To date, the hackathons have been held in Huntsville, Ala., San Francisco, Chicago, and New York City, with nine more locations planned for 2017, including a potential event during the GEOINT 2017 Symposium in San Antonio. The hackathons are created around NGA problem sets and translated into an unclassified scenario so anyone can participate.
Col DiPaolo, chief of innovation mainstreaming at NGA, said the hackathons are first and foremost to help the agency better connect with the tech community at all levels.
“We won’t be able to stay ahead of the threats we exist to defeat if we don’t tap into the genius that’s out there,” DiPaolo said.
Blue Compass is driving new talent to the NGA hackathons through its network of more than 100,000 developers worldwide, in addition to boots on the ground marketing efforts meeting with various developer groups in target cities, according to company president Christine Jung.
“So far it’s been awesome,” Jung said. “We’ve already seen new approaches to problems sets that are very common to NGA.”
The hackathons not only serve as an avenue for NGA to attract new ideas, but also potentially new employees.
“This gives us a nice pipeline for scouting talent,” DiPaolo said. “The workforce is going to change over time to be even more tech savvy, more familiar at a detailed level with data science.”
Jung said the hackathons are an opportunity to introduce NGA to many people who have never before head of the agency. DiPaolo elaborated that NGA’s openness makes it compatible with such events.
“The American public has been suspicious about the Intelligence Community over the last decade and a half,” he said. “NGA is in the position to get out there and communicate to the public what its values are and reinforce that our values are in line with theirs. We care about and act on humanitarian and disaster relief problems—things communities care about. When they see that they become more open to harder, more intelligence related problems.”
According to DiPaolo, the hackathons are aligned under NGA’s Acquisition Innovation Lab activities, and the agency is accelerating innovation in its acquisition processes and assembling new ways to quickly acquire capabilities using nonconventional means.
“Imagine hiring people and using a hackathon as a way to establish their technological bonafides instead of simply looking at a resume,” he said. “Imagine running a challenge as we have done for disparate data as a way to solicit and screen capabilities to find the ones we’re interested in moving forward with contractually.”
The hackathons so far have focused on disaster response, the effects of climate change, and disparate data, and moving into 2017 will explore topics such as artificial intelligence and modeling, DiPaolo said.
“Hackathons can help us understand the art of the possible,” he said. “They give us the ability to harness the collective genius of the crowd to spark our own imagination and steer us in the right direction.”
Photo courtesy of Blue Compass