Agency of the Month – NGA

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NGA leverages unclassified sources in Pathfinder program

The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency is building upon its experiment with open-source data after the success of the Pathfinder program in late 2015. The NGA’s goal is developing a system where some intelligence research can be conducted using unclassified sources, freeing classified resources to conduct more streamlined and focused intelligence-gathering and improving collaboration among the intelligence community and the public.

“Here’s an analogy: You don’t need a Ferrari to haul wood,” Chris Rasmussen, unclassified GEOINT Pathfinder project manager and public open source software development lead at NGA, told Federal Drive with Tom Temin. “A lot of the classified stuff is the Ferrari. But the question is: Do we always need to take the Ferrari out for a test drive? The answer is no.”

Rasmussen said that instead of relying solely on classified resources, using unclassified sources can save money, effort and energy. Private companies like Google are rapidly increasing their geospatial capabilities, and the NGA needs to figure out a way to not only adapt to, but take advantage of the changing GEOINT landscape.

“The thing that really gave NGA pause, to talk about its relevance going forward, was the impending small satellite launch schedule,” he said. “So when you look at that, as far as commoditization, going from a monopoly to perfect competition and interchangeability of service and product … it’s just accelerating greatly.”

Rasmussen advocated for collaboration instead of competition with the private sector. “If we can buy a service from Planet Labs that counts runways, our analysts don’t have to do it,” he said. That’s where Pathfinder comes in.

Pathfinder relied solely on unclassified data, IT and services to answer four research questions between August and November in 2015. But answers to the questions weren’t the endgame; instead, they were an exercise that allowed them to examine methods and reconsider the NGA’s mission.

Rasmussen said they walked away with a couple of big lessons:

  • “Increased technical competence for everyone at the organization. As GEOINT is getting more quantifiable and more statistical, we need to up our mathematical and engineering game much, much higher than we currently are.”
  • “We figured out a way for the agency to consume free services … for the analysts and developers to fill out those forms, attribute the agency, weigh the risk, and then consume the service and move forward. “

The next step, according to Rasmussen, is to create unclassified intelligence outputs. That doesn’t necessarily mean public. This information would still be for official use only, it just wouldn’t require security clearance to access.

What is publicly shared is the software. According to Rasmussen, the NGA began open-sourcing software publicly two years ago. A program called GeoQ, which helps to organize and streamline work roles during disaster response, was shared on GitHub and garnered a positive response.

“Most of the Pathfinder code was open-sourced publicly on Github” as well, Rasmussen said. “It also helps build trust and community, because we need to do business with parts of Silicon Valley, parts of Austin, parts of New York that are distrustful of the intelligence community in general.”

That policy of transparency has helped Pathfinder overcome a good deal of hostility. But Rasmussen also has some nobler notions. “Idealistically, all of the accounting arguments aside, if the taxpayers paid for it in the first place and it’s not classified, it needs to be given back to the people who paid for it, the American people,” he said.