NGA Embraces Data Science

University of Missouri providing data science education to NGA workforce


When the National Geospatial-Intelligence College held open enrollment for its first set of data science classes, the slots filled up in “record time,” according to Lou Halbert, NGA’s Chief Data Officer.

The courses, which began in October, are being offered under a five-year, $12 million contract the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) awarded The University of Missouri (MU) College of Engineering in August. Under the contract, MU will deliver a comprehensive data science education program to provide analytics training for the NGA workforce, which includes onsite instruction in Washington, D.C., and St. Louis, Mo.

“The work force has heard data science as a buzzword,” Halbert said. “They are craving an understanding for data science. The current program of study for data science is available to all employees throughout NGA. We want to grow the data science tradecraft, but also introduce data science to the broader workforce.”

The program is a collaboration between the MU College of Engineering’s Center for Geospatial Intelligence and the MU Informatics Institute’s Data Science and Analytics (DSA) master’s degree program.

MU takes a holistic approach to data science, according to Dr. Grant Scott, director of the DSA program, which launched this fall after three years in development.

“Typically other data science education programs are rolled out as a rebranding of courses from statistics or engineering or business,” Scott said. “We took on the idea of developing it as an interdisciplinary program that bridges all the way from engineering through the business side of things. It’s a lifecycle methodology of using data and managing it for decision-making.”

MU engaged with many industry partners such as Amazon, Google, Monsanto, The New York Times, and Reuters during the development of its data science curricula to learn how they apply data science and what they need from data scientists.

MU’s interdisciplinary approach to data science, coupled with its Center for Geospatial Intelligence, is what made the university stand out during NGA’s open competition, according to Halbert.

“MU was able to demonstrate a clear understanding of what we were looking for from a data science program,” Halbert said. “Specifically, we went out looking for a data science program that was data agnostic—not geospatial, but core tradecraft. In the proposal, MU was able to demonstrate how it could do both.”

The NGA solicitation noted more than 60 different work roles it hoped would participate in the data science courses—beyond imagery and geospatial analysts to include personnel from contracting, source, and even human resources, according to Scott. “They want the entire workforce to be empowered with foundational data analytics capabilities to enhance the ability to do every aspect of their mission.”

Halbert elaborated: “NGA has data science needs across all internal disciplines, whether in the Human Capital Directorate were we need to look at how to match our talent better with our mission requirements, within the Inspector General’s office trying to do more predictive learning for auditing and fraud detection, or within analysis and doing more with big data analytics on pattern analysis and trending. Even within Source we are pulling in more open-source and social media content. The volume of data to comb through goes beyond what traditional analytics can provide.”

Although MU’s new DSA program is offered solely online, the university is ramping up to offer tailored onsite instruction for the NGA program at National Geospatial-Intelligence College locations in D.C. and St. Louis, according to Dr. Curt Davis, director of MU’s Center for Geospatial Intelligence. All MU DSA course material delivered to NGA will be unclassified, but professors will be cleared and able to discuss classified questions and challenges with participants.

The courses progress from introductory to intermediate and more advanced. In total, MU will offer sixteen courses (39 credit hours) under the contract. However, NGA employees are not required to take all the courses and may make a la carte selections. Personnel taking courses through NGA can earn graduate-level credit at MU as a non-degree seeking student. Those who complete a 19 credit hour program of study will be eligible to obtain a graduate certificate in DSA from MU. In addition, personnel who complete a 34 credit hour program may also earn a Master of Science in DSA through MU. In both cases, NGA employees must take additional steps through the university to convert their status to degree seeking.

In future option years, other Intelligence Community partners will also be able to leverage data science training for their employees under the NGA contract.

According to Linda Brown, a program manager with NGA, the MU program is just one avenue through which the agency is embracing data science. Additionally, NGA is offering internships, hiring data scientists directly, and looking at an entire strategy for how to employ data science within the agency.

Photo Credit: Trevor Paglen 

Posted in: Education, USGIF-Accredited Programs   Tagged in: Data, Education


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