The US military should embrace user-driven web services such as wikis, video-sharing and social-networking sites, according to a defence analyst.
The US military is increasingly moving toward a role where it will share responsibilities with organisations outside the US government, including charitable organisations, international aid groups and even private businesses, said Guy Ben-Ari, a fellow in the Defense-Industrial Initiatives Group at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington DC, think-tank.
In those cases - where the military is helping with reconstruction or security following a natural or human-made disaster - US forces need to find better ways to communicate with other groups, said Ben-Ari, speaking at the Network Centric Warfare conference in Washington. Too often, the US military has been reluctant to share even unclassified information with other groups working for the same goals, he said.
Members of the military have good information to share on terrain or possible danger spots, but if they debate too long about what they can share with other organisations, the information becomes useless, he said.
"Rethink what you're sharing, what you're willing to share," he said to the crowd, about half of whom were uniformed military. "Information sharing not only makes sense, but is critical."
Before Ben-Ari spoke, David Emery, chief engineer for the US Army's Future Combat Systems project, said instant messaging and whiteboard sharing were the "killer apps" the Army needed in the field. But Ben-Ari said those two applications were the "tip of the iceberg", and the military could offer many more information-sharing tools using readily available technology.
For example, a group of military officers launched CompanyCommand.com in the early days of the current Iraq war. At the site, they shared tips and warnings about locations in Iraq, and the site rapidly grew to have thousands of members, Ben-Ari said. The US military threatened to shut the site down because it was on the open internet, but eventually moved the site in-house and restricted access via passwords.
After the major earthquake in Pakistan in October 2005, a small group of aid workers launched RISEPak.com, allowing aid workers there to share information and pictures, Ben-Ari added. Within weeks, RISEPak.com became the go-to site for aid workers headed to Pakistan, and the site still operates today with support from Pakistani and US groups, he noted.
Ben-Ari acknowledged that there's a potential for user-generated websites to include inaccurate or malicious information. But in most cases, user-generated sites self-police - if a terrorist had posted information on CompanyCommand.com, the military officers there would have quickly recognised the impostor, he said.
"The power today is with the end users, and it's the end users who drive the content," he said. "The argument is [that in disaster zones], some information is better than none."