How NGA is adapting to geodata's brave new world
- By Anne Armstrong
- Feb 03, 2016
Reinventing government or any government agency is hard to do, as Al Gore and his National Partnership for Reinventing Government team can testify. Culture too can be tough to change, but when technology dramatically alters the landscape, agencies must adapt or get left behind.
The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency is facing just such a challenge. Imagery from space was once difficult, expensive and secret. Now dozens of commercial companies offer almost-instantaneous, high-resolution images from a network of large and small satellites to a host of buyers worldwide.
“Geospatial intelligence is at an inflection point. And NGA finds itself in the midst of a professional revolution -- rich with game-changing opportunity and unbounded potential,” said NGA Director Robert Cardillo in his most recent strategic plan. But as he's fond of reminding staff and partners, “What got us here, won’t get us there.”
So Cardillo, who became director in October 2014, is leading the campaign to use the skills at NGA in new ways with new partners, while still servicing its traditional military and intelligence customers. In a presentation to industry executives at the recent CES Government conference in Las Vegas, he asked the IT executives to consider working with NGA on new, unclassified projects.
“We have to face reality," Cardillo said. "The intelligence community can’t just stay in its own classified world anymore. It’s not 1947 anymore, and the conditions under which we must ply our trade have changed. The world is faster, messier, noisier and more connected. Any technology is broadly available to anyone.”
As proof of the transformation underway within NGA, he noted that “fully 90 percent of our mapping, charting and geodesy mission, and almost all of our humanitarian assistance missions, are dependent upon commercial satellite imagery.”
During the Ebola crisis in West Africa last year, NGA used its mapping skills to create an app that allowed local health care workers to find and isolate those infected and get them to treatment faster. The agency also helped with decisions on placement of treatment centers that the U.S. military constructed in Liberia, and it provided assistance after the earthquake in Nepal.
At the core of the internal transformation is a commitment to use more open data. NGA was the first intelligence agency to use GitHub, Cardillo said, and the first one to host its own web page and the first to have apps at the iPhone App Store.
The agency’s recently launched GEOINT Pathfinder initiative gathers geospatial intelligence data in the open and works in unclassified facilities in 90-day sprints to see if analysts can answer intelligence questions with only open source data and commercial IT.
“This will allow our workforce to transform their tradecraft from traditional reconnaissance imagery analysis, which is becoming increasingly commoditized, to a practice of geospatial analysis applied to a fast-flowing stream of big and increasingly diverse commercial and national data sources,” the director said.
“To me, the cloud takes what used to be a hard copy with us putting grease pencil marks and pins and moves all that into a digital environment. The cloud is tailor-made for us,” Cardillo said. “We are moving as fast as we can to the cloud.”
“It used to be that I had to have the data to manipulate the data and to process and to store it,” Cardillo said. “We are over that. Will I be buying or renting data? I strongly believe that it will become more and more exceptional for us to buy data. One, because the data is going to be time dependent. It used to be to get an image for a particular place on earth, you had to wait days, weeks, or months. As the earth becomes more and more imaged and sensed, it’s not going to be that I can’t see this point on the earth, it’s how often do you want to see it? What change is of interest to you? “
Cardillo told GCN in an interview at CES that he imagines having private companies monitoring the imagery as a service and only when a rearranged, specified threshold is crossed, will NGA and its analysts get alerted to look at the data.
“We used to know exactly what we were looking for. Now, in a much more complicated world, we don’t necessarily. Because we’re not really looking for things anymore, we’re looking for activity—changes in patterns that are hiding in the data, “ he said.
“The new frontier is in understanding activity…and that going to be made possible by the emergent power of analytics…We’re not looking for things, instead we’re looking for activity, associations, and correlations. And while traditional intelligence analysts used to study events chronologically, now we look at events in a nonlinear fashion, so analysts evaluate the data across space and time. The coin of the realm is going to be, not who has the most sensors, but who has the most understanding.”
NGA is trying to make certain with its use of open data and new partners that it has a head start on being the organization with the most understanding.
Anne Armstrong is Chief Content and Alliance Officer of Public Sector 360.