Looking at Cindy Daniell’s “then versus now” timeline of GEOINT-assisted events of national security, it’s easy to draw the grim conclusion that today, more than any point in history, “bad” things are happening at a faster rate at and on a larger scale.
Beginning with the 2011 raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound and spanning to the recent destruction of Hurricane Ida, the crises appear to exponentially gain speed and power as they inch closer to present day. They include incremental land reformation, misinformation campaigns, violent extremist organizations, and rapid climate shifts—all of which combine to affect trade routes, critical supply chains, migration patterns, and maritime access. “Over the past few years, the world has begun to experience seismic changes in its threat and technological environments, putting [our] decision-advantage at risk,” said Daniell, Ph.D., director of research for the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA). “With regard to these threats, we have seen the rapid reemergence of great power competition over the past decade.”
The only thing accelerating as fast as the threats, fortunately, is GEOINT’s capacity to mitigate them. Daniell devoted most of Tuesday’s closing keynote to outlining those capabilities and strategies. “Research’s mission for NGA is simple,” she said. “Deliver future GEOINT capabilities to users for operational impact, whether for intelligence, defense, law enforcement, humanitarian, first responder, or disaster-relief missions.”
An enhanced focus on those “users,” both traditional and non, is a crux of the mission. NGA’s recently published “Strategy of 2025” and “BIG-R BAA” both took heavy aim at providing more opportunity for cross-industry collaboration. In St. Louis, the site from which Daniell spoke, a new and unprecedented technology accelerator program will enable the government to train non-traditional solution providers, assess novel commercial solutions to specific geospatial problems, and simultaneously expand and foster the geospatial innovation base. “In essence, we are striving to make it easier for businesses to work with us, which will allow NGA to expand its reach across a broader and more diverse set of performers,” she said.
This broader network of professionals is crucial at a time when a tsunami of new data is crashing over the GEOINT community, from commercial, government, and consumer sources. Nearly 1,400 satellites have launched in 2021 to-date, according to the United Nations. “As a result, our analysts, whose numbers are not increasing as rapidly, will need help sifting, cataloging, and prioritizing the data before they can even begin to understand it.”
In addition to reaching out of the box for help, NGA will also look to nurture and build upon its internal base of professionals “To this end, NGA will recruit, engage, develop, train, and retain a workforce that advances the GEOINT tradecraft,” she said. “We need to cultivate a culture of responsible risk-taking that encourages bold solutions but also embraces the value of “smart failures” that can inform other agency priorities and prevent us from making the same mistake twice.”
Daniell closed her address by regaling the audience with her ultimate vision for the future of NGA. The hypothetical scene took place in a 2035 Operations Center, where a small staff of analysts utilize real-time GEOINT products with speech-to-structured text and eye-tracking locate a Chinese missile TEL in less than 1 ½ minutes. “Sound far-fetched? This future may be closer than you think.”
“We have our work cut out for us,” Daniell said. “However we also have incredible advantages: a dynamic industrial base, a motivated work force, and most importantly, good old-fashioned American ingenuity.”