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Open-Source Intelligence Tools and the Importance of Usability

For the average software application, an intuitive UX usually means fewer headaches for the end-user. But when it comes to software for public sector intelligence teams, usability can make the difference between secured assets and loss of data, infrastructure, and human life.

Like battlefield technologies, usability gaps are palpable when it comes to open-source intelligence tools—which are often complex, click-heavy solutions designed for advanced users. These tools are procured by special operations and intelligence teams who require online data to inform national security initiatives like counter-terrorism, crisis response, and cyber defense.

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Ease of use is crucial in these situations, especially when a clunky UI can impede speed-to-information when life is on the line.

What does usability look like for open-source intelligence tools used in the public sector, and why should these features be prioritized for intelligence analysts?

Usability a Barrier for Intelligence Analysts

intelligence analyst working at a computer.Analysts must be able to gather actionable intelligence to support informed national security decisions—whether it’s in response to an ongoing conflict or an immediate crisis. Online data sources are increasingly relevant to developing timely, actionable intelligence for these missions, which range from counter-terrorism to cyber threat response, natural disaster remediation, and battlefield strategy.

Online data includes open-source social media and surface web content, online public records, and covert deep and dark websites and messaging apps. Open-source intelligence tools are required to efficiently collect, process, and analyze online data relevant to the mission.

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But these tools are not always easy to use. This makes it inaccessible for entry-level recruits and analysts. And considering persistent technology skills gaps, these often make up the bulk of open-source intelligence tool users.

Government environments also have unique requirements that are not typically considered in commercial software usability. According to 2020 research on military application usability, previous studies evaluating military tech typically apply usability factors relevant to commercial solutions like e-commerce platforms or web portals. 

These are often based on evaluation methods like Nielsen’s usability heuristics, not factors unique to government infrastructure that directly impacts national security. Agencies must consider usability not just for the average user, but for the public sector user—especially when adopting solutions developed by commercial technology companies.

Why Usability Matters for Government Intelligence

For analysts, open-source intelligence tools with a clunky or complex interface could have several impacts. For one, users are likely to get frustrated or discouraged using the system, and either neglect its full capabilities or avoid using it entirely. 

Intelligence processes could lag as a result. Users may be unable to access relevant information quickly enough to inform incident response that relies on speed-to-information, such as a terrorist attack.

This could have serious consequences—potentially compromising critical data and assets and jeopardizing national interests and security. For government infrastructure, usability factors like readability and information hierarchy directly impact human casualties.

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There are also secondary, more long-term impacts on security operations and technology development. Neglecting usability, intelligence teams will likely rely on harder-to-find recruits with the skills needed to operate more complex systems. Without a more accessible intelligence platform for lower-level analysts, skilled personnel like data scientists may have less time and resources to devote to high-priority tasks like machine learning development.

Accessible Tooling = Faster, More Informed Decision Making

The obvious solution is to procure tools that focus on usability for government analysts. This enables users to easily and quickly access real-time information from publicly available online sources. Usability in open-source intelligence tooling should have a simple UI, avoid click-heavy processes, and render information in a digestible format that is easy to understand.

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These features allow intelligence analysts to maximize the software’s capabilities. Teams get faster access to the information they need, especially in demanding circumstances where speed-to-information is critical. As a result, national security strategies are supported by more efficient and informed intelligence so governments can make fast, effective decisions and avoid damage to data, infrastructure, and people.

A focus on usability may even help address analyst and skills shortages in the public sector so more advanced personnel can allocate their resources to developing in-demand technologies like AI.beacon uiA view in the Echosec Systems Platform. Open-source intelligence tools should have simple design elements that require short learning curves and navigate users intuitively to relevant information.

Tool usability has serious implications for government initiatives, whether the end-user is on the battlefield or behind a computer. The value of usability extends to open-source intelligence tools, which support missions with online data.

User experience has not historically been examined specifically for public sector intelligence software development. But usability will likely become a primary consideration as intelligence teams realize the value of procuring more accessible open-source intelligence tools—both for their benefits to intelligence processes and to national security strategies. After all, when life and death are on the line, analysts need the easiest possible access to reliable information.

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