NCI Agency challenges techies to identify propaganda

By Communications Team 11/28/2018

Photos courtesy of Florian Hijlkema

Ongoing work in NATO to identify propaganda may get some help from a new source. NATO's Communications and Information Agency encouraged participants in a recent hackathon to use technology to identify propaganda and inflammatory information.

Ongoing work in NATO to identify propaganda may get some help from a new source.

NATO's Communications and Information Agency encouraged participants in a recent hackathon to use technology to identify propaganda and inflammatory information. The agency's challenge was one of six proposed to the 127 people from around the world who participated in the Hackathon for Good in The Hague on Nov. 17 - 18.

The Hague Data Science Initiative hosted the Hackathon for Peace, Justice and Security, a weekend for participants to work on activities proposed by the NCI Agency, other international organizations based in The Hague and nonprofits. 

Twenty-seven teams representing more than 22 nationalities spent their weekend developing solutions to address one of the six problems.

Hack4Peace, a team of graduate students from Eindhoven University of Technology, was one of five teams who addressed the agency's challenge. The team came in second place and won 5,000 euros. Hack4Peace developed a browser extension that detects and filters propaganda. The solution used image analysis and machine learning to provide a confidence score.

The first-place team won a cash prize of 10,000 euros with a solution to identify land in danger of illegal sale or exploitation. The prizes were provided by The Hague Data Science Initiative and selected by a team of judges.

Images are increasingly used in digital propaganda to make messages more appealing. That's why the agency challenged participants to develop a tool that would identify objects and text within images and determine if they were propaganda. The agency gave participants a training set of images, half of which were anti-NATO propaganda, and half of which were general NATO images.

Several people from the agency's data science team supported the event. In addition to proposing the challenge, the team produced data sets for the participants to train and test their solutions. During the weekend-long event the data science team gave guidance on the challenge, reviewed progress and supported the judging panel.

"We were really excited about the whole initiative," said Ivana Ilic Mestric, senior data scientist at the NCI Agency. "From what we saw it looks like there are some really good techniques being developed here. Plus, it was a lot of fun to be a part of."

The hackathon gave the agency access to a very different talent pool, with different perspectives and unique approaches to problems. The compressed duration of the Hackathon also forces participants to produce a working prototype in just two days, allowing potential solutions to be tested quickly.

The agency's challenge was taken from work it is doing to support NATO in applying innovative technologies to challenging problems. Developing tools to help identify propaganda and misinformation is just one of many data science team-run projects designed to bring big data analysis, data visualization and machine learning to NATO.

Agency staff liked the tools and approaches participants used at the hackathon, and will look to incorporate them into the work they are doing for NATO. They have already been through the code developed by the Hack4Peace team to see what elements could be adopted.

"It's not a replacement for our conventional procurements and our conventional work with industry, but it's in addition to," said Michael Street, innovation manager at the agency. "And it's comparatively low-cost, low-effort."

NATO is increasingly looking to this sort of approach for the early stages of development, from Allied Command Transformation's hackathons, which the agency supports, to the Cyber Security Incubator.

"NATO is exploring innovative ways to work with academia and industry to bring innovative technology into use faster and more effectively," Street said.

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