Monthly Archives: April 2010

Rethinking Human Dynamics

Originally published in Geospatial Intelligence Forum.  Co-authored with Dr. Robert R. Tomes.



Recent efforts to expand the gathering, analysis and use of sociocultural intelligence in full-spectrum operations have created a paradox. On the one hand, there is almost universal recognition that the national security community requires ever-greater insights into the human dynamics that shape perceptions, decisions and actions. A wide and varied discourse about both the need for and benefits of increased social, cultural and political knowledge has ascended to the apex of national security reform discussions.

On the other hand, and despite important exceptions, responses to expanding human dynamics knowledge requirements have been relatively narrow and unimaginative given the measure of global knowledge available. Specifically, “human terrain” efforts have favored large, complex technical acquisition programs that show little appreciation of where the lion’s share of human dynamics expertise actually resides, how human dynamics differ by geography, or how today’s human dynamics have been shaped by the past.

It is time that we explore how “human dynamics” knowledge could better be accumulated, adjudicated and organized—within a geospatial and temporal framework—and made broadly accessible to benefit not only the global security community, but also global society writ large.

As the U.S. national security community moved into an era of population-centric operations across complex and urban terrain during the 2000s, it became clear that decisions and operations had to be anchored in knowledge of human, social, cultural and behavioral dynamics. We simply did not have the capacity to do this, and our doctrine, operating principles and approach to operations did not require it. Doctrinally, we avoided operations in urban areas, resisted interventions, and favored rapid, decisive military campaigns with minimal ground operations.

As our need for and knowledge of human terrain grew during the last decade, it became clear that we had to further anchor human terrain knowledge with fine-grained, real-world geographic information. It was certainly no longer acceptable to speak of particular peoples and their behaviors without discussing them in geospatial and temporal terms.

When speaking and thinking geospatially, moreover, it was no longer acceptable to understand human dynamics at a 1:250,000 cartographic scale; nor is it acceptable to temporally limit users to data from moments in time. Increasingly, decision makers and action takers also demand data on how others perceive or view the local “map,” able to represent cultural features, historic grievances, and relevant ethnic, tribal and other demographic data.

After nearly a decade struggling to understand the human terrain in Afghanistan and Iraq, we have countless cases where better— and necessarily geospatial—knowledge of culturally significant and often sensitive locations would have enabled a much higher level of operational success in military operations, such as counterinsurgency, force protection, reconstruction and stability operations, as well as in diplomatic efforts and development planning.

Some yeoman’s work has occurred through efforts to map human terrain in conflict regions, particularly South Asia, Iraq and the Horn of Africa. But the resulting systems and programs have in no way been integrated into a unifying framework that could yield a detailed geospatial and temporal grasp of the global human dynamics landscape. Placing human dynamics on a global map requires that we build a spatial and temporal framework—essentially a media channel— able to integrate data collected by a vast, currently disparate community of international experts, social scientists, non-governmental organizations and others.

Much of the data U.S. national security planners will need in the coming decades remains inaccessible to current government programs. NGOs, for example, collect data around the world to support relief operations and disaster recovery, but have no outlet for the data when their funding for a specific crisis runs out and they move on. Academic researchers collect and analyze data to support their publications, but have scant storage room on university networks or the capacity to geospatially enable their research for others to use.

Many researchers and analysts are driven by an instinctual need to both convey and understand human dynamics in terms of place and time. As a community, we must enable this instinct to bear fruit as a positive “network externality”—a term that generally applies to data or information that is collected for one purpose but has much greater utility to a larger community.


In the new world of Web 2.0 technologies and social software applications, we all have become more aware of the collective wisdom, energy and sustained momentum that virtual groups, or “crowds,” bring to knowledge tasks and problem solving. Under the right conditions, architectures of participation can be leveraged to crowd source information and generate knowledge with staggering results in terms of timeliness, efficiency and accuracy.

Some of the latest technical strategies for crowd sourcing geospatial data, sometimes called volunteered geographic information, enable experts to collaborate using addition dimensions of reality (spatial and temporal), employ visualization capabilities to further knowledge discovery and creation, and incorporate spatial analysis into the collective work of participants.

We believe that many of the current challenges with global human terrain mapping, including collection of baseline cultural data and collaboration with non-governmental experts, are best addressed through a specific type of architecture of participation that is designed, led and resourced specifically to organize and integrate global human dynamics research. We are not implying that all crowds are inherently “smart,” or that crowd sourcing using geospatially enabled social software can satisfy all requirements for human terrain data. A fine line exists between wise crowds and dumb mobs.

As always, analysts should validate information and knowledge, vet experts, and practice sound critical thinking skills when presented with information. When it comes to leveraging the expertise and knowledge contained in groups, there is ample evidence that networks of like-minded experts sharing a common interest in the co-creation of knowledge outperform isolated groups.

The majority of experts with knowledge in the realm of human dynamics work outside the U.S. national security community, and many reside outside of the United States. Tens of thousands of social scientists, journalists, NGO staff and experienced regional “hands” have spent years or decades cultivating sophisticated understandings of the human dynamics within specific geographies, have time-series data that demonstrates change over time, and have developed models based on trend information allowing them to make predictions or forecasts. Most of these people are not members of the U.S. national security community, nor will any recruitment and hiring campaign change this fact. How can the official defense, diplomacy and development communities leverage this knowledge?

Many in the human, social, cultural and behavioral community, which is overwhelmingly academic, place great value on “peer review” systems. In this day and age, there are opportunities to empower the entire expert community, and not just a small peer review panel, to suggest concrete amendments to canonical datasets published by others.

Imagine taking issue with specific line segments within a polygon that represents a tribal boundary, because your on-the-ground experience provides you definitive knowledge of a shortfall in the existing polygon. By waging such disputes, and having a space where colleagues can come together to systematically resolve these disputes in a time dominant fashion, we would bring a transparency and accountability to the accumulation of human dynamics data that has never been available to this community. It is possible to devise an online space in which experts can adjudicate and resolve disputes about the geospatial, temporal and other dimensions of their human dynamics knowledge.

Why would experts in sociocultural human dynamics be compelled to crowd source their knowledge, particularly the geospatial and temporal dimensions of their knowledge? Why would they exert considerable effort to ensure that the entire world of human dynamics, over the entire globe and over the course of human history, becomes accessible to both the expert and lay communities by simply panning and zooming within a map interface, selecting a period of history with a chronology bar, and picking the layers of meaning to their particular purpose? These are legitimate questions and concerns.

We believe that an organization can be designed and staffed to build the global human terrain map in a way that builds (and in some fashion rebuilds) social capital among experts and data collectors around the collective interest that already exists in making use of existing data and knowledge. We know that expert networks exist, share data, and assist relief operations and other crises. We also know that the technology and user base to begin building such an organization exists today.

One only has to look to the enormous success of other crowd sourcing channels such as Wikipedia, Picasa and Flikr; social media outlets like Facebook; and geospatial crowd sourcing initiatives such as OpenStreetMap, Wikimapia, GeoCaching, and the use of Ushahidi for crisis mapping. Despite their success, these examples only scratch the surface in terms of the value that architectures of participation can provide a community of users that is interested in bettering our understanding of the world.

Crowd sourcing strategies thrive by offering a community of users a common task to which they can all contribute, which for many is a reward in itself. With opportunities for the public recognition of their knowledge, expertise and unfailing contributions, these architectures bring with them a non-monetary incentive structure that promises long term viability and sustainability. This is something that our expensive and narrow national security platforms simply cannot promise.

Moreover, geospatial crowd sourcing has proven effective in providing help during international crises. Haiti is only the most recent example of the “crisis mapping” community coming together to rapidly marshal geospatial situational awareness data that spans the worlds of physical, built and human geography in support of crisis response and recovery. This leads to rapid bursts in the accumulation of enormous data stores over non-obvious geographies.

While these efforts are a recent historical phenomenon, their overwhelming success has spawned “crisis camp,” where energetic, socially minded geospatial engineers meet on the weekends to collectively innovate on how they could better respond to the next crisis. This social element of parties is yet another incentive that is a hallmark of crowd sourcing strategies.


As the national security community struggles with the proper way ahead for the human dynamics enterprise, it is useful to pause and ask ourselves what we are trying to accomplish.

Are we trying to develop a tactical human terrain system for use by the military over the geography of today’s fight? Or are we looking to develop a sustainable knowledge base that covers human dynamics of the entire globe that everyone across the extended national security enterprise can share in?

Do we now recognize that the lion’s share of global sociocultural knowledge, particularly that relating to the geographies of interest to U.S. national security, is held by people outside the U.S. national security community? Do we understand that sociocultural knowledge lacks sufficient context unless it is tied to fine-grained, real-world geographies, as well as specific moments in time?

The challenge of mapping the world’s human dynamics requires a different approach. For a fraction of the cost currently spent on large, complex systems, a private foundation jointly funded by the public and private sector could implement an innovative, collaborative approach leading to an international consortium of human terrain experts.

We believe that a combination of microgrant funds and an “X prize” approach to stimulate new social science research and modeling will draw hundreds of international experts, data collectors and NGOs into the organization. We also believe that this approach can be instantiated using an existing, resilient cloud architecture with an open standards backbone and a user-friendly interface for accepting and visualizing data.

Our approach will enable less technically savvy users to participate, including senior anthropologists, sociologists, political scientists and others who have never touched geospatial software but know the geography well.

We also believe graduate students and future researchers will encode their knowledge in geospatial and temporal representations that can be hyperlinked to citations of academic or other expert knowledge.

Mapping the global human terrain to advance socio-cultural intelligence requires a trusted social network connected and empowered through an open, geospatially enabled, architecture of participation. Let’s get on with it.