Governing GEOINT Growth

Panel describes the National System for Geospatial Intelligence’s role in taming the GEOINT tradecraft


As a discipline, geospatial intelligence started as a sapling—small, shallow, and slender with just a few short branches. Properly nurtured, however, all immature arbors eventually grow. GEOINT is no exception. Today, 21 years after the founding of the National Imagery and Mapping Agency and 14 years after the creation of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), GEOINT is a big, burly tree with deep roots and sprawling branches extending in all directions.

As any arborist will tell you, that kind of tree needs someone to prune it on a regular basis so it continues to grow and become healthy, productive, and strong.

The National System for Geospatial Intelligence (NSG) is GEOINT’s gardener, and Symposium-goers received a behind-the-scenes look at the tools it uses to tend to the GEOINT tradecraft during a GEOINT 2017 panel discussion Tuesday.

The panel featured five NSG leaders: Robert Cardillo, director, NGA; Col. Steven Fleming, Ph.D., professor of the practice of spatial sciences, Spatial Sciences Institute, University of Southern California; Dr. Joseph F. Fontanella, director of the U.S. Army Geospatial Center and Army Geospatial Information Officer; Dr. Suzette Kimball, director of the Civil Applications Committee (CAC); and Maj. Gen. William Reddel III, adjutant general of the New Hampshire National Guard.


Panel: The National System for Geospatial Intelligence from Trajectory On Location on Vimeo.

Moderated by USGIF CEO Keith Masback, the hour-long conversation encompassed everything from standards and governance to technology and training. It began, however, with a discussion of trust, which NSG representatives said is the foundation for their collaborative work.

“We heard from [Allied System for Geospatial Intelligence] members yesterday that … their ability to come together as a group—their ability to communicate—has developed trust, which is completely vital to everybody accomplishing their mission,” Masback said. “How has the NSG served to develop that trust over time?”

NSG partners trust each other because they have to, said Fontanella, who highlighted the ways in which NSG partners have become inextricably linked to one another as a result of increasing technology and decreasing resources.

“There are a number of inherent dependencies that have been created over time just by the advancement of technology,” Fontanella said. “We’re at a point right now where with limited resources we have to rely on each other’s best practices [and] adapt them so we can continue to reinvent them.”

It’s not just trust that makes the NSG tick—understanding is essential as well.

“We have to have a clear understanding of the relationships we have and how they depend on each other,” Fontanella continued. “And I think the NSG is a vehicle by which those things are brought to light. It’s a governance process that helps us understand where our problems are, where our strengths are, where our weakness are, and how we can … take better advantage of each other’s capabilities.”

Cardillo echoed the importance of technology.

“[Technology] is a uniting integrator at the data level,” the NGA director said. “We all need [data], we all must share it, and we all must find meaning from it, so [let’s] let that unite us.”

But integration is easier said than done, the panel acknowledged, highlighting another important charge the NSG has within the GEOINT Community: enabling interoperability by way of standards and certifications.

“To put it into context, there’s about 180 systems in the Army [alone] that consume or create geospatial information … One of our big challenges is: How do we connect all the way from national down to tactical?” Fontanella said. “A lot of the heavy lifting for that has to happen inside the NSG member formations. All the plumbing that has to be put together to ensure interoperability … is the work of the members.”

Without that plumbing, warfighters and decision-makers receive incongruous views of the same battle space in which they operate, creating risks, vulnerabilities, and efficiencies that impact their ability to succeed against the adversary.

“You’ve got to have standards … that ensure things show up the way they’re supposed to,” Fontanella continued. “[The NSG is needed] to provide overarching guidance and to referee issues.”

The roles of academia and civil agencies were also represented on the panel. Fleming, for instance, discussed how universities must work with the NSG to implement new approaches to training and education that allow the GEOINT tradecraft to actively adapt alongside new technologies rather than passively reacting to them.

“The [siloed] learning paradigms that many in the room grew up with … don’t work in a dynamic [environment],” Fleming said. “ … When it comes to a body of knowledge, there’s a baseline which you have to have and then there are emerging technologies that we have to keep up with; we have to figure out how to [teach those emerging technologies] to the workforce.”

Kimball, meanwhile, discussed contributions civil agencies make to the NSG.

“Civil agencies have a lot of capabilities that can enhance the information that is collected, developed, and disseminated to help the warfighter,” explained Kimball, who said the civil community’s expertise in things such as natural hazards—e.g., landslides, flooding, earthquakes—can greatly benefit its DoD and IC partners.

“The expertise civil agencies provide … [is] enhanced by having access to [National Technical Means] and … can provide safety for military operations on the ground,” she continued. “To be able to understand what [DoD and IC] needs are and put that together with the kinds of research and development capabilities within the civil community is of enormous benefit to the American taxpayer.”

The discussion also touched upon topics such as the cyber-location nexus and agile acquisition. Underlying all of it, however, was the sense that GEOINT isn’t growing slowly like a tree, but rather rapidly like a weed. Its role as gardener, therefore, makes the NSG more relevant now than ever, not only for its ability to prune wayward branches, but also for its ability to cultivate new crops.

“When I look at what the NSG is for,” Reddel synopsized, “it’s all about connecting resources.”


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