A while back, my attention was captured by a National Public Radio piece describing how the US Military is applying Social Network Analysis tools and methods to catch roadside bombers in Iraq and Afghanistan. While some on our team were surprised, Social Network Analysis can trace a direct history to the “link analysis” methods that were developed by the British Army in the 1950s as a tool to map communist insurgents in the jungles of Malaysia. The simple method of drawing lines and boxes to depict various types of roles relationships was later incorporated into the software tools that are used today by police departments and government agencies.
I was taught link analysis methods as a young military Intelligence officer. Decades later, as a pharma industry consultant, I used the exact same methods to map connections between drug researchers and institutions. Although it led to valuable insights, manually mapping data from through hundreds of journal articles and web pages was incredibly time consuming. It was the limitations of manual processing that motivated us to create LnxResearch in 2005 to develop the technology we have today.
In 2006, LnxResearch attended our first SNA conference, SunBelt. Aside from a few epidemiologists from Merck, LnxResearch was the only company developing an SNA tool for commercial purposes. The other group that stood out was the several analysts from the Defense Intelligence Agency. As we bumped into the DIA team in the same breakout sessions, it was obvious that we were both working on the same problems. In the years since then, LnxResearch has developed what I’m sure is the most sophisticated SNA toolset in the life sciences — and possibly anywhere. In comparison to most of our military counterparts, we have the advantage of massive amounts of high-quality, structured data from which we routinely map communities of 30,000-50,000 people with a very high degree of validity. One of our challenges, in fact, is finding software that is compatible with such large datasets! In contrast, our government peers must often work with very “dirty” data that makes analysis much more difficult and subjective.
Having seen and SNA in both these worlds, it’s obvious to me that there is much more we could learn from each other if security and confidentiality issues did not impede collaboration. That said, I’m happy to have shed my uniform and to be creating value as a member of the Lnx Research team. I may find my job occasionally stressful but at least I’m not likely to be blown up by a roadside bomb on the way to work! (A sincere thank-you to our government counterparts for their bravery in facing a deadly commute and other perils daily.)
- Terrorist Networks: Rethinking the Logic Behind Web Search Engines by Anna Collins (surflightroy.net)
- Social Networking’s Newest Friend: Genomics (technologyreview.in)