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Diplopedia, State Department 2.0?

BY Micah L. Sifry | Saturday, August 5 2006

The United States State Department is about to launch an intrnal wiki called Diplopedia. That#039s the most interesting news to come out Wikimania today, at least for me. Chris Bronk, who heads the "Office of E-Diplomacy" at State, just gave a preview of what could be a very useful experiment in marrying new communications technology to a very old profession.

Here#039s how Diplopedia came to be, as Bronk told it.

"Every diplomat moves every two or three years," he said. "How do you pass their knowledge down?"

Here's how information gathering works today in a typical embassy. Some event happens--say, an Asian dictator decides to test fire a missile--and State needs new insight on how this is affecting political attitudes in a country nearby. A junior staffer does traditional reporting in-field--talking to local leaders, journalists, academics, politicians, opposition leaders, etc. Then he drafts a report, or cable, which then gets reviewed and discussed up thru the embassy's hierarchy, before it becomes an official report, which may eventually get to the top levels of government.

The problem is, eventually all those participants in that information sifting process will move on, and all that is left behind for the next group of embassy staff is a file with official report. "It doesn't tell me how they got to those conclusions," Bronk noted.

"Perhaps the State Department could leverage its international communications network and the efforts of its constantly moving corps of officers to better answer how to do business, adapt to new cultures, and get results in new overseas postings," Bronk said. The goal is a repository of know-how.

Answer: Diplopedia, which is starting with a pilot program this week. Bronk showed a slide titled, "Weapons of Mass Destruction," with a State Department logo and a wiki format. It looked intriguing.

"We're about to implement a vanilla version of Mediawiki in the next few weeks," Bronk told his audience. "Our challenge is governing it. We worry about the blogosphere. We worry about that Washington Post story about an intelligence officer who was blogging and got fired."

"There is a deep fear about unlocking people on issues." Talk about an understatement--but give him credit for admitting it!

"Anything that we work on is one-click away from a press source," Bronk added, and not that far from offending a political actor, either, he noted.

And yet, Diplopedia is about to take some baby steps.

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