Open Source in the Intelligence Community

Being smarter, faster, and more agile is how you maintain your global advantage


Being “closed” by design, the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC) is the last place many people would expect open-source software to proliferate. Because it recognizes the inherent advantages, the IC has proven to be both an enthusiastic user of open-source solutions and a valuable contributor to the open-source community.

“The intelligence agencies are all-in on open source,” said Richard Grady, president of Applied Geographics (AppGeo), a GIS consulting firm that builds and deploys open-source geospatial software. “They understand that being smarter, faster, and more agile is how you maintain your global advantage.”

Examples abound of open-source geospatial software in the IC.

Mobile Awareness GEOINT Environment (MAGE)

The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) created MAGE in 2014 to provide situational awareness to security personnel supporting events such as the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.

“MAGE is a very simple application to track location information of a mobile device and make what we call observations,” explained Ben Foster, NGA’s product manager for mobile development and operations.

The National Guard field-tested MAGE when Pope Francis visited New York in 2015.

“Everyone on the ground could see each other’s location using their mobile devices and quickly drop a point, take a picture, and make an observation,” Foster said. “For example, if there was a suspicious package left on a corner, in near real time everyone on that team would be notified.”

Because MAGE is open-source, NGA’s partners can deploy it quickly, easily, and affordably For example, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) used MAGE in 2017 to gain situational awareness in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria.

“We’re contributing to solving geospatial problems, but we’re enabling it to be organic to the organization that is out there operating within those problems,” Foster said.

NSG Open Mapping Enclave (NOME)

Another NGA application of note is NOME, an open-source mapping environment that allows NGA partners to generate dynamic geospatial content in support of U.S. missions around the world. Essentially, it’s the IC equivalent of OpenStreetMap, Wikimaps, and to a certain extent Google, enabling warfighters, humanitarians, and others to crowdsource collaborative living maps that provide situational awareness.

“We don’t have enough resources to answer every requirement,” said Will Mortenson, NGA’s lead for volunteered geographic information. “[NOME] is an effort to find alternative mechanisms that give folks the opportunity to create more content.”

Approximately 1,500 users from 27 nations currently use NOME during military and humanitarian assistance operations. NOME works, Mortenson said, because it leverages the wisdom of the crowd. And the reason it can leverage the wisdom of the crowd is because it’s accessible to users across disparate geographies, communities, and security domains.

Machine-Assisted Analysis Rapid-Repository System (MARS)

The Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) is a voracious consumer of data. But its central data repository, the Modernized Intelligence Database (MIDB), hasn’t been reengineered since 1996. Enter MARS, which will leverage advances in cloud computing and machine learning to make foundational intelligence gathering a dynamic endeavor.

“MARS is a program to take foundational intelligence and reinvent it to support a Department of Defense that requires an increasing level of automation and an increasing level of fidelity with data as we move into the future,” explained MARS Program Lead Terry Busch.

MARS will support “millions of transactions per second” through machine-to-machine operations, according to Busch, who said the new system will “move decision-making into the cockpit” for warfighters who have a growing appetite for large amounts of granular data.

The program is still nascent, but open-source solutions are playing a significant role in its development.

“Open source initially provides us neutral ground to reset our technology, and we have done that,” explained Busch. “One advantage of open source is that you have a crowd of people developing solutions, so there’s a good, rich set of open-source capabilities that the world is rapidly improving. If I have a system that’s designed to continuously adapt and develop to support the warfighter, that might be a good model fit for us.”

With open source, DIA can onboard new capabilities immediately instead of waiting months or years for the traditional procurement cycle.

“Open source is definitely changing the way we think of technology development,” Busch concluded. “Rather than procuring on long cycles and seeing improvement on a sort of release schedule, we can bring code in and constantly evaluate, adapt, and build.”

Featured Image: Terry Busch, Defense Intelligence Agency Machine-Assisted Analysis Rapid-Repository System program lead and former DIA chief data officer, answers questions during the MARS breakout session at the 2018 DIA Intelligence Information System Worldwide Conference. (Credit: Brian Murphy)

Return to feature story: An Open Frontier

Posted in: Features   Tagged in: 2019 Issue 1, Applications, Intelligence, Software

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