For decades, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) served as the nation’s hub of location data and geographic technology. Now that geospatial intelligence (GEOINT) has emerged widely in the commercial marketplace, the role of the agency is evolving.
To open USGIF’s Tech Showcase West events Oct. 16 in St. Louis, Mo., former NGA Director Letitia Long interviewed current Director Robert Cardillo in a “fireside chat” about the challenges of expanding as a federal agency during the commercial GEOINT revolution.
Cardillo noted NGA’s legacy of service in St. Louis and the ongoing development of its Next NGA West facility. The new campus, he said, represents NGA’s confidence in the St. Louis tech community.
As NGA grows, one of its biggest challenges is talent acquisition. In St. Louis, recruiting efforts have already manifested as partnerships with geospatial programs at Saint Louis University, Washington University in St. Louis, Southern Illinois University, the University of Missouri-St. Louis, and even local K-12 schools, which the agency hopes will serve as pipelines for rising geospatial practitioners. These efforts have grown NGA’s internship program more than threefold since its establishment under Long’s leadership in 2009. NGA also looks to hire civilians with prior military experience who are already interested in contributing to the national security mission.
Despite this success, Cardillo warned against relaxing recruitment efforts. Sustainable, long-term employment is a particularly important focus for the agency, which must contend with high-profile tech giants to hire and hold on to in-demand developers and data scientists. In the past, federal employees often chose to remain in the government or military space for their entire careers. Cardillo acknowledged that many people in today’s workforce want mobility. They want to explore the facets of their personal tradecraft and learn how to apply their skills in multiple, potentially unrelated problem sets. He added NGA is working to better accommodate employees seeking career changes.
“If we’re going to get the talent, we have to think differently about how we access that talent,” Cardillo said. “We fully expect for people to do federal stints, commercial, teach, go to a different industry for a while, but we want them to come back. We make it too hard for them to come back.”
Long agreed, and said this was a growing challenge during her tenure as director. “We need to become more comfortable with movement back and forth,” she added.
One reason for this high turnover is that innovation is traditionally easier to achieve in the commercial world, which is attractive to employees. Federal agencies sometimes shy away from early-stage innovation in favor of time-tested, bureaucracy-approved procedures. Cardillo said the appeal of NGA’s mission is finding ways to use industry innovations such as AI and machine learning to secure advantages over international adversaries.
Cardillo hinted at one such innovative tool NGA is testing: an AI application to monitor pattern-of-life data for Russian long-range aviation capabilities. This has been a challenge for American intelligence agencies since the Cold War, so NGA is “stress testing” its traditional methodology against the AI to determine its true operational impact.
Of course, an AI capable of counting Russian bombers is bound to raise eyebrows among human analysts who perform this job. But Cardillo maintained humans will always remain an integral part of the team and should not feel threatened by the introduction of AI into their workflows. NGA is focusing on “displacing” analysts from their current daily tasks and assigning them new, higher-capacity ones rather than “replacing” them with AI.
“I want you to move, but I want you to move up,” Cardillo said of analysts. “I want the machine, the algorithm, the automation to lift you so you can see farther and understand deeper.”
As industries continue learning how to employ GEOINT, GIS, and other location-based technologies, NGA’s role will also continue to evolve. For example, Cardillo said the demand for NGA employees to deploy to emergency sites has lowered. Instead, the agency’s efforts are enabling emergency responders, industry practitioners, academics, civilian volunteers, and other users to execute disaster relief themselves.
Cardillo was clear NGA’s goal is not to compete with commercial GEOINT. He said the agency itself should also anticipate “displacement, not replacement.”
Amidst all this change, Cardillo asserted that one thing has remained constant for the agency.
“What is not changing is why we exist,” he said. “We’re in the advantage business. We’re giving people insight that their adversary doesn’t have … to give them an advantage and an opportunity to act before events dictate.”
Photo Credit: NGA