Equipment Set-up and Use

Researchers must have thorough knowledge of their own computer and all its systems to be effective. They need more than a basic acquaintance with the computer they use, the programs on it, or the programs they will need to install. To build even a bird house, a carpenter may need to know how to use a saw, hammer, glue, paint, and drill, plus issues about the grain of a wood or the weatherability of materials used in the construction. Research, too, requires knowledge of many different areas.

The computer itself, and the different programs needed to conduct research, must be fully understood. The techniques and work-arounds of each system and program must be mastered.

Sometime in the start-up process it is important for researchers to identify and use a computer expert (geek) who knows more about the various parts of the system than they do. No matter how good a researcher may be with computers, expect crashes. Some of the problems will be beyond the ability of the researcher to solve and pre-planning on what to do and who go to save time and energy in a stressful situation.

Keep in mind that when preparing to do intensive research you are not building a system – it is a system of systems. The computer – whatever is in use – is only one system among many. But computers are a basic tool. You will use other tools as well, but the Internet-connected computer is often the research workhorse. In the best of all worlds, researchers have at least two computer systems:
• Research system
• Production system.

Computer systems should be individualized to the needs of the collector. In general, a system with plenty of power and good storage and backup capacity is best, but small organizations and some individuals do quite well with systems that are not top-of-the-line. Inventiveness can make up for a lot of hardware and software minuses.

Generally speaking you will need a system with high speed Internet connections, the ability to burn CDs or DVDs, and a plethora of USB ports where you can connect peripherals.

While many people get by with a single computer, two are even better. In some cases three – one of them being a cheap throw-away clunker to you use when you are concerned you might get viruses – are useful.

For security’s sake, many researchers divide their work between “outside” and “inside” computers.

The “outside” is the one you use to search the Internet and for downloading materials. This is the system designed for heavy lifting. The “inside” one is used for storage of materials and producing reports – and only for that.

Both computers should have the strongest anti-virus program(s) available. (One might have a different anti-virus program than the other so that any chinks in the one on the outside computer will be covered by the strengths of the other anti-virus program on the inside computer. Check around for expert opinion on anti-virus software. Remember, the more popular anti-virus programs may not always be the the most effective for your needs.)

The two computers are loaded with different software, based on their particular use.

The outside research computer should be the citadel of a research system. The ideal outside research computer should have the largest amount of Random Access Memory (RAM) that the budget allows. This may not be critical at first, but as time goes on the computer will slow as RAM fills up. Eventually a shortage of RAM can cause a computer crash – always at the worst moment, it seems – and in time the disk itself may fail.

The outside research system is used to access the Internet and conduct research. For the safety of the operator and the security of any client, this system is set up minimally with security issues in mind. The research system should have an innocuous name like “my computer” or “Joe’s computer” unless you are named Joe. The name of the computer is often set up on its first use and most users do not even remember that their computer has a name that others can read. Too often bureaucrats will name their computer in such a way that that it can be readily identified as a government or company computer by a knowledgeable system operator on any site being visited.

The research computer is set up so that it has all of the programs and capabilities needed to access and download from the Internet. Since others on the Internet may be able to see what you are doing, and what is on your system, you want to only collect with this outside machine and keep what you collect on that outside system for a short a time as possible.

Storage and production should be done on another computer, preferably one that is not, or is seldom, connected to the Internet.

The production system, the inside system, is designed to process the material that was downloaded from the Internet. While it may have limited access to the Internet – usually for sending and reading materials, messages or reports – this machine is never used to collect information from the Internet.

Information collected on the research computer is “airgapped” to the production machine to provide security. Air Gapping is a safer way of moving material from one computer to another. Material to be transferred from the research computer is saved on a disk or thumb drive, and erased later from the research computer. The newly-created disk or thumb drive with the collected information is put in the production machine, run through an anti-virus program, and the information is then transferred to the production machine’s memory. This reduces the possibility of getting bugs and viruses on the production machine. Since the production machine is not connected to the Internet, hackers and snoopers cannot see what is on the production machine or break into it. The airgapped material is then used to create reports.

Since having two computers may be unnecessarily expensive for the type of research being done, there is a way to provide decent security with only one computer. The single computer has minimal programs on it and is used as the research or “outside” computer. When all collection is finished, the computer is cut off from the Internet and a hang-on hard drive with the programs and apps needed for processing the information, storing the data, and writing any reports is attached the computer. All of the analysis work and report-writing is done on the hard drive. The hard drive is removed from the computer before it is can be connected back to the Internet.

In either case – whether using two computers or one computer and a hard drive – it is smart to have a separate hard drive or cloud backup of all work performed.

Planning for Research Success – I

 

Planning is essential for research success. Understanding and using the research structure and process helps assure success in information gathering.

The overall process involves three steps:
• Collect and Store
• Analyze
• Produce

The role of “time” in the process is important. Those three steps must be accomplished in a reasonable – and usually set – time period. It is best to plan and set that time in advance. Thinking through the process and the individual steps prior to starting any collection is important. While “getting right down to business” seems initially attractive, in the final analysis that is a time-waster. It is far better to spend a little of that precious commodity of time to plan out the approach to each research project. Projects differ and each project presents varied issues and problems that are best thought through in advance.

In most cases the process follows this overall pattern:

1. Initial Planning Phase

2. Security Plan Phase

3. Search Tools Selection Phase

4. Assignment of Research Tasks Phase

5. “Conduct Research” Phase
• Documentation Plan Phase
• Revision of Research Plan Phase
• Continued Research Portion Phase

6 . Vetting and Validation of Sources Phase

7. Product Development Phase
• Draft Product
• Final Product

In this section of Bits ‘n’ Pieces we will take you through the details of the first phase. Detailed information on following phases will be posted here in the future.

First Phase

In the Initial Planning Phase most research practitioners find it best to:
• Have, and use, a Standard Operating Procedure
• Understand the written request for information and the needs of the requestor
• Make certain the objective is carefully defined
• Review all their capabilities and assets as they relate to the objective
• Identify what the requestor already knows and doesn’t know
• Formulate the research question, making certain it will answer the request
• Determine the type of materials to seek and use
• Determine the search techniques
• Determine what kind of research method to use
• Determine what time is available for each element, such as research and product production, and set a schedule accordingly

Clear objectives limit confusion and direct collectors to the proper resource. Often it will be necessary to directly engage the customer. This step is crucial. Customers often do not initially know what they really want. They don’t necessarily define their needs correctly and a researcher’s re-engagement can help to clarify the real question. When clarifying the real request, determine the context of the request and tailor production to the intended audience. Learn and understand:
• What the customer wants (the request)
• What the customer needs (the real request)
• When the customer needs it (the timeline)
• Why the customer needs it (the context)

Understanding the context of the customer’s request before you get too far into the planning process is important – saving time and money for the client, and time and frustration for the researcher or collector.

Examine your own capabilities, the positive and the negative:
• What assets do I have? (knowledge/capabilities)
• What assets do I need? (refinement/tools/help)
• What information can I get in time? (deadline)
• Where can I get it? (search capabilities and collaborative network)

Write out key information in a plan so you can refer to it later – that helps keep the collection process on track.
• Context: The user’s need
• Wording of the question to be answered
• Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How elements
• Priority – Is time more important than detail level?
• LTIOV – Last time information is of value
• WENTK – Who else needs to know?
• Product – Desired format may drive collection

Then flesh out the collection plan.
• Identify what is known and who knows it:
• How much do I know about the subject?
• Has this question been addressed previously?
• If so, by whom?
• If so, where is that information?
• If so, can I get it there?

Select appropriate data sources:
• What available sources are most appropriate?
• Are they non-Internet, government domains, commercial, or free web?

Frame timeline and level of detail constraints:
• How much time to I have to answer the question?
• What level of detail is required?

Framing the timeline is important because the minutes slip away to hours and the hours can become days for the researcher who really wants to do a thorough job. There’s always one more place to search, and another location after that. Time is limited and the plan for timing has to take into account the time it will take to:
• Research
• Analyze
• Write/compile
• Review
• Ask/answer additional questions, if needed
• Publish final product

The timing is often related to the type of requirement: ad hoc or standing. Ad hoc requirements address a specific problem or issue and are generally relatively narrow, requiring less time. Standing requirements fulfill more generalized needs and often take longer – sometimes months or even years.

Generally there are at least two search strategies available, and the choice is situation-dependent. The strategies are variously referred to as the “Hunter” or “Focused” Strategy or the “Gatherer” or “Broad” Strategy. Researchers need to be familiar with both, and be aware that sometimes they will want to combine the strategies. Sometimes, when using a Gatherer or Broad research strategy it will become necessary to focus on particular aspect for a short period of time. In that case the “Hunter” or “Focused” strategy will be paired with the broader collection strategy.

Focused methods gather only the information needed to meet a relatively narrow, specific requirement, while a broad method would gather a large amount of related data and narrow down the focus at a later time. These are both valid collection/research techniques and have individual advantages. Different requirements may call for different approaches depending on the situation e.g.: tactical vs. strategic, and/or time sensitivity.

Hunters seek specific information and adopt a focused strategy to go after the information (Often answers an ad hoc requirement). Gatherers search widely and pull information which is either usable or eventually must be discarded (Often answers a standing requirement).

The researcher will also need to choose access techniques in the initial phase. Choices in the digital age are either (1) information sources that can push the information to a requestor, like an advertising circular mailed to a person or (2) requestors can pull the information that is already available, much like going to the library and picking a specific book off the shelf.

In the open source world, collection may be more accurately defined as acquisition, since analysts typically search for information that already exists somewhere – the challenge is to find it. Through dashboards and RSS feeds, researchers can have many products “pushed” to them.

Push (by producers)
• Deliver via message traffic, e-mail, hard-copy, or briefing
• Post to web page or social networking forum

Pull (by collectors)
• Browse websites for finished products, knowledge bases, or data archives
• Troll wikis, blogs, and forums
• Set up automated RSS feeds or Alerts

The Internet material types are as varied as Internet itself. Some types are more appropriate to search than others, depending on the search requirement. Information can be found in many places; decide which are most likely to yield the information needed.
• Non-Internet
• News media
• Social media
• Citizen journalism
• Government sites
• Corporate sites
• Think Tanks
• Other types of sites

Select the Research Tools Most Likely to Achieve Results

There are many different categories of material to search through, and use. Determine which are the most likely to produce the results, including:
• Search engines
• Meta-Search engines
• Databases
• Non-Internet Resources
• Gray materials
• Subject Matter Experts
• Libraries
• Corporate Material
• Audio-Visuals
• Other resources

All of these factors should be considered in the first step of the research process.

In this Bits ‘n’ Pieces we  took you through details of the first phase. Detailed information covering the following phases will be posted here in the future.

Approaching Decisions With An Open Mind

Napoleon Buonaparte said “Nothing is more difficult – and therefore more precious, than to be able to decide.”

Decisions ARE difficult, and they are the stuff of life. What school to attend? What occupation to pursue? Whom to marry? Where to live? How to live? Do I want to cut fat or carbs out of my diet? Who gets my vote? Should we insert troops into Syria?

Though decisions are difficult, there is something we can do to make the decision process easier. We can approach decisions thoughtfully by gathering the best information to use in making the decisions. That gathering process must begin with an open mind, with an attitude that we may not have the correct information or enough information to make a decision.

General Armstrong Custer, before he led his men to their deaths at the Battle of the Big Horn, said “There are not enough Indians in the world to defeat the Seventh Cavalry.” The general believed the 597 men in his force were facing a rogue group of 800 hostiles who had left the reservation.

Unfortunately, reservation Indians joined the rogues several weeks prior to the battle. Still, Custer’s scouts did report they had found the largest native village they had ever seen. However, his decision to go forward with his ill-prepared attack was based on the earlier, incorrect information. That mistake was compounded with his obvious arrogance. Today historians estimate between 1,500 to 2,500 Lakota and Cheyenne warriors confronted Custer and his troops – who did not fare well.

So the important steps to making better decisions:

  • Approach the problem with an open mind.
  • Gather the information needed to make the decision.

We will be writing about the second step in future blogs.