Destination: Data

NGA director showcases an agency in technological transition


Robert Cardillo looks nothing like Leonardo da Vinci. While the latter was known for his magnificent beard, chest-length curls, and bright-colored beret, the former looks at home with his tidy haircut, clean-shaven face, and tailored suit. And yet, it was obvious to anyone who heard Cardillo speak Monday at GEOINT 2018: What seems like an odd comparison physically is in spirit a perfect likeness.

“da Vinci was much more than just the painter of the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper. He imagined scuba gear, flying machines, and helicopters,” Cardillo said during his fourth consecutive GEOINT keynote as director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA). “What made Leonardo ‘Leonardo’? Above all else, relentless curiosity. Leonardo just had to know how the world works, and he had to show that knowledge to others.”

According to Cardillo, the same curiosity that made da Vinci a master painter and a prolific inventor is what will make NGA an effective agency in the years ahead. da Vinci was neither an artist nor a scientist exclusively; he was both, and so too must be the members of Team GEOINT, observed Cardillo, who spent his speech juxtaposing NGA’s achievements with those of celebrated scientists-turned-artists: da Vinci, Johannes Gutenberg, Galileo Galilei, Marie Tharp, and Marie Curie, each of who took a whole-brained approach to solving the greatest challenges of their day.

Cardillo promised NGA is taking the same whole-brained approach to solve its own challenges—starting with what he called the “Triple A” of next-gen GEOINT: automation, artificial intelligence (AI), and augmentation.

“Let me be clear: I am not afraid of AI,” Cardillo said, directly challenging a provocative assertion made in the April 2018 issue of C4ISRNET, the cover of which depicted three Intelligence Community (IC) leaders—Cardillo, National Security Agency Director Adm. Michael Rogers, and Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley Jr.—alongside the headline, “Who’s Afraid of AI Now? These Guys.”

The numbers don’t lie: In the past year, NGA has ingested more than 12 million images and generated more than 50 million indexed observations, 75 percent of which were derived from automated algorithms.

“Success in this area is essential, and it is attainable. And we are acting now,” continued Cardillo, who said NGA has launched “dozens” of “Triple A” projects since GEOINT 2017, with the ultimate goal of applying Triple A to every image the agency ingests by the end of this year.

Achieving its goals will require NGA to embrace new private-sector partnerships alongside new processes. GEOWorks, a new data-sharing platform NGA launched yesterday, will encourage both.

“It’s a much easier way to access and work with NGA’s data,” Cardillo explained. “Now any U.S. company—large or small, or academic institution, or just interested individual can gain access to our data and our tools and build something.”

Just as significant as the products GEOWorks users might eventually develop is the process by which the platform was created.

“GEOWorks is not just a new website; it’s a new way for us to do business,” Cardillo continued. “[NGA] used truly agile approaches to create this site from concept to launch in just eight weeks.”

NGA’s New Strategy

For a government entity like NGA, that kind of speed represents a fundamental paradigm shift. To keep the pendulum swinging, Cardillo also announced an updated NGA strategy. Developed in support of the White House’s new National Security Strategy and the Department of Defense’s new National Defense Strategy, NGA’s “2025 Strategy”—the final release of which is still forthcoming—sets four strategic goals for the agency moving forward:

  1. Inspire and grow its world-class GEOINT workforce
  2. Fuel and drive the global GEOINT enterprise
  3. Secure and deliver the nation’s most trusted GEOINT
  4. Bring the future into focus—to anticipate opportunity and foresee threats

“The first goal is the most important,” said Cardillo, who emphasized NGA’s focus on talent and tradecraft by sharing the stage with eight NGA analysts, each of who shared how they arrived at NGA and what contributions they’ve made there.

Although some have questioned what role human analysts will play in NGA’s Triple A future, Cardillo left no doubt that they remain critical in his vision for the agency. To that end, he announced his intent to train all NGA personnel in computational thinking and basic coding within the next three years, and to incorporate data competencies into the agency’s current tradecraft certifications.

“Speaking of certifications, I’m very pleased to announce that just last Friday, NGA became the first entity within the Department of Defense to receive national accreditation of its Level 1 and Level 2 certification programs,” stated Cardillo, who also highlighted NGA’s new Data Corps, a recruitment initiative being led by Dr. Andy Brooks, NGA’s newly appointed chief data scientist.

“The Data Corps just stood up in December with a team of five; we’re at nearly 20 today and we plan to get to 80 by the end of September. … Their efforts are going to transform our workforce into data experts.”

Because it implies infallibility, “experts” is, perhaps, a misleading word. A better term to describe NGA’s future workforce might be “inventors.”

“True visionaries like [da Vinci] have always been willing to overreach and to fail forward to achieve their goals,” Cardillo concluded. “For example, he never built a working flying machine. And we won’t succeed each time, either. But I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else than on Team GEOINT, because there’s a little da Vinci in all of us.”

Headline Image: NGA director Robert Cardillo announced the agency’s intent to apply automation to all of its imagery by the end of the year on Monday during his keynote address.


NGA Looks to Accelerate Commercial Acquisition of GEOINT Tech

NGA’s procurement leaders outline strategies to meet new strategic objective


Multipurpose Science for a Changing World

David Applegate, Ph.D., Director of the United States Geological Survey (USGS), gave closing keynote remarks on the final day of USGIF’s GEOINT 2023 Symposium in St. Louis, Missouri.


NGA’s Mark Munsell Envisions 100% Accuracy with AI

The NGA Director of Data and Digital Innovation predicts success with computer vision