Collecting the Dots: Problem Formulation and Solution Elements by Martin C. Libicki and Shari Lawrence Pfleeger, RAND Corporation

Across a wide variety of endeavors—from homeland security to foreign intelligence, criminal investigation, public health, and system safety—failure to anticipate disaster has been ascribed to the inability to “connect the dots.” This paper argues that to “connect the dots,” one must first “collect the dots.” All too often, the inability to foresee trouble has come about because pieces of information sit in this or that head. Were they combined, trouble would be easier to foresee,
but when each stands alone, no compelling conclusions suggest themselves. This paper investigates some of the barriers to circulating telltale information and describes some approaches—institutional, social, and technological—that would begin to bring information together in a meaningful way.

The prevailing view in the intelligence and public safety communities is that forestalling major threats such as terrorist attacks or epidemics requires weaving together disconnected pieces of information to reveal broader patterns; in more common terms, we call this “connecting the dots.” In this paper, we argue that connecting the dots is less likely to happen unless one takes a prior step: “collecting the dots,” that is, bringing scattered pieces of information into some proximity to each other to enable pattern recognition. This paper is intended to help decisionmakers understand the dimensions of solving the problem of “collecting the dots.” Any solution involves identifying what information is important and improving its circulation within communities that are in a position to connect the dots so collected. The paper describes organizational and informational barriers to “collecting the dots” and explores the characteristics of potential solutions to overcoming them.