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Geospatial Intelligence Embarks on Dual-Hatted Mission

April 2012
By Robert K. Ackerman, SIGNAL Magazine
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With its move to Fort Belvoir, Virginia, under the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) has consolidated many of its capital-area assets in a single facility. NGA Director Letitia Long offers that this gives the agency an opportunity to advance its capabilities, as the new headquarters includes a technology center in which the agency has been able to rebuild its entire infrastructure and virtualize most of its systems and applications.

Adding value and having value added are new agency goals.

The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency is juggling several different directions as it plans for the next five years. But, rather than face having to choose which direction to pursue, the agency has mapped a course in which all of the different paths aim for a common destination.

These thrusts include a greater emphasis on mobile devices for dissemination and collection, an open information technology architecture and pursuit of new types of data. Success in these endeavors would lead to a two-way flow of data between the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) and its customers in the field, which will change the nature of the agency’s intelligence products.

“We’re moving from a product-oriented agency to a service-oriented, information, knowledge-based agency,” says Letitia A. Long, director of the NGA.

Long envisions substantial changes coming over the next five years. “I see us much more agile than I do today,” she predicts. “I see us operating in that total online digital environment where it is easy to access our information. Our partners are contributing information; we’re serving that back; and we’re in an environment where we have totally separated our data from our applications and our infrastructure, so we’re very agile.”

Intelligence fusion long has been a part of the NGA’s mission. This has been accomplished two ways: in one, NGA imagery is added to other intelligence to provide a visual picture of information. In the other, an NGA product serves as the base to which other forms of intelligence data are added to provide a more robust product. Long believes the trend is toward multi-INT products, especially with the visual nature of NGA products. The NGA has teams at other intelligence agencies to help it understand both the other organizations’ products and their priorities, she adds.

The NGA takes both approaches to provide visualization services to other members of the intelligence community, she continues. NGA data is helping the National Security Agency (NSA) to visualize its signals intelligence (SIGINT); the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) to visualize its measurement and signature intelligence (MASINT); and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to visualize its human intelligence (HUMINT).

Now, new applications that encompass HUMINT and SIGINT are allowing the NGA to combine information from those INTs and portray it visually. This allows the NGA’s users also to be contributors, Long points out, which is changing the nature of the agency’s intelligence product.

NGA products are likely to be flavored by new types of data. Complementing information from traditional sensors will be data from social media—“the human geography information”—that experts have been looking at for some time, Long states. “We’ve studied tribal and ethnic clans for years, but today they take on a different meaning when you have access to that information because of everything that is online—and [you have] the ability to look at that and overlay it with imagery or with geospatial information and look at how it changes over time.”

This type of intelligence especially is valuable for a situation such as the uprising in Syria. Long cites a demand for geospatial information on which parts of Damascus contain Christians, Sunnis, Alewites or Shia, and in which neighborhoods have fighting that is taking place. Overlaying significant military activity with ethnic, tribal or religious data can be “extremely enlightening” to decision makers.

The ongoing shift toward mobile devices already is changing the NGA, Long allows. The agency is both retraining current personnel and recruiting new workers with different skill sets. And, as mobile capabilities increase, the agency is able to free personnel to perform more advanced analysis, which she points out is what customers want. NGA experts also are able to focus more on new sensor phenomenologies and analytic techniques.

The NGA is striving to “put the power of GEOINT [geospatial intelligence] in the hands of the users,” Long allows. Not only would this allow customers to tailor their GEOINT product to suit their own needs, it also would free the NGA to perform the more in-depth analysis that is its traditional forte.

Achieving that will require a modern, open information technology architecture that will allow customers to access NGA information and to add to the NGA’s information, she says. Having a common operating environment across the intelligence community is “extremely important” to the NGA. The user would be both a contributor and a collaborator.

However, that goal is not easily attainable. Long explains that the NGA operates in three environments: the Top Secret, sensitive compartmented information that comprises most of the agency’s analysis; the Secret network, where warfighters operate; and the unclassified arena that is home to first responders—a major NGA customer group. The agency must be able to move information seamlessly across these three environments without compromising classified information.

“We still have a ways to go to get to a truly open information technology architecture supporting mobile applications both in an unclassified and a secure environment,” she cautions.

The NGA has a robust effort at developing and obtaining mobile apps for its customers, both government and industry (see page 23). This app effort is the next step in providing NGA products to individual customers, particularly those in the field.

“The ability to easily access our data is paramount to our relevance,” Long declares. “Mobile apps are one of the ways that people can access our knowledge more easily.

“I believe mobile apps are a game-changer for our mission partners, for our customer set,” she emphasizes.

Long continues that NGA customers already have expressed that sentiment, so she views as crucial the agency having a business model with the ability to access its information—unclassified through classified—on mobile devices. This entails having an environment in which users can contribute their own apps and data to the agency’s, she adds.

She cites as an example a hurricane strike on a coastal region. The NGA would download commercial imagery into a network in which a first responder could access that imagery for downloading into a mobile device. This would provide that emergency worker with up-to-date imagery on his or her relevant sector.

This capability works both ways. Long notes that emergency responders entering an area struck by hurricane Irene were able to see which bridges had been washed out, enabling them to plan alternate routes. When they arrived at one bridge, they discovered that it had been washed out since the satellite last imaged the area. These responders were able to take a digital picture of the bridge damage and upload it to the NGA, which in turn could download that image to others to alert them to the route interruption.

“Previously, [the methodology] would have been, ‘Make a note, find a different way’—because they would have had a hard-copy atlas—‘and either call it in or go back to the command post,’” she offers. Applying the new approach to a military operation could be game-changing to warfighters on the battlefield. A soldier could upload a picture taken on a smartphone to the NGA, where the agency’s analysts could process it and return a finished product to users in minutes as opposed to hours or days, she explains.

“We’re not there yet—although we’re working with the NSA on it—but we want to be able to send the latest classified imagery to their handheld mobile device as they’re planning an operation,” Long says. “If they take incoming fire and need to reroute, then they have everything to rewrite the planning right there at their fingertips—if they have access to the data and we’ve developed an application for them that’s easy to use.”

Long cites the need for an intuitive, easy-to-use application along the lines of Google Earth or MapQuest. “I don’t want to turn every soldier into a GEOINT analyst,” she says. “There are a lot of basic applications—and basic support that we provide—that 20-somethings can do on their own and want to do on their own.”

The success of this mobile endeavor also may depend on the agency achieving one of its key ongoing goals: the integration of intelligence. This is an overarching mission throughout the intelligence community, and the NGA is working with other agencies and services on integrated strategies for collection and for processing, exploitation and analysis, Long offers. She cites the operation that found and killed Osama bin Laden as a prime example of integrating GEOINT, SIGINT and HUMINT from the start.

Long adds that this is not always the way that the intelligence community approaches a problem, however. During the Arab Spring, the community focused its collection activities on that event, but not always in a coordinated manner. Because different elements of the community were not cueing each other, they were not using their sensors and brainpower to the maximum extent possible.

Another tasking for the agency involves dealing with the operational tempo and the continued growth of its mission set—particularly in this era of decreasing resources, Long states. Yet, she views this decrease in resources as an opportunity for change. “It forces us to be more creative,” she asserts. “It forces us to think about different approaches to problem sets because we don’t have unlimited resources. It forces us to be smarter.”

This challenge also spurs progress on integrated intelligence. “We will work together better as a community as a result of having to be smarter about the resources that we have to spend,” Long offers.

As the NGA has improved its collection means, it also has increased the amount of information it amasses. Handling these large amounts of information is a significant challenge for the agency.

“My view is: Data is good; more data is better,” Long asserts. “For folks who say, ‘We’re drowning in data,’ I say, ‘I’m okay with that.’ The focus is [on] how we handle all that data.”

The agency is investing in analytic tools and technologies to help with this challenge, she reports. “We’re actually forging a new way of doing business, which we refer to as activity-based intelligence.” She explains that this involves ingesting a large amount of imagery from a wide-area sensor. This vast amount of data is too large to store or transmit easily, so instead the focus only would be on the activity of interest. For example, if a particular vehicle is of interest, then the NGA would have the alert tools focus on that vehicle and transmit only data relevant to that interest. The analyst would be cued into that piece of information.

“The machines would do the work for us,” she says.

Long continues that the agency is making good progress in this area, particularly where it has persistent surveillance capabilities such as high-definition, full-motion video. She notes that the U.S. Air Force has fielded high-definition, wide-field-of-view, full-motion video sensors. The agency has been working on this approach with the Air Force since those sensors were in development.

This effort will be aided by the NGA’s new facility in the Washington, D.C., suburbs (SIGNAL Magazine, April 2010, page 38). It includes a technology center in which the agency has been able to rebuild its entire infrastructure and virtualize most of its systems and applications. This provides the ability to operate in the cloud, she notes.

“When we figure out how to find the needle in the haystack and focus on the activity on which we are most interested, then we have the most to gain,” Long says.

The agency is looking to industry for new ideas and innovative approaches, she states. “There are tremendous opportunities for partnering with industry, and I do view our relationship with industry as a partnership.”

Long adds that one-third of the NGA’s people actually are industry partners, and thousands more are working to expand existing capabilities and develop new ones. Among the areas that need attention are new sensors for collection, new phenomenologies, different ways of using sensors, new analytic techniques, methods of storing large amounts of data and ways of disseminating intelligence in a visually pleasing way. Even the contracting process can be the beneficiary of new approaches, she says.