Importance of GEOINT Standards

A common system enables national and international collaboration


The computing revolution has brought the advent of high-resolution imaging devices, UAVs, cell phones, and countless other means of providing GEOINT data. However, the data is useless if it can’t be communicated. The communication of GEOINT, like any other kind of communication, involves transmitting or exchanging through a common system of symbols, signs, or behavior. Agreeing on a common system is the purpose of standardization.

In addition to providing better information for decision support, standards bring other benefits, such as reduced IT lifecycle costs, and increased flexibility and adaptability. GEOINT is critically important across the U.S. defense and intelligence agencies, and particularly since 9/11 policy makers have worked to improve GEOINT communication. Technical standards play a key role, enabling the institutional communication that policy makers arrange.

The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) is the functional manager for GEOINT in the U.S. and is responsible for the review and recommendation of technical standards. The National Center for Geospatial Intelligence Standards (NCGIS) was established in 2002 as an entity within NGA to create a cohesive GEOINT Standards Program for the U.S. The NCGIS manages GEOINT standards activities across the National System for Geospatial Intelligence (NSG) community and within NGA itself.

The Geospatial Intelligence Standards Working Group (GWG), chaired by the director of NCGIS, is made up of thematic focus groups that resolve standardization issues related to metadata, geospatial features, portrayal, imagery, and information transfer and data services for posting, discovery, access, and analysis of GEOINT data stores. The GWG also tracks market penetration of candidate GEOINT standards to determine if mandated standards are viable. The Defense Standardization Program (DSP) and the NGA Architecture & Standards Board (NASB) are the other key governance organizations that play a role in GEOINT standards activities in the U.S.

Of course, not all defense and intelligence standards are geospatial. The GWG is chartered within the broader Information Technology Standards Committee (ITSC). The ITSC is overseen by the DoD Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) and has the primary goal to incorporate IT and GEOINT standards into the DoD Information Technology Standards and Profile Registry (DISR). Mandated standards contained in the DISR must be used in future systems development efforts within the DoD.

Where possible, the NCGIS fosters the advancement and use of community-developed, consensus-based standards.

International Interoperability

International geospatial standards have been important to the U.S. since World War II. The revolution in computing and communications has been a global phenomenon, and the U.S. relies on close cooperation with allies around the world.

The Defence Geospatial Information Working Group (DGIWG) is the multi-national body responsible for geospatial standardization for the defense organizations of member nations. It supports the requirements of NATO and the other alliances in which member nations participate, including United Nations peacekeeping.

The Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC) and the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) are the two international standards development organizations that play a major role in geospatial standards. NGA participates in both of these organizations as well as in DGIWG, and there is cross-representation in the working groups and technical committees of all of these organizations.

Civil Sector Needs

Public safety and law enforcement, city planning and management, and other civil sector activities all depend on the creation, exploitation, and analysis of geospatial data and information, and these civil GEOINT resources are critical for disaster response and relief. Thus, commercial and civil sector representatives participate, along with representatives from federal GEOINT organizations, in national and international geospatial standards processes.

Both civil sector and defense and intelligence organizations stand to benefit from the boom in mobile applications and cloud services, and together can work with commercial representatives to develop and promote implementation of the standards both sectors need. Much work remains, however, in areas such as security, data provenance, model interoperability, and semantics. Mobile apps and cloud computing are driving new ways of storing and discovering data, and existing standards need to evolve to keep up.

Featured image: The main value of technical interoperability is that it supports institutional collaboration. Other benefits include flexibility, resilience, extended system lifetimes, transparency, cost reductions, and expanded markets that support innovation. Illustration courtesy of OGC

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