Thinking outside the box

Thinking outside the box

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Barry Barlow
Barry Barlow
Director
NGA Online GEOINT Services Directorate

<< National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) wants to put the power of geoint into the user’s hands. In a tête-à-tête with GeoIntelligence, Barry Barlow, Director, NGA Online GEOINT Services Directorate, tells us how the agency is working towards that… >>

You have been talking about online on-demand information for a very long time. What does it involve and what is being done in this regard?
There are really three major thrust areas within the online on-demand service. First, the online piece. A lot of our data was not online, it was on tape, or a shelf somewhere. So from past 2-3 years, we have been focussing to put all that data on the spinning desk and catalogue it so that it becomes easier to search for it. As a result, we have been able to dramatically improve the time required by people to get access to the information. For example, prior to making online service a key focus area, it would take us anywhere from a few minutes to 24 hours to locate an image. We can now search any image from our archives, in just 2-3 minutes. So that’s a big time-saver, going from 24 hours to 2-3 minutes.

The second thrust area that we have been focussing on is the ondemand nature of the services. On-demand for us means that people should be able to find the information they need when they need it. NGA’s motto is ‘Know the earth, show the way, understand the world.’ If we can’t help people know the earth, if they can’t find the information that they need, then that’s an issue. Our architecture group has identified 24 key metadata fields that need to be filled for every piece of geospatial intelligence. It involves fundamental things like the position of an object, the time aspect, ability to understand how relevant the information is and associated fields like what’s the source of the information, etc. So for the on-demand piece, we have been concentrating on cataloguing.

The third thrust area involves managing these two – you have information online but can you catalogue it? We are thus focussing on making standards, publishing them so that people can access it and write their own applications. That is, people can use this interface to get the information that they want. That really marries online and on-demand together and enables people to get the information that they need and when they want it.

You talked about standards. Can you elaborate on this?
There are three different types of standards that we are talking about. First, metadata standards, that is, information about the data/ product. This information will help people decide whether they are really interested in it or not. The second type of standards has to do with the actual content standards. Images can be stored in various formats – Jpeg, tiff, images, pnj, etc. Different standards impact the high or low definition of these images in these formats. So what we have done is that we have specified the metadata we want to associate with regardless of the content. We have also defined how we want the content to look like so that there’s a standard set of algorithms that people can use to manipulate it. The third type is the actual product standards. We are not going to define all the product standards but will define it for areas where people want certain type of products. Let’s take the case of 1:50,000 topographic line map. We are going to identify the product standards so that a person knows what the symbology is that will be used for roads, the accuracy level of the map, etc. We also publish the product standards.

NGA has started using cloud. Can you tell us about that?
What we have started to do now is migrate into the cloud. We have partnered with Google for hosting some of our unclassified content like imagery and other basemap layers in the cloud. We probably could have built something like that ourselves but it was a better investment for us to partner with industry. We are also going to be partnering with other defence organisations or intelligence agencies as part of the larger initiative for IT efficiencies. In the future, intelligence agencies may come together and define that community clouds are critical for achieving IT efficiencies. An agency may then work to build a cloud which can be used by all agencies. But right now, our main foray is into unclassified domain.

How safe is it?
We think the security measures that they have put in place are adequate for unclassified data. There’s an evolving security threat as hackers or adversaries continue to get smarter, so we continuously monitor that. The cloud is a key part of Google’s infrastructure and we are a small part of it. So as they learn more from market experience, the benefits are passed on to us directly.

Of late, NGA has been talking about maps becoming new apps. What is the progress in this field?
Apps is another interest area for us right now. I think, we have over 150 apps in our app store at present, which isn’t a lot compared to Apple, but it is a lot for geospatial intelligence, for NGA. What we have started with are areas that were well-suited to apps. Is everything going to be replaced with apps? No, I don’t think that’s going to work due to some very complicated things that we do. But for discovering data, for doing fundamental manipulation of data or for products generated on demand, the apps are useful. We think that there are a great number of routine functions that we can automate. Let’s take the case of disaster recovery. Thanks to GPS enabled phone and devices, there’s no need for the search and rescue team to draw maps of areas they have to search. We can find out exactly where they are and where they have to go. We can build a compass into an app so that they are not only aware of their location but also location of the person who is to be rescued. In case, a soldier loses his way, the app can guide him. There are a great deal of things that we can do in this sector. So I expect, in the years ahead, the number of apps are going to skyrocket, particularly as we publish the standards with which people can manipulate data.

When are we expecting those standards?
We have already published some and are going to continue our work in this segment. However, we have to do it differently for classified as well as unclassified data. We will have other standards for manipulating data in the classified domain.

NGA is also talking about putting geoint in the hands of users. Does it involve providing the necessary information through phones?
Yes. We want to provide mobility with security – the ability to free people from having to be in a risky location for some of the missions. We have seen a lot of examples where people have been able to do that. It has been very helpful in very austere situations in Afghanistan and Iraq, for example, it has aided soldiers who are involved with infrastructure rebuilding. Disaster support is another area where it has been beneficial. This is one way to shrink the timeline and provide people with the information that they need and at a time when they require it.

This involves a greater use of the phone. However, many argue that the practice may eventually lead to soldiers focussing more on phones than the road ahead. What do you have to say about that?
I suppose that’s one concern. The military is experimenting with a lot of different visualisation tools. One of the most exciting examples that I have seen is a pair of glasses. The glasses were accompanied by a hand-held display which provided geospatial information to the users like the history of the place, details about the routes, areas which are inhabited by friendly forces and so on. I don’t think the idea is to have soldiers walk down the road looking at their palms, that’s certainly not the case. If you talk to people who are using this technology, you will find that they are using the device only to obtain the information that they are seeking. Once they get the information, they put the device back in their pockets and continue with their work.

Most of your experiments are being conducted in Afghanistan. So can we say that Afghanistan is a breeding ground for geospatial experiments?
I wouldn’t go that far. I would just say that we have been trying to do things to tap down the timelines within Afghanistan and Iraq and other places where the information needs are fairly dynamic. And I think that’s true even if you go back in history. Earlier, they would use airships to look over the troops. I think every situation like that offers us a way to look at evolving our methods.

We are witnessing a lot of debate about the need for data exploitation and management. What kind of work is NGA doing in this domain?
We are doing a lot of exploitation work not only in ‘maps to apps’ sector but also in some of the more important activities. I will particularly mention Activity Based Intelligence (ABI) where you analyse information. Take the case of my journey from hotel to this place. When I left the hotel this morning, people responsible for analysing ABI would have recorded my start time, every turn the taxi took, and in case we stopped somewhere then they would have recorded the stop time. This way, they would be able to determine the specific location where I would be at a particular time. With the advent of more persistent collectors, we are able to go beyond the images. I think ABI is one of the key challenges that we face in this whole wide-area collect model that we are moving to.

Are budget cuts affecting NGA’s plans? How is the agency dealing with it?
It is. We are fiscally responsible. In fact, this creates opportunities for doing things differently as we try and achieve the savings that we need to in the austere budget climate. So it’s a kind of forcing function that says, may be instead of printing these tenders, books, etc., let’s do something different and save those USD 20 million of printing cost. That has actually helped us.

Any other technological areas that you are looking at in future, and would like to talk about?
One of the areas that we continue to be interested in on is sensors. There are so many new capabilities that are coming online than just the traditional grey-scale image that we have seen in the past. There are a host of radar capabilities – multispectral, hyper-spectral, LiDAR, laser imaging radar – and we think that we are just beginning to tap the potential of some of the capabilities that they offer.

The interview was conducted while Barry Barlow held the post of the Director, Acquisition Directorate, NGA. The Acquisition Directorate no longer exists. Barlow is now the Director of Online GEOINT Services, a new directorate chartered with putting NGA’s geospatial information online.