Few of the 17 intelligence agencies across the government have experienced such a dramatic evolution over the last decade as the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.
The technology boom that led to big data, mobility and cloud computing raised the stature and importance of the NGA to both the intelligence and Defense Department Communities.
To that end, NGA finally is in a much stronger place to take advantage of and offer services for geospatial information intelligence.
“We are no longer doing business as usual. The work around us is changing rapidly, and NGA is changing with it,” said Letitia Long, director of NGA, Tuesday at the ESRI Federal GIS Conference in Washington. “We are transforming from a traditional provider of products, static maps, charts and analytic products into a dynamic content and services provider. As the provider of this dynamic geospatial intelligence, we deliver advanced analysis. We drive integrated intelligence. We are constantly evolving our critical geospatial content and at the same time offering expert services to all of our many customers.”
Part of that transformation is entering phase three of the evolution of geospatial information services (GIS).
Long said phase one was all about coordination, where users brought together disconnected data and systems to solve a problem. The idea of information sharing was encouraged but not fully supported, and data was segmented and siloed.
Just beginning phase 3
In the late 1990s, the intelligence community moved into phase two, called “connection.”
Long said this is where the community moved past coordination by connecting the different disciplines and fostering mutual support among them. She said the data still wasn’t integrated, but at least there was collaboration.
The intelligence community, led by NGA, now is in the early stages of phase three, called “integration.”
Long said these efforts and capabilities depend on the Intelligence Community Information Technology Enterprise (ICITE) initiative.
“ICITE will enable our analysts from across the community to fuse their information, to be able to really create that common picture and thereby gaining deeper insights into our hardest problems,” Long said. “The Director of National Intelligence has really championed the transition to integration as his highest priority. And I will tell you, we are making great progress across the IG, and Web GIS really enables this. As we make progress, we are perceiving the world in new and different ways. The power of intelligence integration I think is leading us to the possibility of a fourth phase. I call that immersion. In the not-too-distant future, I hope that analysts are able to live within the data so really immersed in a multi-sensory, fully integrated environment. They may be equipped with advanced visual, auditory tactical tools and technologies. I think the promise of immersion offers an exciting future for analysts.”
Long said all of these phases are part of a historic shift that NGA and the intel community are going through. She said the intel community could move into phase four over the next five years.
In the meantime, NGA is leading the way in phase three with four new capabilities launched in the last six months.
All four are dependent on one another and integrated through ICITE.
Long said NGA moved first to open IT standards starting in 2011. This included operating in the cloud and focusing on customer satisfaction and efficiencies.
The second capability is called Map of the World.
Long said this is the bedrock of the intelligence integration.
“In the past, you had to access multiple databases and search by hand for hours, sometimes even days, to find our information. First, you had to know where to look. And I will tell you, that doesn’t cut it today in our rapidly changing world,” she said. “Customers need immediate access. They shouldn’t have to know where to go to get the information, just know that it’s out there and access it quickly. So we have created a Map of the World to be the home for all geoint related and multi-source content, data, knowledge, analysis and reporting. Map of the World provides a seamless, integrated environment so analysts can live within that data. They record their observations and they integrate all of their information about any object of interest.”
Web portal to be gateway to all data
The NGA Map of the World differs from others in that it includes classified geospatial content about maritime and air safety and imagery data. Its content also is tailored for DoD and intelligence senior decision makers.
Long said intelligence analysts access the Map of the World through the Globe — a Web portal that ultimately will be the entry point for all intelligence data.
“Through the Globe, users will gain access to Map of the World and all of our geoint content,” she said. “That content will be curated — that is, it is vetted for quality and usefulness, and so the business analytics will give us the feedback because it’s all connected to the user experience and what our users need,” Long said during the response to Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines in November when the Globe and Map of the World demonstrated its value.
NGA created an event page on its unclassified website as the typhoon gathered strength. The site enabled the international disaster response community to access data, submit requests for data and share their data, thus creating an online and on demand system.
Long said the event page also let the partners see and use the damage assessments as NGA created and updated them. Additionally, first responders used the data to create more timely and accurate reports.
“For the first time, working under an agreement with the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development, we were able to give the Red Cross open access to our information,” she said. “Their field teams downloaded our data on to their tablets and smartphones to improve their accuracy of their ground truth and, as important, they were able to update those assessments as they worked. They were producers, and we were able to serve that back out to a broader community.”
The fourth piece of this integration effort is about data analytics. Long said the goal is to not only know the known threats or issues, but know the unknown ones, too.
“One way of getting at these unknowns is through an advanced analytic tradecraft that we are pioneering called Activity Based Intelligence, or ABI. Using big data analytics, automated processing, our ABI tradecraft, we are discovering critical surprises hidden in the masses of data, as well as secrets our adversaries are trying to hide,” Long said. “Automated processing frees the analyst to think more deeply, to answer intelligence questions more quickly and generate new perspectives for their customers. The result: More decision space and deeper insight so our policy makers and our warfighters can determine better courses of action.”
Industry, government challenges lie ahead
Each of these initiatives is so critical to NGA that it realigned or canceled dozens of programs worth hundreds of millions of dollars and moved the resources to those programs.
Long said the goal is to have all of these capabilities fully operational by 2018.
Even with this success, Long said NGA faces several challenges.
She said from industry’s perspective, NGA needs help in developing and delivering these critical capabilities in low-bandwidth environments. The agency also needs help in collecting video from trusted users and fast editing capabilities. She said better identity management tools also would help because they cut across all of these efforts to ensure the right people have access to the right information.
For NGA’s federal DoD, intelligence and civilian agency partners, the challenges are different.
“I urge you to adopt the open geospatial consortium standards for your data. Meta tag your data. Expose your data. Make it accessible. If it’s not out there for others to use, you’re not realizing the full potential and the full value of the data. Expose your apps and make that available also. Expose your analysis,” Long said. “Let us expand collaboration and integration beyond intelligence community and DoD to other federal, state and local governments, always as appropriate.”
As for internal challenges at NGA, Long said she is figuring out how to best provide data analytic services to other intelligence and DoD community members.
She said NGA wants commanders to be able to go into the Globe and see all the information available and use the services to better understand the location or areas they are going to.
Long said NGA developed a geoint app store that will live in the GovCloud app mall with all the other intelligence applications.
NGA also created a customer service organization to help focus on mission needs, make sure the data is as accurate and up-to-date as possible and the user experience is of high quality.
Long said NGA is well on its way in the integration phase and moving closer to the immersion phase.
On DoD focuses on the programs and policies that affect the Defense Department. Each week, Defense Reporter Jared Serbu speaks one-on-one and in depth with the people responsible for managing the inner workings of the federal government's largest department, and those who know it best.