New DIA acquisition process invites tech firms to show their stuff to senior leaders

For the past three years, the Defense Intelligence Agency has been experimenting with a rapid technology acquisition project called “Needipedia,” in which it publishes the technology gaps it wants to fill, lets industry respond with short white papers, then buys new capabilities in as little as a month. This week, DIA plans to take the concept a step further.

Rather than exchanging needs and possible solutions solely on paper, on Thursday, companies will get a chance to make their sales pitches and show off what their products can do in 30-minute online presentations directly to DIA’s senior leadership, the subject matter experts who might use their products and the acquisition personnel who will need to sign the contracts.

In this particular case, the agency wants to purchase a tool that will automatically aggregate data from several different cloud-based intelligence sources and let analysts easily manipulate their screens so they can quickly spot trends over time and space.  But Robert Dixon, DIA’s special adviser for innovation, said it’s the first of many such industry days the agency plans to host on a quarterly basis.

“It gives us the ability to see a live presentation of what these companies can do — this is not PowerPoint — and it lets our users see some of the knowns and the unknowns, so we can have further discussions,” Dixon said in an interview. “From there, we can make a decision on whether we want to pilot that particular program and eventually bring it into our environment.”

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The agency expects its newly-established “innovation hub” — a group of agency leaders, rank-and-file users and acquisition experts that meet in the same room to discuss which products to acquire — to move quickly to make those decisions.

So far this year, DIA has entered into contracts for pilot demonstrations to solve 18 separate technology gaps it advertised via the classified and unclassified versions of its Needipedia web portals. The time to award those contracts ranged between 33 and 88 days — light-speed, compared to normal government acquisition timelines.

For the Needipedia projects that include the additional online demonstrations like the one scheduled for Thursday, the agency is also trying to move at a fast clip.

It first advertised that it was looking for the new geospatial intelligence viewer six weeks ago and gave industry just two weeks to come up with one-to-two page white papers describing their capabilities. Three days after that deadline, the agency had whittled the field down to eight candidates whose products seemed promising and asked them to get ready to demonstrate them.

Thus far, all of DIA’s Needipedia projects have been brought under contract via an open broad agency announcement the agency first published in 2013. The technique is mainly geared toward advancing basic science and technology by soliciting input from nontraditional defense contractors, but DIA has been attempting to use it as a vehicle to solve technology problems without specifying, via the usual government requirements process, exactly how vendors should do so.

Dixon said the agency’s innovation office is also examining other legal venues — such as the other transaction authorities Congress reinforced in the 2016 Defense authorization bill — to achieve the same objectives. The Pentagon’s Defense Innovation Unit-Experimental (DIUx) has already started to use OTA for the same types of demonstration projects DIA has in mind.

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“But already, 80 percent of the contracts we’ve put out have been to nontraditional vendors,” he said. Needipedia is very open to anyone — the mom and pops, the garage innovators out there. If they have something that’s relevant to our organization, we’ll read their white papers, we’ll evaluate them and see where we go from there. Innovation is happening in the private sector, so we want to leverage that to bring them into our agency and see how we can transform what we’re doing in the Defense intelligence enterprise.”

Although the approach aims to attract technology solutions from a wide variety of sources, any product the agency buys will need to conform to a standards-based approach the intelligence community is pursuing under the banner of the IC Information Technology Enterprise (ICITE), a chief priority during the tenure of James Clapper, the soon-to-retire Director of National Intelligence.

To reduce costs, Clapper tasked DIA and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency with building a common computing desktop for use by the entire intelligence community, and any products the IC buys will need to be able to interface with that architecture.

In the case of the interactive geospatial displays vendors will demonstrate Thursday, DIA noted that they’ll need to be able to conform with the user authentication and auditing services it’s already put in place as part of ICITE.

“And as we have further discussions with those companies, we’ll be able to show them more about what our current baseline is,” Dixon said. “And it might be more than one company that brings some key contributions to this technology need. We want to operationalize this as quickly as possible. We’ve done a lot of the foundational work, and if these companies have the right stuff, we should be able to have an initial operational capability within the next six months.”