Digital natives bring a new perspective to the GEOINT workforce
Traveling throughout Northern Africa in April 2017, Katie McGaughey and her colleague were tasked with estimating crop yields for the upcoming harvest of wheat and barley in Morocco and Tunisia. While this type of trip is common for McGaughey, a senior crop assessment specialist with the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Foreign Agricultural Service, the way she and her colleagues collected data on this excursion represented a significant shift.
“We were trying to more accurately forecast wheat area in Morocco at an earlier date than we have been able to in the past,” McGaughey said. To accomplish this, she and her colleague used a smartphone-based app developed by the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) called MAGE (Mobile Awareness GEOINT Environment). MAGE allowed McGaughey to collect crop area data in the field then seamlessly sync it to the cloud when she regained internet connectivity.
“The crops were in the reproductive stage, and we were able to get pretty good area estimates using MAGE,” she said. “We published our results in May and at the end of the season, we were within a 1% margin [of the official statistics]. We were able to do that four months prior to the harvest, which is a really big deal. For a remote sensing classification, it was about the best we could have hoped for.”
McGaughey also noted that their data collection in Tunisia was successful, coming within a 6% margin compared to official statistics.
A MATTER OF PRACTICALITY
McGaughey’s story is one of many in which federal employees who have grown up or spent their formative years with access to modern technology are using that lens to improve their capabilities and performance in the workplace. One term often used to describe people such as McGaughey is “digital native.”
Notably used by John Perry Barlow, founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, in his 1996 paper “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace,” the digital native children of the 1980s and 1990s are the analysts, officers, and engineers of today.
However, while digital natives are often thought of as members of the millennial generation or even Generation Z, it’s important to note that age is less important than mindset when considering what digital natives can bring to their organizations.
Jeremy Boss, an imagery analyst in the Asia Pacific Office and a member of the Project Sagittarius innovation team at NGA, considers himself a “digital immigrant”—a term used to describe people who may not have grown up with technology but are regardless comfortable with it. “I was born in the Xennial phase,” explained Boss. “I had my first computer in high school, so I didn’t exactly grow up with it, but I definitely came to it at a formative time.”
When it comes to innovation, the exact terms used to describe the individuals bringing new ideas and processes to the analytic environment aren’t nearly as important as the value the mindset provides.
“One of the characteristics of people in our area of the spectrum is a deep practicality,” Boss said. “Everything technology for me is about practicality: ‘What is the practical application I can get out of it?’ And I think [that approach] has really helped us communicate to people who might be late adopters.”
Boss pointed to a tool he works on as part of Project Sagittarius called Dragon Drop.
“It’s analyst-created and analyst-driven,” he said. “It is technology and it is automation, but it has deep practicality built into it. It leaves the expertise in the hands of the subject matter experts and the technology works around them. That focus has really been key to getting people to like the tool and adapt to the tool and use it. Whether you’re a digital native or not, we’re putting you in a position where this helps you on a day-to-day basis.”
McGaughey echoed Boss’s comments when discussing how MAGE’s success in estimating crop harvests helped illustrate that the technology had practical value to USDA’s mission.
“We’re trying to get the best area and yield estimates for 15 commodities for the 140 countries that we cover, and if MAGE helps us do that, that’s great,” she explained. “By having these results, we’ve been able to point to that success and scale up that success because now we’ve done it in maybe 15 countries for dozens of crops.”
Aljune Lerio, a former staff sergeant in the 91st Civil Affairs Battalion who is now transitioning to an officer role, had a similar experience incorporating MAGE into his work. During a terrorist event in Burkina Faso in 2018, Lerio and his team used MAGE to provide much-needed information about what was happening on the ground when other communication sources were unavailable. Lerio said that getting buy-in to use a mobile app like MAGE required him to evangelize it to skeptics, and being a digital native helped him make the case.
“The traditional processes are important because they have been proven effective—maybe not efficient—but effective,” Lerio said. “I knew the mobile app was something that our advanced forces could use, so every opportunity I had to speak about it or highlight it, whether in training or operations or to a higher command, I took that opportunity.”
Instead of replacing or changing traditional methods, MAGE helped Lerio’s team enhance those methods.
“When you go through the foundational, traditional way of doing things, moving on to more advanced things gives you an appreciation of how fast things could be,” Lerio said. “There has to be the understanding of the human terrain and the human element of the things we’re doing [whether you’re using traditional or new methods]. And then when you have that connection or human network, and you bring new ideas to it, the ball keeps rolling.”
A TEAM EFFORT
One of the key elements of successfully incorporating new technologies at organizations like USDA, NGA, or the military is working with others—not just higher-ups to gain buy-in for new, innovative projects, but also peers and colleagues to conceptualize and develop new ideas.
“A focus on research teams is especially important in areas of emerging technology,” said Adam Marlowe, a senior GEOINT officer with NGA’s Office of Weapons and Counterproliferation. “It’s really underpinned a lot of the success that I’ve seen, and it goes back to giving time to the analysts and the other work roles to get together and learn from each other and iterate together. The analysts will teach the developers about the mission, the national security priorities, and workflows—and the developers will then respond with improvements that will create efficiencies.”
Matthew Larsen, an imagery analyst in NGA’s Middle East and Southwest Asia Office, noted that this type of collaboration can and should involve everyone, even people who might not consider themselves digitally proficient.
“We can benefit by having even those who aren’t technologically adept [in the conversation],” Larsen said. “By getting digital natives and people who are more open to technology involved, we’re examining the potential of what technology can bear by developing a human-machine hybrid and integrating it all together. That creates the potential for breakthroughs that can help us drastically streamline some cases or workflow, develop new tradecraft, produce new insights, and come up with answers that we wouldn’t have been able to before.”
Melissa A. Planert, director of NGA’s Analysis Tradecraft and Technology Group, echoed the importance of teaming digital natives with more seasoned professionals to yield such breakthroughs.
“Some of the biggest successes I’ve seen were in offices where non-digital natives allow that space and time and provide that encouragement to help analysts iterate and innovate on the tools they have,” Planert said. “We’ve certainly seen the whole spectrum from both digital natives and non-digital natives in terms of moving into technologically- augmented workflows for our analysts.”
As more young professionals who grew up with mobile devices in hand enter the workforce, some amount of change is inevitable. But the questions are: How much will occur and how quickly?
“I think there will be a real paradigm shift in the way we think about NGA’s role, and the way we think about intelligence as a practice,” Boss said. “We’ve been developing these technologies and adapting them to the traditional paradigm. I think that in the next five, 10, 15 years, you’re going to see all that change. Particularly the increasing use of artificial intelligence and the increasing use of the mountains of geo-tagged information that is now out there, I think that’s going to cause a dramatic shift in the practice of NGA. [Digital immigrants and natives] are really at the forefront of that, and we are the ones that are going to shape what that new environment, that new context, looks like.”
While Marlowe agreed with Boss, his view of the future is a bit more tempered.
“I believe that new paradigm will come with an understanding of the inherent constraints of these new technologies,” he said. “Maybe we will wonder less about the right use cases for technology, and we’ll be quicker to apply new technologies in certain cases. And there will certainly be a leading edge. I think that is in the process and that won’t stop. But presently, we’re still learning a lot about how to apply things like AI and deep learning, especially for image object recognition, ATR, computer vision, and these things.”
Planert said she also sees the role of technology at NGA expanding, as interest in and experience with new technologies becomes a more significant element of the hiring process.
“We’re currently seeing gains that can only grow,” she said. “As we hire new people, we’re looking for the traditional skills that make a great analyst—the ability to think creatively and critically, understanding of geopolitical context, and good communication and teaming skills—but also more and more we’re requiring some technological capability. [That could be] in the realm of statistics or data coding, or GIS skills for our imagery analysts. We’re expanding the envelope in terms of the types of skills we’re seeking in order to encourage more digital natives to join us.”
Whether the changes that occur are large and swift, or more incremental, it is clear that the future of analysis, whether at NGA, other federal organizations, or in the private sector, will be heavily influenced by digital natives.
Featured image: (Left to right) Former U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Aljune Lerio, Katie McGaughey, Crop Assessment Specialist at USDA, and Benjamin Foster, Technical Lead, GEOINT Services Capabilities at NGA, took part in the “Digital Natives Empowering the GEOINT Enterprise” panel discussion
at GEOINT 2019.