New Smartphone App Provides Data for Counter-Insurgency Intelligence Collection

June 2010
Topics: Wireless Communications, Combat Service Support
A MITRE-developed iPhone app dubbed COIN Collector, for counter-insurgency intelligence collecting, is helping soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan fight insurgents by collecting data about them in a battlespace environment.
soldiers using mobile devices

As a platoon sergeant on his second tour of duty in Iraq, Bill Urrego was inundated with data. In spite of this information deluge—viewed in different applications and stored in many different locations—Urrego still lacked real-time data that he could access and share. As a solution, he sent out his troops with personal cameras, GPS devices, and other commercial technology to collect information during their rounds, then used that information to create a map of his area of operation.

"We kept adding photos of people, vehicles, and locations with increased activity," says Urrego. "All the bits and pieces were critical because we were dealing with a smart enemy who watched us carefully and tested our strengths and weaknesses. When we had a better understanding of our environment, we could change our movements. As a result, we were able to make significant impacts in our area of operations."

Urrego's experience highlights the new type of unconventional warfare that the military is facing in Iraq and Afghanistan, which includes fighting insurgents such as the Taliban and al-Qaida.

COIN Tricks

When Urrego re-joined MITRE in 2007 as an information systems engineer, he continued to think about the challenges faced by warfighters when it comes to sharing information in a combat situation. A conversation with Bob McKee from MITRE's Army Program Directorate led to another with Vice President Rich Byrne, who agreed to provide initiative funds to pursue an idea.

Urrego began collaborating with a technical center team that had been working on mobile applications for other MITRE customers, including the Census Bureau. A month later, this cross-center team had created an iPhone application for counter-insurgency (COIN) intelligence collecting. Dubbed "COIN Collector," this mobile application takes advantage of commercial off-the-shelf technology to provide the missing capability that Urrego needed in theater—an easy-to-use tool that allows warfighters to collect, organize, and share user-defined data (people, places, events) in a battle space environment.

In July 2009, the COIN Collector team briefed members of the MITRE Army Advisory Board, a group of retired generals still active on military issues. Their enthusiasm helped MITRE get a demonstration of the prototype in front of several generals, including General Peter Chiarelli, the vice chief of staff of the Army. In the first five minutes of the briefing, General Chiarelli took the iPhone from the briefer's hand and told him it was exactly what his soldiers needed. He asked the team to install the tool on his personal iPhone, and soon other generals asked for the prototype, including one for an Android.

Forging the COIN

The mobile application team that developed COIN Collector included Jack Sheriff, Dave Bryson, Eric Levine, Brian Shade, and Rob Hudson. Their prototype evolved from research on mobile applications in the Information and Computing Technologies Technical Center. The work originated several years ago with Local Eyes, an application for cell phones that combined GPS, time, and information you could plot on a map. This knowledge was subsequently applied to a MITRE research project called TAGR (Tactical Geotemporal Reporting Architecture), which resulted in a successful prototype. Next came a handheld mobile device for the Census Bureau.

"We were able to build the COIN Collector prototype in two months because we could pull experience from these previous projects," says Jay Crossler, a MITRE principal software systems engineer who worked on each of the projects. "Lessons learned included everything from code to what colors work best on-screen in direct sunlight. With each new two-week prototype, we were able to increase efficiency by 10 to 20 percent, as well as functionality."

The team is still working on several technical issues, including security and network connectivity, leveraging lessons learned from support to other sponsors. The current version of COIN Collector uses standard encryption. In field testing, the iPhones communicate with each other and a laptop that is not on the network. No classified data is exchanged.

"This is good enough to get the prototype out into the field to try out," says Crossler. "Our mid-term goal is to inject more security into the iPhones and provide links to classified systems."

Applying Proven Technology

MITRE is bringing together commercial companies (including Apple, Google, and others) with government organizations to discuss how industry can meet government requirements for security, as well as other issues. "This is another way an FFRDC can step in and make a difference," said Dave Lehman, a senior vice president in MITRE's Department of Defense FFRDC. "We often bring multiple stakeholders to the table and help them understand the technical issues and possible solutions."

To keep this dialogue going, MITRE created the Government Mobile Application Group. Dozens of representatives from government and industry meet quarterly to discuss user needs and barriers to rapidly fielding products. MITRE's function in the group is not to promote itself and its work but to facilitate discussion between government and industry.

"Our role in a project such as COIN Collector is to look at what technology is available to the customer, explore different approaches, build something quickly, and try it out," says Crossler. "We're not making big investments—if something works, we'll take it forward; it if doesn't, we'll try something else. And we're working closely with both our government customers and industry to make sure our ideas are transferable to operations.

Urrego adds: "In this case, we're not inventing new technology, we're applying proven technology to give the users something this has an extensible framework, intuitive user interface, and high user acceptance, so that the government can acquire it rapidly and cost-effectively."

In March, the Marines began a two-week exercise at their Air Ground Combat Center in 29 Palms, Calif., that included COIN Collector. Two weeks later they took iPhones equipped with the prototype with them when they deployed overseas. Meanwhile, the Army is using 200 equipped iPhones in another large exercise. The MITRE team will continue to gather feedback from users, refine the application, and help customers quickly get it into the field.

Says Lehman, "Rapid response is one of our responsibilities."

—by Beverly Wood


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