Screenshot of National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency

RFI Generator manages emergency geospatial info requests

Officials at emergency response organizations can now generate and manage requests for location-based information from the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency using the RFI Generator, a new tool from the agency.

NGA developed the application in partnership with NJVC, an information technology solutions provider, in response to requests from crisis responders who wanted to get geographic questions to NGA and receive answers quickly, said Ray Bauer, tech lead for NGA’s Readiness, Response and Recovery team.

NGA did a study of its existing internal SharePoint tool and an RFI tool from the Pentagon and combined the information from those into the RFI Generator.

“We took the best features from all three and merged them together so that way we were able to shut down the other two RFI tools and now this actually exists on all three domains,” Bauer said.

The application, which has been available on GitHub for about a month, consists of two interfaces, one map-based for field workers and one for administrators. Both types of users can access a map view, but only those with analyst or management roles can see the admin view.

When they pull up the tool, users can create either a spatial or nonspatial RFI. The latter has no geospatial relevance, but the former lets users enter a point or draw a perimeter around an area in order to ask for information about that location, said Ray Bauer, lead for NGA’s Readiness, Response and Recovery team.

“You can actually put a point or create a line or a polygon and say, ‘I’d like to know more information about this specific point or area or location,’ and then you can fill out the information” on a pop-up display with fields to make the process easier, Bauer said. “Then you hit submit, and that’s when the administrator gets it.”

That triggers another stage of workflow in which the administrator reviews the request and begins filling it or farms it out to other agencies as needed.

When users with analyst or management roles log in, they are automatically taken to the admin view. Managers are presented with  = a tabular or grid view that lets them see who made requests, approve and deny requests as well as see metrics such as when the questions were created and how long they took to complete.

“You can also, of course, since we’re NGA, see these requests geospatially, so you can see where the majority of the requests came in and how similar they are, and you can also then put it through a workflow,” Bauer said. “From that point, you can put it through almost like a package delivery, like UPS or FedEx.”

The field user who submitted the RFI receives email alerts about the status of the request, such as when it was received, where it is in the review process and when it is completed.

“We try and keep the customer as informed as possible throughout the whole process so they know where this is,” Bauer said.

Response time varies, but the goal is to keep it less than 48 hours. “Some of the RFIs are, say for a hurricane event, for a very large area on the Eastern Seaboard, so it’s going to take weeks to complete that request for information,” he added. “It all depends on the questions being asked.”

The delivery mechanism is up to the requestor and can be specified in the form within RFI Generator.

“We would prefer to deliver it, put it out on our cloud version for response so that folks can go out and reach it as a service endpoint,” Bauer said. “However, some folks are still just looking for a PowerPoint graphic, so normally we’ll put it out as a service endpoint and then ship them a PowerPoint by email.”

Reusable code

The RFI Generator is accessible by anyone with HTML 5, and anyone can become an administrator by downloading the tool and standing it up on their system.

Responders began making use of the application while it was still under development. For instance, it was used to generate a product to show the extent of flooding last year in Colorado and to make a graphic of harbors open for relief ships to bring supplies after Typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines in November.

“That’s the 90 percent solution for us,” Bauer said. “Hopefully we can reuse this code. FEMA or someone else can come in and add a few lines, and it will be even 90 percent for them, too.”

Changes or additions to the code may also be made with pull requests, although none has been made yet, said Chris Rasmussen, lead for public open-source software development at NGA.

“All the folks have to respond to questions within two days to keep it personable, to keep it fun and keep it light,” Rasmussen said. “A lot of government systems turn into these ‘roger, received’ black holes.”

NGA is also working to expand its GitHub offerings. For example, it’s entering the big data arena with GeoWave, which provides geospatial and temporal indexing on top of Apache Accumulo, the National Security Agency’s database. Additionally, the agency has added code for Anti-Shipping Activity Messages for mariners using iOS or Android and is working to put those two packages into public app stores: Apple and Google Play.

Editor's note: This article was changed on July 2 to correct Ray Bauer's title.

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