Open-Source Collaboration

A model to supercharge GEOINT success


By David Gwynn, Boundless; Scott Clark, Radiant Solutions; Justin Bennett, Geodata IT; and Tony Bryan, Midwest Cyber Center

The ability of an organization to stay ahead of its competitors requires continuous innovation and the rapid integration of best-of-breed tools, workflows, and business processes. For geospatial intelligence (GEOINT) practitioners faced with the prospect of vast increases of geospatial data in the next five years—as noted by National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency Director Robert Cardillo—there is an unprecedented urgency to explore creative approaches to efficiently leverage all resources and stay ahead of the game.

Integration of GEOINT activities across all practitioners in the Global GEOINT Enterprise is fundamentally based on efficiently leveraging the breadth of all resources, including human analytic capabilities. The cross-functional competency of collaboration outlined in the United States Geospatial Intelligence Foundation’s (USGIF) GEOINT Essential Body of Knowledge realizes the powerful potential for accelerating knowledge exchange to maximize the value and efficiency of human analysts.

Using the methodology employed in open-source collaboration, this article outlines the tools, workflows, and business processes that result in rapid cross-team innovation. Discussion of how these can be leveraged within the GEOINT Community to supercharge collaboration to rapidly achieve success is outlined.

  • This article is part of USGIF’s 2019 State & Future of GEOINT Report. Download the PDF to view the report in its entirety. 

Defining the Problem: The Need for Knowledge Sharing to Achieve Rapid, Continual Success

Across every industry, one may find the same flawed approach: several disparate groups developing their own tools/technologies, methods/workflows, and strategies to meet local decision-making information gaps. Typically, these groups are unaware that the same gaps exist elsewhere in their enterprise. This flawed structure results in duplicative efforts, inefficient innovation, lack of interoperability, and a dependency on the individual heroics of a few people. As a result, there exists a need to formalize methods to seamlessly share knowledge and efficiently leverage all human resources to accelerate innovation. Such methods are desired to establish a culture of continuous evolution and excellence that benefits the enterprise. For GEOINT, adoption of new methods offers great potential to increase the ability of the enterprise to systematically innovate, evolve, and cull vast amounts of data to stay ahead of threats.

The Customer Success Perspective

The “outcome economy” dominates the software industry today. In contrast to prior economic eras—product, service, subscription—the focus on the outcome economy is the achievement of customer goals. As defined by the World Economic Forum, the outcome economy is a marketplace in which businesses compete on their ability to deliver quantifiable results that matter to customers rather than just selling products or services. Business success in this economy requires deep understanding of customer needs, solutions that address their needs, and metrics that document the value added by your software solution. According to Chris Carrington, CEO of ServiceSource, the following actions lead to business growth in an outcome economy:

  • Understanding the customer’s job via proactive engagement, prescriptive conversations, and personalized interaction.
  • Letting data drive decision-making, including collecting, analyzing, and acting on data.
  • Orienting around outcomes by aligning, allocating resources for customer success, and accepting shared risk and reward.4

The “customer success” model directly addresses the needs in the outcome economy. According to Nick Mehta, CEO of Gainsight, customer success is a business methodology that ensures customers achieve their desired outcomes while using your product or service. It is relationship-focused client management that aligns client and vendor goals for mutually beneficial outcomes. Customer success requires a proactive, holistic, across-client vision focused on user-defined outcomes. It also requires continuous evaluation of customer outcomes measured empirically from performance metrics and feedback data from users to quantify improvements introduced by your solution.

Collaboration within an organization and between an organization and its customers is critical for customer success. Building upon the maxim, “the whole is greater than the sum of the parts,” collaboration unleashes an organization’s ability to reduce time to solutions and efficiently marshals all human resources. The embrace of collaboration within and beyond an organization achieves two goals. First, it increases the speed of innovation by ensuring that advances made by any person or group quickly propagate across the enterprise. Second, it formalizes and establishes an environment in which exchange of ideas and information focused on discovery and sensemaking is the norm. Collaboration is a skill that needs to be deliberately taught, fostered, and rewarded via tools, methods, and practices.

Deliberate planning is required to establish and maintain a new mind-set for actualizing continuous innovation and GEOINT success. Establishment of a new strategic vision focused on customer outcomes can be achieved through the formal adoption of the customer success model, and the incentivization of personnel can be made by quantifying their ability to provide added value to the customer.

Open-Source Methods Unleash Structured Creativity and Innovation

The communities and organizations that have coalesced around open-source geospatial software practice collaboration across highly distributed volunteer teams to successfully deliver software, tools, processes, and even data. Examples of these organizations include OSGeo, LocationTech, and OpenStreetMap. Software from OSGeo and LocationTech are used widely in government and commercial environments. OpenStreetMap has been such a successful model that the software and processes form the basis of the National System for Geospatial Intelligence’s (NSG) Open Mapping Enclave (NOME). But it’s the actual processes by which these communities organize, self-govern, and release capabilities that offer key practices worth emulating in GEOINT.

Many organizations are coupling development and analytic teams, and therefore the common lexicon that comes from these often developer-oriented organizations is helpful to GEOINT analysts. In this scenario, developers become more educated about GEOINT and analysts become more proficient with coding tools and workflows, but each continue to focus on their primary area of expertise, thereby ensuring each make the most efficient use of their time as they pursue the team goal.

In the publication, “Producing Open Source Software,” Karl Fogel points out critical habits that enable an open-source software project to become a true community project. These principles are useful for other communities of practice as well, even if there are no developers involved. Critical communication practices such as mailing lists ensure the entire community can see conversations (including debates and professional disagreements) among team members. The principle of having “public” conversations may be uncomfortable for some at first, but this ensures agreements aren’t formed in back channels. It also ensures that conclusions are preserved for future reference, so the same debates aren’t rehashed unless necessary. Sharing software code, processes, and algorithms is a necessary function of developing a community. The open-source software community is strong and the principle of “with many eyes, all bugs become shallow” also fits for complex analytic problems that require multidisciplinary backgrounds. This communication transparency expedites troubleshooting, eliminates redundancy, and accelerates innovation, all while enabling structured creativity that is laser-focused on the team goal.

Open-Source Communities Are Connected and Self-Motivated

The members of open geospatial communities include developers, analysts, subject matter experts, project managers, and professors from across industry, government, academia, and nonprofit organizations. Open geospatial communities share and co-contribute to projects and knowledge bases. They also participate in special interest groups and governing foundations, all in the name of collaboration. Collaboration involves an easy interchange of ideas among many perspectives to produce a better result than any one of them could achieve separately. Organizations that choose to adopt these principles gain the following benefits: group-derived knowledge, information, analytic findings, and data, all made instantly available to executives, policy-makers, concept developers, trainers, system engineers, and analysts; and instant feedback on lessons learned from successes and failures during in-office, day-to-day activities (internal analysts) and out-of-office operations (mobile users) where GEOINT is planned, created, and used.

Software foundations such as OSGeo and LocationTech have a governance/business process that allows for the incubation of new capabilities. Even if there is overlap in a capability, it is not squashed by the organization, but rather given the opportunity to evolve and thrive. There is a recognition that one size does not fit all with technology and geospatial challenges. The incubation process is a mechanism that increases collaboration because it makes early capabilities available to the wider community to experiment with and evaluate. It also provides visibility to those who may become interested in contributing directly to the evolution of a new project. The incubation process provides a top-down set of guiding principles and resources that allow for bottom-up creation of new capabilities that benefit the entire community.

Open-Source Tools Facilitate Transparency and Efficiency

Several web-based tools facilitate enterprise collaboration across remote teams of diverse experts. Among the most important of these are management tools supporting the agile development methodology. Agile is a systematic, transparent, repeatable methodology that tightly couples product development with end user outcomes. Agile management software enables input from all key stakeholders to be documented in a highly transparent manner. All end user requirements and technical tasks undertaken to achieve requirements are recorded, edited, tracked, and archived. These data as well as other data such as team performance metrics are available to stakeholders who regularly perform reviews to determine if the capabilities developed appropriately achieve the outcomes the end user requires. Adjustments to requirements can quickly be made by stakeholders as needed because the time between “sprint” reviews is relatively short (two to six weeks). In this way, constant feedback from the end user during the stepwise creation process enables iterative corrections to be rapidly incorporated into the evolving capability. The agile methodology decreases the time required to innovate and increases the probability that the developed capability meets end user goals.

Role of Community of Practice

The idea of communities of practice (CoP) is relatively new even in industry. Pioneering work by Étienne Wenger and others in the 1990s noted that large businesses had within them communities that self-organized around specific functional areas all without formal sponsorship, recognition, or even interaction with the front office. It was during an efficiency study that IBM first noticed members of some communities were spending a lot of time having “conversations around the water cooler,” where, for example, sales representatives shared stories of their day and associated successes and failures. While IBM originally saw this time as idleness that could be recovered to core business practices, closer analysis determined this was where IBM salesmen were professionalizing. Sharing anecdotes of the days’ challenges and opportunities allowed members of the community to collectively learn best practices, avoid pitfalls, and coalesce around ideas or efforts. This allowed individuals to outpace their competition and to make IBM money.

CoPs, as defined in the business community, are:

  • Peer-to-peer collaborative networks.
  • Driven by willing member participation.
  • Focused on learning and building capacity.
  • Engaged in knowledge-sharing, developing expertise, and solving problems.

CoPs will be the common thread that ties together the most critical resource of the GEOINT Community—its people—by empowering them with insight and awareness. As enterprise professionals conduct their daily business at corporate and headquarter-level offices, they gain insight into how a company wishes to evolve as an organization across its different business functions. For example, the U.S. federal government will learn how military services, the Intelligence Community, and even other nations address their intelligence challenges, and whether these organizations are meeting obstacles or exposing opportunities.

A CoP provides a means for this highly strategic information to be provided back to the professionals at the tactical echelons whose physical or organizational location prevent them from knowing this information. The “top-down” distribution of cross-enterprise vision will subsequently inform a workforce about a wide variety of actions taking place within their community; they can tailor their “bottom-up” goals to achieve the vision. By removing communication barriers and increasing transparency, the CoP ensures the rapid cross-pollination of ideas. This is the same role that modern IT architectures and open-source technologies provide for geospatial data and products.

Discussion and Recommendations

The GEOINT enterprise has the critical mission of staying ahead of the game in a world where ever-growing volumes of complex and diverse data require rapid exploitation. In this environment, the importance of adopting methods that accelerate innovation across the enterprise cannot be understated as they drive mission success. Efficiently harnessing the breadth of talent, skill, and experience across the GEOINT Community has great potential to positively impact a range of missions.

Like the open-source development community, the GEOINT enterprise is dispersed among multiple organizations around the globe. Any duplicative efforts within the GEOINT enterprise result in precious loss of time, and procedures that prevent collaboration increase the time required to innovate. Lessons learned from the open-source community offer great potential for improvement.

Leveraging the methodology employed in open-source collaboration, this article outlines a series of actions the GEOINT enterprise can take to expedite cross-team innovation.

Three recommended actions are:

  1. Provide strategic vision and reward/promotion mechanisms that incentivize GEOINT excellence and customer success methods as the norm. Create and foster a work environment committed to cross-enterprise collaboration, continuous innovation, and creative problem-solving that is laser-focused on ensuring customer goals and outcomes are rapidly achieved.
  2. Adopt best practices from open-source software development by leveraging best-of-breed tools, workflows, and business processes across the enterprise to facilitate collaboration among remote teams of diverse experts. Utilize the highly structured agile software development methodology to formalize transparency, constant communication, and stakeholder engagement to rapidly achieve customer goals.
  3. Establish and foster one or multiple GEOINT communities of practice in which motivated individuals self-select to participate because of their high levels of interest in GEOINT. These CoPs will ensure cross-pollination of ideas across the enterprise and up and down the chain of command, thereby ensuring custom-tailored, “bottom-up” goals achieve “top-down” vision.

Adoption and implementation of these actions within the GEOINT enterprise offer a viable mechanism to accelerate knowledge transfer and innovation to supercharge GEOINT success.

Headline Image: Community-tagged maps of Venice, Italy, from OpenStreetMap.

Posted in: Contributed   Tagged in: 2019 S&FOG Report, Intelligence, Software

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