A look back at two decades of USGIF’s annual conference for the geospatial intelligence industry
In early April of 2002, thousands of space-industry professionals gathered at the Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs for the 18th edition of the National Space Symposium. The event was a hit—organizers called it their biggest and best yet—but perhaps the most significant development to come out of the conference was the birth of, well, a different conference: GEOINT.
Here’s the story, courtesy of Robert Cardillo, chair of USGIF’s board and former director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA):
One night during the conference, AGI CEO Paul Graziani hosted a party in his suite at the Broadmoor and was joined by a cadre of geospatial intelligence leaders. After midnight, one of the attendees, John Stopher, a congressional staffer assigned to monitor the governmental agency now known as NGA, asked his colleagues why their industry didn’t have a similar event. Within a few minutes, Stu Shea volunteered to take the lead—an offer that not only led directly to the inaugural GEOINT Symposium the following year, but also to a new opportunity for Shea, who would spend the next decade as USGIF’s CEO, president, and chairman.
Cardillo shared the anecdote as part of a GEOINT Symposium 2023 panel discussion looking back the conference’s 20th anniversary and 18th gathering—the same milestone celebrated by the National Space Symposium back when the plans for GEOINT were first hatched.
The conference’s origin story wasn’t the only nugget of GEOINT trivia unearthed during the discussion. A few others:
Name change. The first conference, held in New Orleans in 2003, was billed as “GEO-INTEL 2003” rather than GEOINT.
Cart before the horse. The conference’s sponsor, the U.S. Geospatial Intelligence Foundation, didn’t yet exist at the time. That happened in 2004, when longtime USGIF COO Aimee McGranahan turned to a neighbor who handled legal work for nonprofits to draw up the paperwork to formalize USGIF.
That was also the first year when current USGIF CEO Ronda Schrenk attended the conference. Back then, she was working as an imagery analyst in Washington, D.C., contemplating the siloed nature of her work. The conference opened her eyes to the possibility of a more collaborative approach to the tradecraft.
That happened through conversations with colleagues — encouraging dialogue between different units of government, industry, and academia has become one of GEOINT’s hallmarks.
On the trade-show floor, for example, large vendors, small ones, and academic partners are collocated “because that’s how we work as a community,” Schrenk said. And the conference’s stage-floor discussions “continue the rich tradition of [including] as much of the Intelligence Community as we can bring with us.”
The asterisk year. GEOINT’s COVID-related cancellation in 2020 wasn’t the first year the conference wasn’t held. That distinction goes to 2013, when a government shutdown began just days before GEOINT’s scheduled kickoff in Tampa. USGIF’s team already had printed all the signage for the event, and when the rescheduled event finally occurred the next year, the team didn’t reprint new signage with the revised dates—instead it simply printed small decals with asterisks to append the out-of-date parts of the existing signs.
The last-minute cancellation in 2013 threatened to place USGIF and GEOINT in potentially grave financial danger. Instead, however, the foundation and the Symposium sidestepped the threat thanks to the generosity of the event’s registered vendors and attendees, the vast majority of whom agreed to let the foundation hold onto to their deposit money until the rescheduled conference took place the following year.
“It could have been a really traumatic time for the foundation,” recalled Keith Masback, former USGIF CEO who helmed the Foundation during the year of the asterisked conference. “The community stepped up.”
As a result, the GEOINT Symposium is still going strong, with more than 4,000 attendees at the 2023 Symposium in St. Louis—a number that’s still climbing, and already 23% more than the last time GEOINT took place in the Gateway City.
Moving forward, one of Schrenk’s goals is for the GEOINT Symposium is to serve as a recruiting grounds for students pursuing STEM careers. To that end, the panel included a first-time attendee—Marlie Mollett, a recent college graduate and NGA data scientist.
“I’m really excited to see how the STEM community is going to grow, and how the GEOINT community is going to grow with it,” said Mollett.
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