Data is wonderful, but it’s the people who actually help make sense of that data, insists Sue Gordon, Deputy Director, the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency (NGA), US as she speaks of unclassified GeoInt.
While delivering a commencement address at a high school, you said you’ve built things that were more unbelievable than the stuff in sci-fi movies. Can you give us an unclassified GeoInt example of that?
What I have found in the course of my 35-year-long career is that there is this wherewithal to do big things. I have enjoyed the opportunity to try and do big things, and then finding that those big things could be accomplished. With geointelligence, I think it is a world where almost every problem that we face in the society — from humanitarian to nation building to intelligence challenges — comes down to your command of the physical space and the extent to which you can know it. If I can see those patterns, I can understand them in exciting ways. And with the explosion in commercial satellites, analytic capabilities and other content, I think we will be able to understand the world in a way we have never before.
NGA has been emphasizing on merging unclassified GEOINT data with the public domain. What is its relevance for NGA?
We are in the middle of a technical revolution, putting sensors on everything, putting a smart device in every person’s hands. I think the moment of unclassified GEOINT data has arrived because people want to understand how to make sense of all this information. Geography and geospatial reference have been proven to be a great way to do that. So, when you have this technical and cultural convergence of interests, you find a great energy of people just building on one another. About 30-40 years ago, we were stuck with the limited knowledge of the people around us. Today, you can leverage the knowledge of any person in this world who can connect to a device.
If you are in our business of geospatial intelligence, supporting the national policymaking, supporting the soldiers, you would have had a pretty good history of using information sources that we thought of. It is also about ‘your’ world. You can’t ignore all this content because it’s unclassified GeoInt. Instead what you want to do is say, ‘Ahh, think of how I can use that to add to what I know from more expert resources…’
The processing time for GEOINT data has come down from weeks to days to hours…
For us, the big advance is to figure out a process to take a government agency that was used to dealing with a classified world and figuring out how we make that same information available to people that couldn’t use it before. Our vision has been pretty consistent: know the Earth, show the way, understand the world. I think it’s an inspiring vision because it reaches several aspects of what we are all about — be more than just describing something; actually present it in a way that somebody else can use it to affect a future decision.
The strategy has a few major elements. Firstly, there isn’t any magic other than our people. Data is wonderful, but our people help act on that data. Secondly, to be great at our profession, we must command geospatial intelligence. And with the explosion in content, it is really pushing us to be ever better at what we do. The data is going to come to us. We aren’t going to have to work as hard to acquire it. Our expertise is going to be about the use of that data.
The third and the most exciting element is partnership. We come from a world of stovepipe intelligence where each one of us did something very specialized, and there was a big line of demarcation between the government’s work and the commercial work. Today, you can’t do anything alone in this world. We all need to act like we are a part of the same hole. So, we want to have partnerships with international organization because they are a member of what we call Team GEOINT. We want to collaborate with the industry and the academia because their advances are driving us in ways that we can’t even imagine. Our collective intelligence combined with our contextual information will provide and incredibly rich picture of the answer. And then, we want to be customer-centric. So, as they go, we go. Where they need to be, we will be there with them.
In your open letter to the NGA workforce, you spoke about the need for ‘timely acquisition of the right technologies, data, and services’. What was the need for this letter? How did it impact the current set-up and workflow?
There are wonderful things about working in the government and working in a bureaucracy. You can count on it, and it has a rigor and fairness to it. And if you have been doing something for a long time, you believe you understand all of it. The exciting part is that even as the times change, our mission stays the same. But, the way we have to execute our mission is different. Every once in a while, you need to remind your people that what they do is pretty big. So, my letter was really about: ‘Remember, we are in the business to do what we have done. We are in the business to achieve the mission we have. And this world has changed. It’s faster. It demands using more partners. So, come with us. Buckle up, we are going to go.’
I am excited about the progress we are making in a very short time. But, I take no credit for it. The credit goes to our women and men who, actually, are absolutely committed to the mission. I am excited with what I am seeing. A big ship takes a little bit of time to turn, but, if you were in our building you could feel it; if you were our partner, you could sense it; and if you look at our products, you would be able to tell that they are different from what they were even a few months ago.
You have also mentioned that the NGA needs a new perspective, when it comes to working with industry partners. What kind of change do you envisage for NGA to thrive?
You need a really clear vision of what you want. There is no better partner than someone who has a very strong opinion of where they want to go. So, the strategy we have implemented has given us a really clear view of what we must achieve. Moreover, we have three kinds of partners — those who have been with us for a long time and most of our achievements are with them and through them. We would never cast them aside because they are not the flavor of the month.
Also, there are a lot of small businesses that have great ideas that we want to take advantage of. So, having engagements that attend to their special needs is one. Then, lastly, comes the building and architecture that allows many innovative projects and services to just drop into our network to have an unclassified GeoInt environment of easy access to solutions without making any huge investments.