In the 15-plus years since GEOINT’s formal creation, the discipline has continually matured, evolved, and expanded well beyond the national security sector, and even beyond government. Almost every vertical in our global economy is being disrupted by GEOINT-related technologies and services.
On the USGIF GEOConnect Series Virtual Main Stage, a panel of GEOINT influencers examined the increasing role of unclassified collection platforms and analytic capabilities to improve decision-making.
“Geospatial intelligence is everywhere. It’s essential to decision-making and almost everything we do these days,” said Letitia A. Long, former NGA director, who moderated the discussion. “[GEOINT] advances have come full circle to support unclassified work in the national security community, which, all of a sudden, has been thrust into the spotlight with the pandemic and its resultant [requirement of] work from home [capabilities].”
Working from Home Challenges
When working from home, there are numerous challenges that GEOINT professionals in both the public and private sector have had to face. According to Victoria Nguyen, head of Data & Analytics at SANTÉ, collaboration, coordination, knowledge capture, and knowledge management are a few of those challenges. Yet, the lack of process in the business sector makes these challenges more complicated, she said.
“I never thought, after leaving the government, that I would ever say this, but I really appreciated that process because it gives us something to build off of,” Nguyen said.
But the benefit of working in the unclassified side of GEOINT, according to Nguyen, is the ability to quickly bring in new capabilities. Working from her Google fiber line, Nguyen has the ability to test new capabilities, bring in new data sets, leverage and build new workflows, and test them out in a much faster.
“The COVID-19 situation has been an opportunity to validate a lot of the assumptions we’ve had that these technologies and sources and workflows are helpful for public sector challenges, even if you’re used to working behind a firewall or in a SCIF or whatnot,” said David Scavo, solutions engineering manager at Orbital Insight. “[It has] been really exciting. There are so many new high-resolution sources and IoT data that we can use to understand facilities and monitor activity at hyper-local or even higher-scale levels.”
Meeting Mission-Critical Needs Remotely
Amid the COVID- 19 pandemic, many government and industry organizations had to reposition their workforce to operate remotely in order to meet mission-critical needs.
The Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) set out to update the Modernized Intelligence Database (MIDB), which was built 20 years ago to house intelligence data globally for the defense intelligence enterprise. The new system, Machine-Assisted Analysis Rapid-Repository System (MARS), takes advantage of modern technologies in storage, cloud computing, and machine learning to allow analysts to interact with data and information in a more dynamic manner.
MARS’ first release was scheduled for May 28 of this year, but in early March, DIA personnel were sent home. DIA remained determined to meet that date and release the MARS platform on schedule, and they did.
“The ability to establish ourselves very, very quickly, online, persistently, was really the key for us to get up and running again,” said Terrence Busch, MARS technical lead, DIA.
In collaboration with their government and industry partners, it took about 15 minutes to stand up MARS and about three days to accredit it at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) and DIA.
“[It was] a real testament to what we’re able to achieve, working collaboratively between two very large government agencies to meet the deadline,” Busch said.
The NGA Open Mapping Enclave (NOME), an online capability where a community of screened users can edit existing content and contribute new features to maps throughout the world, was one of the agency’s many applications that continued to support the GEOINT mission, even ‘from your basement.’
“We set out to generate an environment where any of our trusted vetted users from around the world can access and work simultaneously to generate foundation data in a timely fashion,” said Will Mortenson, volunteered geographic information lead, Foundation GEOINT Group, NGA. “We’re able to very rapidly generate large volumes of content—whether it be from roads, rails, buildings—using automated feature extraction. It’s unfathomable how quickly we can generate content utilizing a lot of these new principles and capabilities.”