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Geospatial Intelligence Enters New Era

June 2008
By Robert K. Ackerman
E-mail About the Author

A new system promises a sea change in agency operations and services.

The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency is offering its intelligence users a menu instead of serving them the food of its own choosing. A new online system being implemented incrementally will provide the agency’s customers with the capability to individually tailor their own diet of geospatial intelligence services and products.

This system exploits Web 2.0 systems and technologies that enable users to discover and generate their own geospatial intelligence (GEOINT) products. It draws information from legacy systems, many of which are stovepipes, without requiring their consolidation. And, it shifts the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s (NGA’s) emphasis away from that of an organization generating products to one that provides enabling services. The result ultimately may be an agency that is more focused on the customer, whether a top-level commander or a soldier in a foxhole.

The NGA’s two-year-old eGEOINT Management Office is building GEOINT Online, which will federate the discovery and access of GEOINT content from across NGA’s legacy systems. Carl Stuekerjuergen, director of the eGEOINT Management Office, observes that, as have other intelligence organizations, the NGA has done a good job of building “vertical systems of excellence.” These systems offer great capabilities, but it is harder for users to exploit data and capabilities across these systems.

GEOINT Online focuses on integration at the user interface level. This is where analysts first see these vertical systems, and this new approach permits them to discover and access GEOINT content and services across these systems. Stuekerjuergen points out that these systems also have a common look and feel.

It does not replace or consolidate legacy stovepipes, but instead serves as a bridge among them. Most of the equipment used in GEOINT Online is commercial off the shelf (COTS). The glueware that is used to tie together this COTS material in a secure environment is NGA-generated.

GEOINT Online also brings Web 2.0 technologies to the fray. Individual analysts can tailor the user interface to see only what interests them. The idea is to give each user the concept of a “My GEOINT,” Stuekerjuergen explains.

But methodology advances are only part of the goal of GEOINT Online. Stuekerjuergen offers that its most important mission is to change the NGA’s culture. Delivering GEOINT Online involves bringing the agency into the Web-centric world with service-oriented architecture (SOA) capabilities.

This will change the way the NGA does business today, he maintains. Acquisitions in particular will be undertaken differently through the agency’s business process transformation. This effort is examining how the NGA performs acquisition, program management, certification and accreditation and other processes through the lens of SOA.

“Our concepts for GEOINT Online are all about people coming to NGA and saying, ‘Tailor this service into my GEOINT Online,’ or ‘Tweak GEOINT Online so that I can do X, Y or Z,’ ” Stuekerjuergen offers. “We think that, with where we’re going with services in a SOA environment, we ought to be able to be responsive in weeks or months, and not months or years as we traditionally have done with large systems.”

It will allow the NGA to be much more tailored to today’s mission needs as opposed to the traditional product-oriented paradigm, Stuekerjuergen adds. The old paradigm had the agency building products to a military specification—“a one-shoe-fits-all solution to everybody’s problems,” he says. This would satisfy some users, but not all. Instead, the GEOINT Online approach will be more focused on what the customer needs at any given time.

For the user, the direct consequence will be faster discovery of and access to data. The metric that the NGA will use to determine GEOINT Online success will be “returning time to mission,” Stuekerjuergen says. It entails minimizing the amount of time that analysts and operators would have to spend to discover and access data, which should be shortened considerably under GEOINT Online.

Customers also will have a richer range of services. These tailorable services will complement any products that the agency provides. GEOINT Online will make the NGA much more customer-focused and responsive to immediate customer needs, Stuekerjuergen states.

“It is the future of intelligence,” he declares.

Changing the NGA environment along these lines presents several challenges. Stuekerjuergen offers that the initial challenge will be to change internal business processes to be more agile. This runs the gamut from budget planning to obtaining approval to build new systems. The agency already is working with the NGACollege on vital training and education.

Resistance to change could be the one deal breaker that stops GEOINT Online, Stuekerjuergen notes. If GEOINT Online is not successful in its early adoption, inertia born of internal resistance could kill the effort.

The way the agency will be successful in this endeavor is to establish a closer relationship with the customer than traditionally has been the case, he continues. The agency’s ongoing user engagement effort has allowed users to specify exactly what they need, and this input is going into the design of future systems.

SOA is the key to federating these capabilities across the national system for GEOINT, which comprises the entire Defense Department and intelligence community environment, Stuekerjuergen offers. The agency aims to be the preferred provider and broker of GEOINT across this community, which also comprises GEOINT providers. Challenges include different levels of security, different networks and different certification and accreditation processes. Stuekerjuergen reports that these issues are being worked on at the director of national intelligence (DNI) and undersecretary of defense for intelligence (USD[I]) levels. This is part of the DNI and USD(I) thrust to harmonize the different intelligence networks into a single intelligence environment.

“It’s all about standards,” Stuekerjuergen continues. This is particularly true within a SOA architecture, and the agency is adopting Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC) standards for interoperability in the GEOINT domain. Metadata also is key, but the agency will “crawl, walk and run” in its efforts to establish a metadata model, he adds.

Many of the concepts already are in place in the GEOINT reference architecture, which encompasses establishing application and infrastructure services. Next will come changing the processes to align with the new architecture.

Stuekerjuergen emphasizes that industry needs to adopt OGC standards to provide the capabilities that the NGA needs. Many firms have recognized that need and are moving in that direction, Stuekerjuergen adds. Tools also must be tailorable to a SOA environment and to the provisioning of Web services.

The immediate achievement of GEOINT Online will be to allow a user to discover and access data across stovepiped legacy systems, Stuekerjuergen offers. Prior to this system, many analysts “didn’t know what they didn’t know.” And, regardless of which security level network the customer will be using, the new system will provide a common look and feel. Content services will be network-dependent, but they will have commonality.

Early versions already have generated numerous examples of tremendous time savings, he notes. Several users have reported how they are able to do their jobs much faster just from the early service delivery. The most recent version, a beta version, came out in May.

GEOINT Online version 1.0, which will be delivered in August, will focus on the unclassified environment. It will be the first full iteration that federates user interfaces across the NGA’s various systems. That same capability will be delivered by the end of the year for the secret Internet protocol router network (SIPRNET).

Spiral development and deliveries will take place every quarter. A major release will take place next year with version 2.0, in which more services will transition to GEOINT Online. These will range from geoprocessing to advanced GEOINT, along with model-building capabilities such as those provided by the software development company ESRI. Power geospatial information system (GIS) users will be able to build models inside of it, and GEOINT Online will provide a SOA service repository where the models can be discovered and accessed. These models will allow users to bind and publish their GIS data.

Stuekerjuergen explains that as services such as geoprocessing harmonize across NGA systems, GEOINT Online will be breaking down the legacy systems to modules or blocks that will be placed in a services registry where developers will be instructed not to rebuild capabilities that already exist as a service. The reusability of these models and capabilities will provide significant cost savings over time, he suggests.

In 2010, GEOINT Online 3.0 will be opened up so that it becomes a National System for Geospatial-Intelligence (NSG)-community capability for brokering other people’s GEOINT services as well. To reach this goal, the NGA will need to determine how to document the service’s achievements and limitations, Stuekerjuergen explains.

The result over time will be that the NGA creates a much richer environment, he states. As GEOINT Online matures over the next three years, it will provide more robust types of services within the SOA paradigm. For example, geoprocessing currently involves commercial imagery deployed to users in the field. In a SOA environment, these users would be able to reach into a Google-Earth-type system in which the geoprocessing of that imagery is done autonomously.

“It’s truly moving from a product paradigm to a services one,” Stuekerjuergen posits. “With GEOINT Online, we’re not only providing access to those kind of services but to the experts of those services as well incorporating social networking tools.” This in turn will allow the sharing of GEOINT tradecraft.

Stuekerjuergen emphasizes that GEOINT Online will be presented as an alternative, not as a mandatory way of doing business. Not every customer will want a services approach. Some Defense Department elements will remain product-oriented, he concedes, so product provision will not be abandoned. But the overall shift will be toward providing services as a business.

“It’s going to be a journey,” he predicts.

Web Resource
National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency: www.nga.mil