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user generated solutions

Today in the academics portion of training we were learning about close air support systems. In passing, the Lt. Col. teaching us mentioned this nugget: “The Army spent a few million dollars for a custom computerized battlefield orders management system. It can handle hundreds of detailed orders per day, and coordinate them with the rest of the Department of Defense. However–and this is not doctrinal, but it’s how people are actually operating in the field–right now it’s sitting in the corner gathering dust. Operationally, we’re accomplishing the mission by emailing MS Office documents back and forth and chatting on IRC.”

People tend to like software that is easy and intuitive. The vast success of the iPod and iPhone speak to that. The Army’s paid a ton of money over the years for a variety of custom software systems which, as a rule, have some technically impressive things going on in the back end, but are nearly impossible to use due to the atrocious user interface. Generals can issue doctrine stating that the Army software is the official way of getting things done, but no soldier is going to be reprimanded if his commander can see that the task is being accomplished more efficiently using something else.

I suspect that the Army could recoup some of its investment by opening up the source code to its software systems, even if only to soldiers. There are enough of us that some percentage are pretty much guaranteed to know how to code, and incentive to substantially improve Army software even if only to get bonus points at the next promotion board. However, there’d need to be a technically literate person fairly high in the chain of command for that to happen, and I’m not too optimistic that that’ll happen anytime in the near future.

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