NGA's 'seismic shift' to open collaboration

August 26, 2015

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The rapid pace of change in the geospatial world can be breathtaking. Blink and software has been updated, data sets have been added and new sensors have come online. Typically agencies and organizations change and evolve at a slower pace, but if you haven’t been paying attention to the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency lately, you may have missed some announcements and opportunities. As they say, this isn’t your father’s intelligence agency. Significant changes are underway that could have enduring consequences for the geospatial industry.

NGA directors are not in their positions for extended amounts of time, but the effects of their directives can have long-lasting impact. For example, NGA’s new GEOINT Professional Certification program is the direct result of organizational actions taken for professional development in 2012 by then NGA Director Leticia Long, who herself was responding to a 2011 call by then Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence Michael Vickers for greater certification of intelligence personnel.

From the very start of his term in October 2014, current NGA Director Robert Cardillo has established strategies and priorities with a different tone than his predecessors, articulating internal and external challenges with a frank openness that was absent with the NGA of the past. He identified his three particular priorities as aligning people’s mission and talent with agency priorities; providing faster, more easily discoverable geospatial intelligence, or GEOINT Services, to its customers; and implementing activity-based intelligence, none of which is so remarkable on its own. Instead, what his legacy may later show is the significant change in tone and public conversation. The opportunities for informed and innovative intelligence are greater than ever, but with a touch of humility, NGA is opening to the fact that they can’t “stay ahead of technology trends” on their own, and will deliberately seek transparent connections with both “traditional and nontraditional partners.”

Cardillo has called this cultural change a "seismic shift" in the way that NGA will operate. His deputy director, Sue Gordon, readily acknowledges the back-breaking work required to realize such a vision, and their workforce has rolled up its sleeves in earnest willingness to make a difference. What they’re discovering is that changing how they do things is even more important than what they do. So what is interesting are not the priorities that Cardillo articulated, but how they are being approached. After several months on task, what might their report card say? Maybe, “learning how to play well with others.”

Exploring openness and cooperation is the premise behind the GEOINT Solutions Marketplace, an online site intended to support collaborative approaches among NGA, industry partners, academia and others. “It’s like a sandbox where people with complementary needs, ideas and answers can find each other to work together. It’s a place for NGA to practice being more forthcoming with their needs and their intentions, and may result in greater trust and sharing down the road. Basic kindergarten sandbox rules!” Gordon said.

GSM is largely about ideas, tools, processes and people. But what about data? NGA collects, stores and analyzes vast amounts of geospatial data, much of which they maintain as classified. Do all problems require classified data alone? Can innovative solutions to problems be discovered through novel and creative use of unclassified data? The new GEOINT Pathfinder initiative is exploring how key intelligence questions can be understood or explained using data only from unclassified sources. By limiting the data sources, it forces the participants — working together across digital networks — to think more imaginatively about traditional workflows and processes. As described by Gordon, a program like GEOINT Pathfinder is appealing to those who want to tackle big problems with new methodologies for uncertain outcomes: not necessarily an appealing value proposition for every partner, but a tactic to engage with new and more diverse partners, another of NGA’s intentions.

Some NGA efforts at being better data sharers are a benefit to the intelligence community itself, such as the Map of the World initiative. Others are more overtly oriented to the civilian and non-NGA communities, such as the applications shared through the official NGA GitHub site. Recently they’ve developed an app to help combat piracy at sea, available for both iOS and Android systems, as well as MapReduceGeo (MrGeo), code that simplifies tasks and workflows for image analysts.

Open projects and initiatives such as these have prepared NGA to respond to new demands, such as humanitarian crises. The data and maps distributed during the Ebola crisis in West Africa and following the April 2015 earthquake in Nepal are two examples, and contributions of this type are welcome evidence that the NGA is sincere in its intent to turn new leaves. Building trust with international partners may be particularly challenging, given the history of NGA, but all the more important to achieve in the playing field of open data and social media.

Only time will tell if NGA’s activities will continue to generate synergistic outcomes, and whether they’ll find ways to sustain the new methods of doing business. Plenty of skeptics exist inside and out of the agency, but high-profile change agents such as Deputy Director Gordon are diving head-first into the fray to disrupt the inertia that has defined NGA in the past. 

**UPDATE - March 14, 2016**

Sue Gordon was a featured speaker at the Esri Federal Users Conference in March 2016.


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