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Thinking Straight

Yet another way technology can enhance sensemaking is by providing tools that help steer analysts clear of certain mental pitfalls. That’s the goal of the Structured Evidential Argumentation System, which was developed by SRI International under Project Genoa, a recently completed DARPA program. (Genoa II, a follow-on project, is now under way at DARPA’s Information Awareness Office.) According to SRI team leader John Lowrance, the argumentation system “helps you organize your thinking and keeps you from jumping to conclusions too soon.” Too often, he says, when people are struggling to make sense of fragmentary clues, they succumb to the subconscious temptation to focus on one likely interpretation, neglecting to give other possibilities the attention they merit.

To help analysts avoid such blinkered thinking, SRI’s system uses “structured argumentation,” which marshals evidence according to a specified template. Depending on the task at hand, Lowrance says, the template might take the form of a flow chart, say, or a legal argument. The tool Lowrance’s team developed appears as a hierarchy of yes-or-no questions. Someone monitoring country X might start an analysis with a high-level question: Is country X headed for a political crisis? Answering that question requires the analyst to get answers to several more specific queries, such as, Is political instability increasing? Is there a government power struggle with potentially destabilizing consequences? Each of those questions, in turn, might find its answers in terms of still more specific queries: Is there evidence of growing factionalism?

This drilling-down process continues until it generates questions that can be answered with specific pieces of intelligence, such as field reports, Internet downloads, or the output of data-mining systems. On the basis of those results, the analyst refers to a five-color scale and selects the color that conveys the degree of the answer’s certainty: red, for “almost certainly yes”; orange, for “likely”; and so on, down to green, meaning “almost certainly no.” The system automatically aggregates these conclusions into color-coded assessments of the higher-level questions. And it provides a number of displays-including a color-coded overview of the entire hierarchy-that starkly outline the areas of greatest concern in red and orange.

SRI’s tool gives “a very quick sense of what’s driving the conclusion,” says Lowrance. Perhaps its most important benefit, he says, is that because the tool communicates results specifically, rapidly, and graphically to people who are not familiar with a situation, it offers an effective alternative to writing memos. SRI is exploring the possibility of developing a commercial version.

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