Bonus NGA Q&A from GEOINT 2016

Thoughts on NGA Research, GEOINT Pathfinder, acquisition, and more


The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) participated in USGIF’s GEOINT 2016 Symposium, held May 15-18, in Orlando, Fla., in many ways. Dr. Peter Highnam, director of NGA Research, gave a closing keynote at GEOINT Foreword; NGA Director Robert Cardillo gave a keynote address during the Symposium general session; and several NGA leaders spoke at the Government Pavilion Stage in the GEOINT 2016 exhibit hall. However, there wasn’t enough time to answer all audience questions during the onsite Q&A sessions. As a result, the agency gathered the most common unanswered questions and provided trajectory with responses below. All answers can be attributed to NGA.

Q: Why did NGA change its “InnoVision” directorate to “NGA Research?” Has the mission changed?

A: Research and development is a strategic priority for NGA. This restructure and the establishment of an R&D portfolio will ensure relevant new competencies and technologies are delivered to the mission to help NGA better serve its customers.

Unlike NGA’s InnoVision directorate, which served as more of an advanced development office, the mission of the new NGA Research directorate is R&D. It will bring powerful new capabilities and knowledge to the NGA mission. The directorate is organized around a number of focused research areas, each with clearly defined parameters. The focus areas are: radar, automation, geophysics, spectral, environment and culture, geospatial cyber, and anticipatory analytics.

Q: How does NGA Research differ from DARPA and IARPA?

A: The biggest difference between NGA Research and DARPA or IARPA is NGA has an operational mission and worldwide customers who rely on the agency’s services. The ARPAs have had great success in R&D, and we want to capitalize on all they have learned. NGA is examining what makes the ARPAs successful and weaving those best practices into the NGA Research mission. Research Director Peter Highnam is leading our efforts to establish the science, prove the technologies, and transition these capabilities to NGA mission partners.

One strength of the ARPA model is that no research is conducted in house. Instead, all science and technology, testing, and evaluation are executed by universities, private industry, and other research organizations. NGA Research is working to understand the true state of the art, and to build from there with the best research partners available.

The ARPAs are also able to stay on the leading edge because the people who create, shape, and run the research programs all serve limited terms. NGA is leveraging this same idea of term-limited tours to bring in state-of-the-art knowledge.

Q: How does NGA’s GEOINT Pathfinder’s culture differ from the rest of NGA? How can you infuse this culture throughout the rest of the organization?

A: GEOINT Pathfinder, through Github, allows the public to view and improve some of the agency’s open source code efforts. This allows the agency to reach experts outside traditional NGA talent pools. That “succeed with the open” mentality allows the agency to harness the expertise of individuals across numerous commercial sources and deliver exquisite unclassified NGA products.

“Succeeding with the open,”  is different than “succeeding in the open,” which is the enterprise ability to consume unclassified data and sources. As NGA employees participate in or are exposed to GEOINT Pathfinder projects and efforts, they will bring new methods for tackling challenges back to their home offices. The agency can then take some of the lessons learned from GEOINT Pathfinder and make them institutional best practices.

Q: Can you provide an overview of NGA’s acquisition strategy?

A: NGA’s overarching acquisition goals are to challenge the status quo, leverage best practices, and develop tools that emphasize flexibilities. The agency’s relationship with industry and its ability to efficiently leverage available skills and capabilities is essential to its national security role.

NGA’s acquisition strategy is to adopt, adapt, leverage, and develop solutions to satisfy specific needs or requirements. That doesn’t just mean full-time equivalent services, it also means rich, new, highly technical capabilities. NGA will assess acquisition opportunities through market research, and refine them through the contract review process. This will ensure procurement strategies deliver timely and measurable consequences that meet mission needs.

Q: NGA has said it wants to move away from “buy or create” to “adopt and adapt,” but government organizations traditionally build themselves or buy from industry. Contractually, how will this work?

A: One of the tools NGA has developed to help inspire broader thinking with regard to contracting is its Contracting Options Playbook. The playbook provides a portfolio of contracting options, including broad area announcements, cooperative research and development agreements, small business research agreements, and more.

Contracting is only one element of our enterprise processes effected in this dynamic environment. NGA is building something new and transitioning from traditional acquisition and contracting practices.

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