Crowdsourcing for gathering Spy Data?
American Spy Agencies hope to use crowdsourcing in a new way to gather intelligence that eludes the experts.

By Adam Rawnsley

Crowdsourcing. It’s been used for everything from handicapping the next election to making a kick-ass encyclopedia to building a better movie recommendation tools for Netflix. America’s spy agencies are hoping it can help ‘em predict what’s going to happen on the world stage next. In other words, Washington’s next sharp-eyed intelligence analyst could be you. An early test of the system starts this week.

On Friday, Applied Research Associates, Inc will launch the Aggregative Contingent Estimation System (ACES), a website that lets members of the public test out methods to crowdsource intelligence predictions. Funded by Iarpa, the intelligence community’s advanced research shop, ACES invites users to try their hand at making predictions and sharpening up their forecasting skills. The resulting data, ARA and Iarpa hope, will let spooks find out if the crowd can build a better crystal ball for the intel world. The project will test out crowd-based forecasting for the intelligence community by testing its methods out on a website. That site opens to the public this Friday.

“We’re trying to make good use of everybody’s individual opinions and trying to determine what aspects of them might be important and would lead to a good forecast,” says Dr. Dirk Warnaar, the principal investigator for the ACES project at Applied Research Associates.
The idea behind tapping into collective intelligence is simple: There’s bits of useful information distributed among the members of diverse crowds, so aggregating their judgments should yield a better answer — better even than experts’ — to a particular question.

But ARA is looking to do something just a little different from other crowdsourcing efforts. While many similar tools assign equal weight to participants’ inputs, ACES will be looking for the most accurate predictors over time and weighting their judgments more heavily than other users.

Tools that tap into the smarts of the crowd have shown promise on a host of challenges over the years. Researchers have used Twitter buzz about upcoming movies to make pretty accurate predictions about box office sales on opening weekends. Tools like Ushaidi, nonprofit software that lets users map incidents, resources or people in the midst of crises, has helped rescuers find and save victims of disasters like Haiti’s earthquake.

ACES is a crowdsourcing tool somewhat similar to an online poll. People who sign up for the website will be asked whether an event in the fields of politics, economics, science, society or security will take place and what probability they assign to it. Their answers are then aggregated to see if the group produces an accurate prediction. It’s not a prediction market like the famous InTrade, which lets users bet on just about anything you can think of. No money changes hands on ACES — only opinions.