One of our core services at Tesla Government is open-source research. Our research team has some serious skills, and they’ve impressed people at just about every level of the US government along the way.
But depending on who you talk to, “open source research” can have a lot of different meanings. And in many of our conversations about open-source research, it’s often clear that we’re not talking about the same thing.
Or to borrow from the immortal words of The Princess Bride, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means!”
So what is open-source research? It’s research that exhausts any publicly available information, including the internet, social media, books, periodicals, databases and foreign-language-based content.
Odds are, you may not have considered some of those elements before. Let’s take a closer look and dream about the ways you can use open-source research.
Components of Open-Source Research
At its core, the realm of open-source research includes any publicly available information. But as we just mentioned, there are several avenues to pursue when it comes to open-source research. Let’s take a look at some of them:
The world wide web. The net. The brainchild of Al Gore. Whatever you want to call it, the internet is usually the first thing that comes to mind when people talk about open-source information. It’s mind-boggling to consider the breadth and depth of information available with a search engine and a few keystrokes — information that could’ve taken days or weeks to find a couple decades ago.
Typically open-source research uses the internet to hunt down subject-specific websites, articles, contacts and other resources that can be retrieved via a skilled search engine query.
Books & Periodicals
While the internet is a no-brainer as an open-source resource, printed materials may not be top of mind for some people. But books and periodicals (including journals and other academic sources) can be a huge help – often offering greater context and background info than what’s available online.
This is where it really helps to have an experienced team on a research project. With our staff’s mix of domestic and international experience with the military, government, NGOs and academia, we have an unmatched mental “library” of the relevant literature for your project.
Some people look at social media and see a mess of cat videos, over-sharing aunts and anonymous tough guys. Our team sees an untapped resource for research.
Social media research is often the best way to get real-time insight into critical situations. Whether it’s a conflict area or a weather emergency, social-media monitoring can give clarity into the specifics of the situation and the resources that are most needed on the ground.
Another component of open-source research that doesn’t come to mind for most people is commercial or financial databases. There are many state-run databases around the world, as well as privately owned databases that offer public access.
These databases can be an excellent source of historical records and other info that provides additional context to our research. An excellent ones we tap into on a regular basis is The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data (ACLED) project which provides a rich source of conflict data over time. Each event is categorized and geolocated for easy analysis. Other good sources include the Global Terrorism Database curated by the University of Maryland as part of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Response to Terrorism (START), the World Bank Open Data project, and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)’s data including population statistics and maps.
Have a problem that open source research could help solve?
Finding Information Isn’t Enough. Expertise and Language Skills Turn Research Into Insight.
Once you’ve rounded up all your sources, you’re good to go, right? Well, not quite.
Finding the information is only part of the work to be done for proper open-source research. In order to turn all the articles, database queries and social media posts you found into information that can actually be used, you need to take it to the next level. That requires the ability to understand the content in the original language as well as a real-world understanding of the subject areas.
Understanding the Language
One of the most important pieces of the puzzle, for us, is language. All the other sources we’ve listed are incredibly valuable…if you can read the language. But what happens when you need insight into an area where the locals speak a language or dialect that you’re clueless about?
In order to get a complete picture of the task at hand, you need a nuanced understanding of the news reports, blogs and social media posts coming out of that region. That’s one reason our team includes a number of multilingual researchers who are fluent in Arabic, Farsi, Dari, Russian, French, Spanish and other languages.
Real-World Understanding of Open-Source Research
Now that you have all your information pulled into one big pile and you can read it, comes the most important task – knowing what is actually good and useful information. This is where subject-matter experts who know the regions and topics that they study come into play. You need teams who know the history, involved parties and politics of a particular subject so they can weed through the mass of information to surface what is actually useful.
The End Game? A Complete Picture
As exciting as research can be (at least to a researcher!), it’s never an end in itself. Our clients are working to address critical needs around the world, with real-life implications. By pursuing open-source research, they are making sure they’ve exhausted all available resources to get a complete understanding and make the best possible decisions.
When it comes down to it, open-source research has the same goal as everything we do here at Tesla: Providing clarity and context so you can advance your mission with confidence.