DOD marches forward with social media

Tools for military use provide Web 2.0 functionality behind the firewall

After much hand-wringing about the use of social media and Web 2.0 tools, which quickly swept through the commercial world and some civilian agencies, the Defense Department has embraced the tools — in its own way.

Although the military is using some commercial programs, new applications specifically designed for department personnel have entered widespread use. The capabilities feature the functionality of social media but operate behind government firewalls, which enhances security while providing communications and professional connections.

Before this year, DOD lacked an enterprise policy for social media and other Internet-based capabilities. Deputy Defense Secretary William Lynn addressed that lack of direction in a memo in February. Lynn outlined the roles and responsibilities for DOD’s commands and required the department to configure the Unclassified but Sensitive IP Network (NIPRnet) to provide access to such applications across all DOD components.


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In addition to providing access to Web 2.0 and social media tools such as Twitter, wikis, blogs and Facebook, there have also been efforts to develop DOD-specific tools to meet warfighters’ needs.

As a result of the memo, DOD will increasingly use social media tools, said Linton Wells, transformation chairman at the National Defense University and former DOD acting CIO. He noted that the intelligence community, which shares responsibilities with DOD in many areas, has been especially effective at developing tools such as Intelink, a social network that includes Intellipedia, an information-sharing tool based on Wikipedia.

Other capabilities emulate video-sharing applications, such as YouTube. When combined, all those tools create a powerful system for sharing intelligence, especially raw data, assessments, images and video. However, Intelink and other applications such as Analytic Space, a project to develop a common collaborative workspace for analysts, primarily serve the intelligence community and operate on classified networks.

Examples of DOD’s Web 2.0 tools include CompanyCommand and the Strategic Knowledge Integration Web (SKIWeb).

CompanyCommand began as a small effort to share information among Army captains at the company level. The goal of the voluntary forum is to exchange information directly among peers without passing that information up the chain of command to a superior officer, who would then need to disseminate the information back through the brigade hierarchy. Wells said that when senior officers discovered the forum, they threatened to shut it down. However, they decided that it was so useful that it is now hosted on military servers at companycommand.army.mil.

The Strategic Command uses SKIWeb as an information-sharing and intelligence-briefing tool. In addition to providing real-time command status, SKIWeb includes news and information scrolls and a blogging feature to enhance information sharing. It resides on Stratcom’s classified network, and senior leaders can use it to globally monitor operations.

Although CompanyCommand and SKIWeb connect their respective communities, until recently, there had been no social media capability available to connect large numbers of personnel. The Army has launched a program that could fill that gap.

MilBook is a NIPRNet-based social media tool that emulates commercial services such as Facebook for professional networking. The application lets users securely collaborate on projects or work in a completely open manner.

Justin Filler, deputy director of the MilTech Solutions Office at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland, said the Army is using Web 2.0 technologies that users are already accustomed to. The main difference is that milBook operates behind DOD firewalls. “Why not leverage what they’re accustomed to using at home?” Filler asked.

In addition to setting up work groups, milBook’s social networking features allow users in open groups to solicit questions and input across DOD. For example, a group working on improving the Global Positioning System could post a question to the entire community and receive answers from personnel across all the services. Teams working on confidential projects can work together in real time to build and craft a statement or report. “It serves a wide variety of purposes,” Filler said.

The primary impetus for milBook came from the decision to close Fort Monmouth, N.J., through the Base Realignment and Closure process. Filler’s group and other commands were slated to move to the Aberdeen Proving Ground. However, coordinating the move required many offices and professionals to stay in touch with one another.

“We needed a way to share knowledge and leverage different types of information regarding processes and procedures for operating at the new installation," he said. "So we set up the wiki and the blog. All of a sudden individuals started using these capabilities from other agencies in the Army and even the DOD." Anyone who could sign in to the Army Knowledge Online-Defense Knowledge Online Web portal could access the site.

At that point, the site was repurposed and became milWiki and milBlog. Filler said one of the benefits of milWiki is that, like its civilian counterpart, it is open to the entire military community.

At the time, AKO was using Jive Clearspace, which his group was using as a wiki. “We said, ‘Look, we have a military-wide wiki. Why don’t you guys use milWiki? Let us use the product and see what we can do with it, and I think we can make something more out of it,’ " he said. That implementation of Clearspace became milBook.

As a tool, milBook lets AKO-DKO users work together and synchronize across DOD. Filler’s group wanted to provide an environment for DOD users that would allow personnel to collaborate on issues that relate specifically to them. MilBook also can interact with other sites, such as Intellipedia and DOD's Techipedia. Through an enterprise search tool, milBook users can locate information anywhere in the DOD enterprise.

“Our suite is specifically for the working-class military,” Filler said. "We’re filling that niche role where one didn’t exist."

Deployed for slightly more than a year, milBook had a little more than 80,000 users as of September. The majority of the service’s users are Army personnel, but about 3,200 are from the Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard, National Guard and DOD agencies. Filler said his group is in discussions with other DOD organizations, specifically the Navy, to add more non-Army personnel to the community.

The milBook developers are changing the platform to better meet the needs of other service personnel, and the goal is to provide a single social media instance across DOD, he said.

Community managers and so-called gardeners operate the milBook suite. Filler said users and power users in specific communities can take on the role of gardener or manager for their groups. He added that users help facilitate the site, clean up articles and categorize information.

MilBook is centrally managed, but Filler said community involvement plays a major role in its operation, which makes it easier to oversee the site. “The community really makes the site,” he said.

From a user's perspective, Filler said the milBook experience is like a visit to a mall. “Once you’re in the mall, you go to the directory — the search appliance in this case. You type in what you’re looking for: satellites. You’ll find an article on satellites, and you’ll want to learn more. You’ll find my group, and now you’ll be able to connect to all that information and others with similar types of information.”

In addition to search and links to information, milBook features a virtual rollover business card that lets users see another person’s profile, which includes professional experiences and contact information. He said that is useful for verifying the expertise of a document’s author.

That tagging function allows the suite of applications to flow seamlessly because articles, profiles and groups are connected to individuals. “On the external Internet, it’s hard to verify who you’re actually talking to,” Filler said. "With ours, you’re able to verify who you’re talking to and then also look up their past experiences, and you’re also able to find others — we call them peers or colleagues, whereas Facebook would call them friends — with similar types of interests. So you’re able to connect not only to that individual but others with the same types of interests."

AKO-DKO allows searches of milBook, which features a button on its site that connects back to the portal. “When you go into the AKO-DKO, you can click and jump right into milSuite, milBook, milWiki, milBlog — whatever you want to connect with,” he said.

AKO-DKO also pulls information from milBook. For example, a search on the portal could take a user to a wiki article or milBook group. “The key is linking information to information and then connecting that information to the people," Filler said. "We’re trying to diversify and integrate with as many other different groups that are out there.”

MilBook also links to the Navy’s portal and agencies such as the Defense Information Systems Agency. Part of that crosslinking work includes integrating search appliances. However, Filler emphasized that milBook does not compete with the other services’ Web 2.0 capabilities; it complements them.

Although DOD has other wikis and blogs, Filler said, no application similar to milBook is in widespread use across the military. He said there have been small projects similar to milBook, but nothing close to it in scale. The other services are considering moving to milBook for cost reasons.

“It’s too expensive for us to each have our own systems, and then we defeat the knowledge management purpose," he said. "They’re looking to us.”

Because milBook is essentially the first application of its kind at DOD, Filler is trying to satisfy customer requirements and avoid the need for another similar capability. “We’re trying very hard as a community to serve that wide range of people so that people don’t have a need to start up another one,” he said.

MilBook 2.0 was recently released. Filler said the upgrades apply to the entire suite and integrate more capabilities. The new services are based on customer feedback and provide tools and services that the commercial world cannot provide. New capabilities include milTube, a video repository similar to YouTube; integrated chat features; and virtual documents that can be posted to milWiki or milBook. Filler said those documents are often Microsoft office documents. “We want to further integrate document integration because a lot of our users have requested that,” he said.

Those new services will be phased in during the next several months, he said. The chat feature will become available during the fall, and the document integration capability is scheduled to enter service this winter. A widget capability also will allow other sites to access and integrate with milBook and permit milBook capabilities to operate in widget form on sites such as AKO-DKO.

Reader Comments

Sun, Sep 26, 2010 Courtney Hunt Chicago, IL

The leveraging of technology and features from public social media sites (e.g., Wikipedia, Facebook, Twitter) into private social networks is a very powerful trend that will only increase. This article provides a great example of digital 2.0 technology deployment and evolution, and I continue to be impressed with how the US federal government is on the leading edge of adoption. I'm sharing it with the Social Media in Organizations (SMinOrgs) Community.

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