Defense mapping group takes GIS kit commercial

The new commercial geographic information system toolkit is 'just going to take off,' NGA's Sue Riley says.

Rick Steele

The goal? Tools that make it easier for warfighters to make decisions

The push to boost commercial product use in government has a champion in the secret world of spies.

The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency is looking to the commercial sector for software applications that have more power and flexibility than anything the government has been using up to now.

By marrying commercial apps with the unparalleled depth of information gathered through NGA's imagery and geospatial intelligence programs, the agency is seeking tools that can make it easier for warfighters to make decisions.

The cornerstone program is the Commercial/Joint Mapping Tool Kit, an 11-year, $73 million contract to establish a collection of commercial imagery apps for users across Defense Department agencies.

'We're going to have standard tools across the board, so the whole Net-Centric Enterprise Services across the Global Information Grid is going to be enhanced more and more,' said Sue Riley, NGA program manager for the toolkit. 'The key thing is how important it's going to be in getting the additional functionality out there. It's open, it's scalable, it's just moving so fast'the geographic information systems world'that this is just going to take off.'

NGA awarded Northrop Grumman Corp. the contract in June 2002. The company is using a host of commercial products:
  • GIS software from ESRI of Redlands, Calif., that provides extensive mapping, data use and analysis capabilities

  • Satellite applications from Analytical Graphics Inc. of Philadelphia

  • High-resolution imaging tools from Leica Geosystems AG of Switzerland.

Before the advent of the new toolkit, NGA had been using the Joint Mapping Tool Kit, custom software built just for government. The shift to the commercial tools creates all sorts of advantages, Riley said, including regular software updates when a developer releases new versions, commercially available and standardized training, and the addition of new features as soon as they become available.

'3-D was always a challenge for us; now it's normal operations,' she said.

The armed forces and Coast Guard all have representatives who work with NGA and contractors to identify priorities and interoperability requirements for the toolkit.

Jay Hessey, the Navy's representative, said the commercial toolkit is a real success so far.

'Out of the box, it provides a wealth of information and capability that its predecessor was struggling to get to,' he said.

As part of his responsibility, Hessey is a gatekeeper for Navy offices to get access to the apps. 'I also am the conduit for programs that are approved to be able to get NGA-approved licenses to use the toolkit,' he added. 'I spend a lot of time checking programs out.'

At the same time, Hessey tries to promote the spread of the apps' use throughout the service. 'I'm going over to the Office of Naval Intelligence to give them a briefing'what its capabilities are'to open their eyes.'

Finally, Hessey plays the part of Navy champion for future developments 'to try to influence what the commercial build plans will be in future releases in order to satisfy near-term Navy functions.'

NGA originally planned to end the development phase in June, Hessey said, but the agency has extended it three years to provide additional support to organizations that may sign up to use the toolkit but aren't sure how to implement it.

Since the program revolves around readily available products, one might wonder why the contract was awarded to a systems integrator rather than directly to the software company.

Brett Cameron, the toolkit's program manager for Northrop Grumman, said the integrator is responsible for interacting with all the product providers and with systems integrators providing command and control systems to services. That way, the toolkit will be interoperable with the services' systems, he said.

Additionally, there are occasional software enhancements that, because of their nature or the timing of the requirement, ESRI can't get into production right away.

'Then we build it,' Cameron said. 'It's part of our unique relationship with ESRI. Two of their products we actually developed and licensed to sell under their name.'

Currently the toolkit runs in both Microsoft Windows and Sun Microsystems Solaris environments, but the development team is trying to anticipate future operating systems platforms.

'We are in the process of looking at the Linux platform and additional products to support enterprise services,' Cameron said.

Real-time support

One aim of the toolkit project is to eventually support the soldier who accesses data via a handheld device on the battlefield , Cameron said.

'We're aiming for real time,' he said. 'If I've planned a route for a mission and they're on the way, then they get a report that the bridge they were going to cross has been blown up, they can make a request back to us for an alternative route. There's a lot of power here at a lot of different levels that will benefit the warfighter.'

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