Sunday, December 03, 2006


Via the consistently interesting Kent's Imperative, we have news of a major effort to develop a new domain of intelligence analysis called " visual analytics". What is it ? From the NVAC website:

"What is Visual Analytics?

In the fight on terrorism, analysts are bombarded with enormous volumes of data coming from a variety of sources: documents, emails, measurements, images, numbers and even sounds. Often, this information is incomplete, fuzzy, disjointed, or out of context.

Recognizing that humans have a keen ability to process visual information, researchers are creating computer tools—known as visual analytics—that can interpret and analyze vast amounts of data. Visual analytics is the science of analytical reasoning facilitated by interactive visual interfaces. People use visual analytics tools and techniques to:

Synthesize information and derive insight from massive, dynamic, ambiguous, and often conflicting data.
Detect the expected and discover the unexpected.
Provide timely, defensible, and understandable assessments.
Communicate assessment effectively for action

Although visual analytics has multiple uses, its use in biology and national security is an integral part of our nation’s overall efforts to protect against terrorism and reduce our vulnerability to terrorist attacks. By uncovering hidden associations and relationships, analysts glean insight and knowledge to assess terrorist threats to detect the expected and discover the unexpected. "

This research is interesting on a number of levels.

Traditionally, ever since the IC expanded beyond purely service-based military intelligence it has, starting with the OSS and going forward to today, attracted a relatively limited set of personality types that emphasized certain modes of thought. Broadly, speaking you had field operatives ( think Kermit Roosevelt, Jr, Milt Bearden and Robert Baer), analysts ( Sherman Kent, Robert Gates or Michael Scheuer) and the IT/Cryptologic/R&D crowd that are integral to the IMINT/SIGINT agencies. For the most part, the first and third groups have fed their information to the analysts and the analysts have not had a very direct influence over collection, a compartmentalization that made some sense in the Cold War era ( though not to the extremes to which it was taken, which nevertheless, did not prevent the Soviet Bloc from penetrating America's IC).

As a group, analysts tend to be cut from a cloth not unlike what you see in professional academics. A strong bias toward verbal-linguistic and mathematical-logical intelligence and vertical thinking expertise, a highly focused outlook whose intellectual narrowness is further aggravated over the course of a career by security requirements and bureaucratic/political "red lines". The analytical community is not unaware of its own structural tendencies toward cognitive bias; the in-house CIA journal Studies in Intelligence as well as periodic " reform" commissions have raised these questions repeatedly and diligent analysts attempt to guard against them.

To an extent, the National Intelligence Council should be injecting outside or unorthdox viewpoints or perspectives into the analytical process for high priority, summative, reporting. How successfully the NIC has been at doing this is difficult for an outsider like myself to measure ( has it ever been systematically evaluated?) . While non-career figures are sometimes tapped as National Intelligence Officers, and this is helpful, they too usually come from the same background as do analysts, being academics or think tank experts or perhaps, military officers. This cognitive homogeneity can lead to mental gaps knawn as lacunas of activity where certain patterns are simply not likely to be recognized easily.

This is where visualization of problems or scenarios as envisioned by NVAC 's " visual analytics" may prove remarkably helpful as visuals activate a " kaleidiscopic range of brain processing" ( about 1/3 of the population are primarly visual, nonverbal, problem solvers but I would wager only a tiny minority of IC analysts are). Simply framing the known differently can, by itself, be a spur to creative or critical thought and the speed of comprehension with a visual far exceeds any verbal brief. Or even reading text. A picture being worth a thousand words is apparently true in terms of cognitive neuroscience. Howard Gardner's theories evidently have something for spies as well as school children.

A few caveats are in order.

As visualization can be powerful, visuals can be powerfully wrong if the underlying analytics are less well considered than the effort going into constructing elegant visualizations ( the image point where commanding a high level attention intersects with conveying high level of added meaning). We don't want stovepiped errors to become more persuasive, we want visualization to disaggregate stovepiped errors before they get going, by causing analysts to say " Hey...on second thought....".

On the flip side, I'm not sure having these "visual analytics" developed exclusively by engineers and scientists at NVAC is the smartest way to go. Engineers, who while strongly spatial are also notoriously linear and bifurcative in their thinking styles and their favored imagery is likely to be, I expect, unduly rigid compared to the actual world in which we live. Sometimes concepts or scenarios are alinear and are best conveyed by ambiguity and paradox and the input of actual artists whose processing may be more intuitive and actively visual might give the data an entirely different, possibly better, spin.


Gunnar Peterson of the highly regarded 1 Raindrop blog stopped by to direct our attention to juiceanalytics. Thanks Gunnar !

Check out what the Juice Analytics guys are doing -- pushing basic MS Office tools like Excel to the limit and doing some very interesting analytics, bi, and visualization


Visualization is important because, done well, you can, as Tufte said, completely integrate word, number, and image
Are you familiar with the field of Human Computer Interaction (HCI)? It involves an eclectic mix of engineering, design, computer science, and the behavioral and social sciences. HCI folks study visualization techniques, as well as broader research into how humans synthesize data and how technology can facilitate the process. Definitely the sort of people we need included in this "visual analytics" work.
Hi Wiggins,

Glad to see you blogging once again!

No, that is a new field to me. Makes perfect sense though, as some ppl have argued that that pcs/internet have become functional extensions of the human mind
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