A New Wave of Innovation

NGA is shaking up its culture to usher in a new era of transparency and industry collaboration


As human beings, innovation is in our genes. Humanity is always developing new ideas and inventions with an eye toward the future—whether it is Orville and Wilbur Wright’s first successful flight or Thomas Edison’s invention of the light bulb.

Today, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) is pushing the envelope with respect to innovative geospatial technology and Intelligence Community culture and policy by fostering a higher level of engagement with industry and the public at large. Soon after NGA Director Robert Cardillo took the helm of the agency in October, he began building a legacy of industry engagement and transparency. That same month, he vowed to continue to grow partnerships in his open letter to industry: “I am committed to working with you under fair, open, and responsive business processes; opportunities for small and disadvantaged businesses; and innovative solutions that will drive the right consequences for our customers.”

At numerous speaking engagements since October, Cardillo has described a sea change in the GEOINT Community that will require major adjustments to every aspect of the discipline. This necessary transformation is the result of the democratization of data by new tools and technologies such as SmallSats, social media, the Internet of Things, geolocation-enabled smartphone apps, and more.

“[This] seismic shift combines the impact of democratization of unclassified content, the integration of content and context, and the persistent mindset,” Cardillo said during a keynote address at an NGA industry day in March. “To master this shift requires industry and NGA to form an even more powerful partnership than the strong one we now enjoy.”

With many new initiatives in motion to partner closely with industry and pave the way for the Intelligence Community to publicize unclassified data and leverage open-source tools, the agency is poised to master this “seismic shift.”

Industry = Innovation

To execute his vision, Cardillo brought Susan M. Gordon on board as deputy director Jan. 1, and he named agency veteran Mike Geggus industry innovation advocate. Prior to joining NGA, Gordon spent 26 years with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), during which time she led the establishment of In-Q-Tel, the CIA’s nonprofit arm that works to identify and invest in venture-backed startups developing technologies aligned with the Intelligence Community mission.

Gordon described Cardillo as incredibly passionate about sharing his vision for promoting industry innovation—a vision he intends to see come to fruition.

NGA Deputy Director Susan M. Gordon (right) and Ellen McCarthy (middle), NGA director of plans and programs, with Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Rachel M. Zeigler (left), NGA senior enlisted adviser, at NGA Campus East in Springfield, Va. Photo Credit: NGA

“It’s fun and games to talk about innovation and the ideas we could pursue, but the real measure is are we pursuing those ideas?” Gordon said. “[Mike and I] are working with the whole organization to make sure we not only have an entry portal for ideas but also have the mechanisms in place to drive adoption.”

With more than 20 years of experience in the U.S. Air Force and numerous leadership positions at NGA since 2004, Geggus is tasked in his new role to engage with industry and facilitate more effective relationships that improve the rate of innovation. He has outlined this new business strategy in an Innovation Advocacy Adoption Model. According to this model, NGA recognizes industry is in many ways surpassing the U.S. government’s ability to produce cutting-edge technology due to budgetary and acquisition rules that can restrict agile development. To overcome this challenge, NGA is seeking further industry-government collaboration to leverage more commercial technology.

“This model helps get NGA out of the point-to-point sales meetings and allows us to spend time and build more personal relationships,” Geggus said. “We want to make the marketplace more accessible and open to sharing capabilities.”

NGA aims to create these new industry relationships with the recent launch of its GEOINT Solutions Marketplace (GSM), according to Geggus. GSM is a web-based platform accessible via nga.mil that provides non-cleared, non-traditional vendors from industry and academia access to NGA needs, design standards, toolkits, and more. It also serves as a portal to submit white papers and pitch concepts to the agency.

In parallel, USGIF is developing an Industry Solutions Marketspace (ISM), a digital demonstration sandbox for industry to showcase the functionality and interoperability of its solutions. ISM will allow anyone from industry—with or without government contract experience—to demonstrate existing solutions to real-world GEOINT problems, all while protecting intellectual property.

“The centerpiece of the Innovation Advocacy Adoption Model is GSM, ISM, and the idea of openness, connections to ideas, and innovative dialogue going on in the community,” Geggus said.

But the technologies alone are not enough. Face-to-face interaction is needed to foster additional dialogue between NGA personnel and industry innovators. NGA established a Training With Industry program that pairs its employees with industry partners to gain additional experience from outside the walls of a federal agency.

“One of the best things about industry-agency relationships is it gets [NGA] folks to see the work through a different lens,” Gordon explained. “As I say the word ‘lens,’ I keep thinking about [Cardillo’s] lens of consequence. This is just a different type of consequence for a different set. It’s looking at our work through our industrial partners’ perspective.”

NGA is also courting startups and companies that have potential to offer outside-the-box GEOINT solutions. In February, the agency’s analysis directorate hosted a first-of-its-kind Discovery Summit, where industry representatives showcased more than 20 new technologies. Topics included advanced GEOINT visualization, data integration, Big Data, open-source information, and technology challenges. Following the event, NGA released a broad agency announcement noting its intent to award multiple GEOINT analysis contracts and seeking “all innovative ideas for path-breaking analytical research.”

“We’re serious about seeking ideas wherever they are,” Gordon said. “What’s cool is the technology and architecture is moving so [NGA will] be increasingly accessible to those people who only have one piece of the puzzle to the solution. When we can do that, it can expand our horizons on the solution space.”


NGA’s support of disaster relief efforts in the past decade has allowed it to be transparent in ways other intelligence agencies usually cannot. And with some recent cultural changes, NGA is now publishing data and information in unprecedented measures.

NGA Director Robert Cardillo (right) meets with Huntsville, Ala., Mayor Tommy Battle (facing Cardillo) in November to discuss GEO Huntsville’s use of NGA’s GeoQ geospatial task manager. Photo Credit: Sarah Cole

Perhaps the strongest example of NGA’s commitment to transparency through wide distribution of unclassified data is its response to the Ebola Crisis in Western Africa. Using Esri’s ArcGIS Online, OpenStreetMap foundational data, and DigitalGlobe commercial imagery and human geography data sets, NGA provided a public website with 500 data layers, more than 200 products, and about 70 applications. From October 2014 to February 2015 the website was viewed more than one million times. And when a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck Nepal April 25, NGA followed its Ebola response method, launching a public website to assist with relief efforts the very next day.

“If I sit behind a closed environment and say, ‘That’s not my space,’ we will not have served the nation with the best we bring to bear,” Gordon said. “The reason NGA has to be more transparent is we have significant value to bring based on our years of knowledge and tradecraft, but the world is going to move on without us if we aren’t participating in the way it wants to interact with the information.”

At Esri’s Federal GIS Conference in February, Cardillo declared he aims to make NGA the most transparent of the U.S. intelligence agencies through the wide distribution of unclassified data.

In March, NGA furthered its commitment to openness with the announcement of its GEOINT Pathfinder project, an experiment designed to answer several intelligence questions using only unclassified sources such as commercial SmallSat imagery, open data subscriptions, and social media.

Classified information will be blocked to encourage participants not to resort to existing behaviors, according to Gordon. Participants will operate through a network of in-house labs, offsite locations, and telework—all interconnected through a secure, unclassified collaboration service.

Foreign partners are invited to join, and students from the University of Missouri, the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and the U.S. Air Force Academy will also take part in helping to answer the project’s research questions.

Gordon said the groundwork is being laid now for an August launch, adding the agency plans to reward fundamental curiosity and select personnel for the program passed on the creativity of applicant proposals.

“I have seen things that allow me to imagine myself sitting at a computer and asking questions that today are just illusory, but tomorrow the data will be in front of us,” Gordon said.

Coding with the Crowd

Chris Rasmussen, NGA’s lead for public open-source software discusses the agency’s active involvement on GitHub, an online open-source community, at a USGIF Innovation Task Force event. Photo credit: USGIF

In 2014, NGA took its commitment to transparency one step further—from publishing unclassified data to publishing code—as the first intelligence agency to leverage online open-source community GitHub. The website enables programmers to collaborate on and exchange code as well as to modify and re-distribute it.

With more than eight million users on GitHub, minds around the world now have the potential to contribute to NGA projects, said Chris Rasmussen, NGA’s lead for public open-source software development.

“From a Big Data perspective, in order to grow the ecosystem we have to be in the open space,” Rasmussen said. “We’re thinking differently and out of our comfort zone to be on [GitHub].”

On GitHub, the agency’s role in disaster relief operations is once again a key enabler in driving transparency. Workflow management and imagery analysis tool GeoQ, designed for use in humanitarian relief and public safety, was the first to debut on NGA’s GitHub account.

“When we assist in disaster relief efforts we noticed everyone had different tools and workflow, and it created lags in the response time,” said Ray Bauer, NGA’s information technology innovation lead. “GeoQ is a geospatial task manager with real-time feedback. When there’s a disaster, we build the project, create jobs, then crowdsource those tasks out to a team.”

Bauer said GeoQ is the most popular of NGA’s GitHub tools thus far with more than 180 active users exercising the code and suggesting changes to the agency for consideration. Bauer believes an appeal to users is the gamification aspect, which allows them to earn points and unlock badges after completing a task.

“It’s a fun way to engage users,” Bauer said. “Culturally and policy-wise it’s a different way of operating.”

The MITRE Corp. helped develop the crowdsourcing, gamification, and training capabilities for GeoQ, and is a strong advocate of open-source technology, with several public GitHub repositories of its own.

“Putting our ideas out through open source is important as a way to share research and help advance the state of the art,” said Jay Crossler, a senior principal software systems engineer with MITRE. “This relationship where we partner with NGA to publish open source is a new one, and we are excited about the model. This is truly working in the public interest.”

And some members of the public are already experiencing the rewards and contributing back to the open-source community. GEO Huntsville—a collaborative nonprofit engaged in geospatial technology applications in the Huntsville, Ala., area—adopted GeoQ in 2014. GEO Huntsville’s Blueprint for Safety (BFS) project, which has the goal of building safer communities through multi-jurisdictional information sharing, implemented GeoQ for emergency response exercises.

Originally, the BFS team used GeoQ to conduct damage assessments on imagery in a crowdsourced environment. But it soon realized the utility on the ground. Now during exercises, first responders and search and rescue teams use the tool to contribute and share data from the field as well as to track their locations and progress.

“[GeoQ] has changed our world dramatically,” said Chris Johnson, executive director for GEO Huntsville. “If we had to start from scratch on this, there is no way we could have supported all of the things that have happened in less than a year. The fact that we were able to co-create and co-develop this with both the NGA team and others that participate on GitHub adds features back to the core set of code much more rapidly and robustly.”

In January, NGA collaborated with DigitalGlobe to release MapReduceGeo (MrGeo) on GitHub. Built on HADOOP, the MrGeo toolkit provides simplified, raster-based geospatial capabilities for analysts.

Tony Frazier, DigitalGlobe’s senior vice president of U.S. government solutions, said the decision to put MrGeo on GitHub yielded wide-reaching benefits.

“The strategy to open source MrGeo allowed the broader community to get involved and address the problem of improving workflow processes and analytic timelines—it’s relevant across the U.S. government and commercially,” Frazier said.

NGA also teamed with NJVC to release the code for RFI Generator, a tool providing a quick and simple method for NGA customers to request and receive data. Bill Cloin, director of NJVC’s Center for Technology Integration, uses GitHub for several other projects and feels strongly that for open source to be effective participants need to contribute in addition to taking code.

“Open source is a great way to find good innovation, ideas, and code reuse,” Cloin said. “But when you take that code and enhance it, maintain that open-source model and contribute back so everyone else can benefit from it.”

A Prosperous Future

NGA has broken through many barriers in the past few years as it homes in on more industry collaboration, publishes more and more unclassified data, and takes advantage of open-source tools—all leading to an era of heightened innovation.

But new partnerships and the deployment of agency-wide initiatives aren’t possible without considerable change, and with change comes what Cardillo refers to as an “uncomfortable excitement.”

“I realize that this seismic shift will cause tremors across NGA and industry,” Cardillo said during his NGA industry day speech. “The way we do business, the way we do collection, the way we do analysis, the way we hire and train, the way we serve our customers all will change. I ask you to move forward with me to grasp the opportunities that this shift creates. Perhaps the greatest opportunity of all is the chance to create a future of security and prosperity for the community and the nation.”

As the Intelligence Community adjusts to these new business strategies, NGA promises new successes on the horizon. The agency’s GitHub account continues to grow while new methods of collaboration such as GSM and GEOINT Pathfinder are just getting underway, prompting a more interactive dialogue between government and industry.

“It’s exciting because the leadership is moving forward and we’re moving our business to better things, but at the same time there’s discomfort because change is a common disruption,” Geggus said. “Change causes discomfort, but it is inevitable. … Innovation is new ideas, a new methodology, and a wider perspective.”

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