The importance of the geographic information system (GIS) within the modern world cannot be understated. The demand for geospatial data and geospatial intelligence (GEOINT) continues to grow exponentially year over year. Geospatial sciences and data have become critical elements in an ever-growing number of fields and an essential component to solving the most challenging problems and issues across a variety of industries. GIS can be found in almost every discipline from A to Z—from agriculture to zoology. The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) serves as the functional manager of GEOINT for the Intelligence Community (IC) and Department of Defense. NGA is charged with producing the geospatial information and intelligence that provide the eyes of our national security operations. The United States Geospatial Intelligence Foundation (USGIF) has always had at its core a commitment to advance GEOINT tradecraft through education and outreach, thus ensuring NGA always has plethora of well-trained candidates ready to enter its workforce.

The greater St. Louis, Mo., region has long hosted a number of companies, organizations, and government agencies that play a pivotal role in the world of GIS. Ball Aerospace, Boeing, Monsanto, Esri, and Boundless are just a few companies that develop or operate cutting-edge GIS systems and products. Many regional academic institutions such as the University of Missouri system, Saint Louis University, Washington University, and Harris-Stowe State University provide geospatial undergraduate and graduate programs as well perform innovative GIS-related research and development (R&D). This work is broad-reaching and includes, but is not limited to, geospatial research in biosecurity, disease treatment and outcomes, urban health, education, crime, economic development, environmental and food security, air pollution, climate response, agricultural disease forecasting, water and food security, and urban development and social equity. For more than 70 years, NGA or its predecessors—such as the National Imagery and Mapping Agency or the Defense Mapping Agency and Aeronautical Chart and Information Center—have operated in the City of St. Louis. In June 2016, NGA announced it would construct a new “state-of-the-art” facility, known as the Next NGA West (N2W), at a 99-acre site in St. Louis city, just northwest of downtown. NGA Director Robert Cardillo stated, “The St. Louis City site provides NGA with the most technological, academic, and professional environment for this agency to develop the capabilities and solutions necessary to solve the hardest intelligence and national security problems entrusted to us by the American people.”

As NGA recommits itself to executing its national security mission from within the City of St. Louis and the city reaffirms its partnership with the agency, an opportunity arises. The City of St. Louis and the greater St. Louis region, on both sides of the Mississippi River, can become a core area of excellence for geospatial education and expertise. Seizing this opportunity means answering the agency’s ever-growing need for a qualified workforce with the appropriate geospatial skill sets, credentials, and expertise. However, creating this environment presents a number of challenges. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Perception by local communities and residents that there is no clear path to qualify for professional (i.e., analytic, management, etc.) careers at N2W.
  • Complexity in coordinating with a variety of St. Louis city, county, and other surrounding local governments, academic institutions, and industry.
  • Limited relationships with local school districts or academic institutions.
  • Limited geospatial-related curriculum within local community colleges and some universities.
  • Limited public awareness of geospatial-related professions and career opportunities.

Since 2004, USGIF has brought together government, industry, academia, professional organizations, and individuals to advance the geospatial intelligence tradecraft. This makes USGIF an ideal organization to help NGA satisfy its need for a qualified GEOINT workforce in St. Louis. As a 501(c)(3) educational nonprofit, USGIF has made education its top priority, exemplified by its Universal GEOINT Certification Program, scholarship program, Collegiate Accreditation program, outreach at K-12 schools, and other initiatives.

USGIF has formed and supports a variety of working groups, with members addressing issues and providing timely solutions to support needs across the GEOINT Community. USGIF working groups and outreach do not typically focus on a single city or region. However, to best address the specific needs of NGA and its transition to N2W, USGIF established the St. Louis Area Working Group (SLAWG). The SLAWG is the first working group geographically based outside of USGIF headquarters in Herndon, Va., and is also the first working group that has a distinct geographic focus. It is this regional focus that makes possible the invaluable inclusion of local institutions such as the City of St. Louis, St. Louis University, and community groups such as Project Connect and SLATE. These groups provide the knowledge and expertise to take the working group’s combined resources and effectively apply them across the greater St. Louis metro area.

The SLAWG was established to bring together key (government, industry, and academic) players in the region to develop lasting educational pathways for the community to achieve geospatial degrees and certifications, which lead to careers at NGA and across the GEOINT Community. The working group aims to support and build geospatial pipelines that integrate and amplify existing NGA efforts to educate and train individuals. The working group is also supporting NGA’s plans to leverage more open source in St. Louis, both through the planned unclassified workspace at N2W and the agency’s presence at one or more of the innovation centers (i.e., Cortex, T-REX, etc.). The end goal is to grow and sustain a populace with the necessary skills to qualify for and fill future needs for NGA and industry in technology, analysis, and management career fields. While NGA’s government and contractor workforce is the focus, the positive impact of the SLAWG will be much broader, supporting and providing career opportunities in other federal, state, and local government agencies and across commercial industry.

To accomplish this, the SLAWG has established five primary objectives:

  1. Improve geospatial and geographic literacy in the greater St. Louis area and surrounding regions.
  2. Integrate with science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) and other similar programs.
  3. Introduce and/or advance geospatial curriculum at the K-12 level.
  4. Create an engagement strategy between the greater St. Louis community and NGA.
  5. Broaden engagement with St. Louis area industry, universities, colleges, and community colleges.
  • This article is part of USGIF’s 2018 State & Future of GEOINT Report. Download the PDF to view the report in its entirety. 

To achieve these objectives, the SLAWG brings together resources from NGA, local government and community leaders, and nonprofit, academic, and industry professional. These include:

  • Accenture
  • BAE Systems
  • Ball Aerospace
  • Boundless
  • CACI
  • CEdge
  • Chameleon Integrated Systems
  • City of St. Louis
  • Continental Mapping
  • Cortex
  • CSRA
  • Esri
  • Flight Safety
  • General Dynamics
  • GEODataIT
  • Harris
  • Harris-Stowe State University
  • InSequence
  • Leidos
  • ManTech
  • Missouri University of Science and Technology
  • NGA
  • NJVC
  • Planet
  • Project Connect
  • Raytheon
  • SLATE
  • Louis University
  • Tera4D Systems
  • T-Kartor
  • T-REX
  • University of Missouri Center for Geospatial Intelligence
  • UrtheCast
  • USGIF
  • Washington University

This diversity, which is indicative of USGIF working groups, provides a wide range of expertise, perspectives, and resources to benefit the group’s mission. This array of dedicated SLAWG partners has rapidly made significant progress against the group’s stated objectives. Since its standup in August 2017, the SLAWG has established four distinct GIS pathways or engagement tracks: workforce, education, entrepreneur, and R&D. Each track is specifically focused and aligned with one or more of the strategic objectives of the working group.

The organizational structure of the SLAWG has followed the best practices of other USGIF Working Groups by establishing Sub-Working Groups to focus on and address high-priority tasks. These groups and teams are self-governed and cross-communicate to develop recommended strategies and solutions to present back to the larger SLAWG. Each Sub-Working Group is pursuing individual actions/efforts, all of which support the objectives of the greater working group.

The SLAWG has already become involved in a number of GIS-related events throughout the greater St. Louis region. The working group has supported numerous events, helping to raise awareness of geospatial-related sciences and careers within the community.

The first such event was the Inaugural GeoYou, which brought together GIS innovation leaders from government, industry, and academia to highlight cutting-edge capabilities in geospatial technology, big data, and real-time analytics. Experts discussed practical ways for high-tech entrepreneurs to enter the market. Throughout the event, St. Louis was highlighted as a key geospatial hub in the United States due to the long-term commitment of NGA and the vast GIS-related business interests throughout the area. The event was held in partnership with the Cortex Innovation Center, one of the Midwest’s leading hubs for innovation and technology.

Next, the SLAWG supported the most recent GeoSTL Mapathon, a mapping event in which participants contributed to OpenStreetMap (OSM). The goal of the Mapathon was to add features to OSM to increase the digital geospatial footprint for the area of North St. Louis. Tasks were divided among the participants and both indoor and outdoor GIS and survey tools were used. Participants received on-the-spot training in basic geospatial skills and were exposed to the world of geospatial science through directly working with geospatial data.

The SLAWG also supported USGIF’s most recent NGA Tech Showcase West. During the two-day event, participants had the opportunity to see the unique work of the industry and NGA in St. Louis. During the unclassified day, the SLAWG hosted a panel discussion that focused on establishing the greater St. Louis region as a central hub for the geospatial industry.

The working group also supported Boundless, one of the group’s partner companies, as it brought the first GeoPlunge tournament to the St. Louis area. The GeoPlunge tournament offers a great way for children to learn U.S. geography through a fun and easy card game. GeoPlunge can be played at school or at home, allowing children to develop critical thinking skills while gaining knowledge of U.S. geography.

Finally, the SLAWG was one of the organizations that participated in an open house for Project Connect, an action plan by the City of St. Louis to ensure coordination and collaboration between neighborhood revitalization, transportation, and other re-development efforts and the city’s investments to support NGA. The event engaged St. Louis residents, providing information and answering questions related to various projects. The SLAWG informed residents of the education and workforce development efforts underway and requested feedback on how to best engage youth in STEM education and geospatial careers.

Establishment of the greater St. Louis region as a core of geospatial education, expertise, and tradecraft will be of tremendous benefit to NGA, helping to ensure the long-term success of N2W. Accomplishing this vision will take a well-informed and combined effort across the public and private sector. USGIF and the SLAWG are committed to working directly with partners throughout the region to establish clear paths for people throughout St. Louis and surrounding communities to receive the necessary education and credentials to take advantage of career opportunities at NGA or across the broader geospatial community. The SLAWG has already made significant progress in the short time since its formation. This success can be directly attributed to the diversity of its membership and their dedication and willingness to pool their wide array of knowledge and resources to achieve tangible results.

The working group’s local geographic focus and its strong and varied partnerships have allowed USGIF goals and objectives to be pursued with boots on the ground in St. Louis. The accomplishment of the SLAWG’s objectives and goals will require continued support from across the GEOINT Community.

The SLAWG is putting these pathways in place in the greater St. Louis area. If you would like more information on the SLAWG or are interested in becoming a member, please visit the working group’s webpage.

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Posted by David Berczek, NGA; Isa Reeb, Project Connect; Steven Thomas, Ball Aerospace; and Steve Wallach, former NGA West Executive