Telling GEOINT’s Story

A conversation with USGIF VP of Programs Ronda Schrenk


Ronda Schrenk joined USGIF in December as vice president of programs, responsible for leading content development for all Foundation events, including the annual GEOINT Symposium.

Schrenk has been on the 
leading edge of GEOINT trade-craft for most of her career, including more than 25 years in a variety of leadership and analytic positions at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), the National Security Agency, and the Central Intelligence Agency as well as in commercial, nonprofit, and academic organizations.

Schrenk spoke with The GEOINT Symposium Show Daily just ahead of GEOINT 2019 to discuss what she is most excited about for this year’s event, her plans for the Foundation beyond the Symposium, and more.

What’s in store on Sunday for participants in the GEOINT 
Foreword pre-conference science & technology day?

The purpose of GEOINT Foreword is to showcase the increasingly broad range of geospatial applications. It’s a great opportunity for members of our discipline to 
immerse themselves in tradecraft development and look beyond the traditional defense and intelligence applications.

For example, quantum computing is becoming huge in our community, but most people hear the term and think it is far away. Bo Ewald and William Hurley are both experts in the quantum field, and will help us understand how they are applying systems theory and open source to create innovative technologies.
We will also host panel discussions that focus on the increasing abundance of unclassified geospatial data and how we can leverage it to achieve mission success.

Monday’s general session will have a special opening presentation titled, “Digital Natives Empowering the GEOINT Enterprise.” Could you tell us more about that?

The term “digital native” describes a person who grew up in the digital age rather than acquiring familiarity with digital systems as an adult—a “digital immigrant.” This opening sequence is something different for the Symposium. We are calling it an “un-panel,” and will have three forward-leaning, tenured GEOINTers (digital immigrants) on stage engaging with three junior community members (digital natives). The democratization of technology means we need to move faster and embrace the overriding intelligence need for knowledge derived from data.

The presentation will begin with a Discovery Channel video about Hurricane Maria and Puerto Rico to focus the audience on how GEOINT data collection has evolved and how it is making a positive impact on our world. You’ll then hear from both digital immigrants and digital natives about how they are harnessing the power of GEOINT to positively impact our world.

What is your perspective on the GEOINT 2019 theme, “Human-Machine Teaming & Innovation Yield Mission Success?”

The rapid introduction of AI is affecting all communities and disciplines. This year’s theme embraces the ongoing AI revolution and the incredible potential when machine learning is applied as a tool to assist human decision-making. Geospatial innovation is occurring at an unprecedented rate across government, academia, and industry—with commercial applications being developed worldwide. The convergence of these factors all contribute to heightened mission success. However, AI is not a storyteller. Human input is essential to adapt the story for the purpose or mission. How we convey the data is important to enable better decision-making.

Vice Adm. Robert Sharp, the new NGA director, will give a keynote address Monday morning at GEOINT 2019. What does a change of leadership at NGA mean for the community?

NGA has been blessed with a succession of talented leaders who have brought a relatively young intelligence agency into a critical role within the community. Vice Adm. Sharp has brought renewed energy to the workforce with his transparent, inclusive leadership style. He has shown an early commitment to USGIF and our three pillars—build the community, advance the tradecraft, and accelerate innovation. Vice Adm. Sharp has already signaled his commitment to advancing those goals by participating in several smaller community events early in his tenure, and he will likely be present throughout the entire Symposium.

How does your approach to event programming include diversity in its many aspects?

With intention, USGIF is embracing the very diverse array of speakers at GEOINT 2019 across age, gender, professional background, sector, and more. We aim to reach across as many channels as possible to present a robust message throughout the event.

Beyond diversity, we’ve also tried to group topics throughout the agenda. So, for example, if in 

the morning we have a high-level speaker on a particular subject, you might see that topic echoed in more detail that afternoon on the Government Pavilion Stage.

Following the Symposium, what are some of your plans for USGIF events and programs overall?

I’m working with the USGIF team to evaluate our programming. This summer, for the first time, we plan to publish an 18-month planning calendar. One highlight is that we hope to host a USGIF working group summit later this year at the Foundation’s new Trajectory Event Center in Herndon, Va. We also intend to plan more USGIF workshops beyond those we regularly host in the D.C. area. We will aim to expand USGIF’s workshop footprint in St. Louis, Mo., and to reach other geographic areas such as Dayton, Denver, 
or Austin.

What’s next for USGIF 
Working Groups?

USGIF Programs Manager Lindsay Mitchell and I interact regularly with the Foundation working groups and member volunteers. Working groups are established to facilitate discussion around a mission area, to promote the use of geospatial solutions to solve these complex challenges, and to foster broad community development. One of the areas we are exploring is the potential for a working group about proprietary data and how it is contracted for and shared throughout the community.

The Foundation is always looking for working group ideas and participants, so I encourage GEOINT 2019 attendees to reach out if they have feedback or want to become more involved.

How do you feel at the outset of the first GEOINT Symposium you were instrumental in planning?

It’s an amazing opportunity for me to be on team GEOINT at USGIF. I’ve worked throughout the GEOINT Community for more than two decades and being a part of this team is the culmination of a career’s worth of learning. This position enables me to impact an even greater part of the community than in any previous role, and I could not be more excited about GEOINT 2019.


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