is (to coin a phrase) a bridge too far.

Addressing both of these problems requires a fairly revolutionary redesign of the way intelligence analysis is done, and an equally large change in the kind of education that analysts receive. And it really is a different kind of education, not just a kind of training, because inductive modelling from data seems to require a mindset change, not the supply of some missing mental information. Until such changes are made, most intelligence organizations are fighting with one and a half arms tied behind their collective backs.


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