Speed, Transparency and the Future of the NGA

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In a fast paced world with ever increasing mountains of data, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) has its hands full providing the warfighters, the intelligence community, and disaster relief responders the necessary imagery and other geospatial information they need to perform their duties.  The Cipher Brief’s Luke Penn-Hall sat down with NGA Deputy Director Sue Gordon to discuss how the Agency, with the help of the private sector, is tackling what she says are the three biggest challenges: speed, data, and integration.

The Cipher Brief: How has the NGA changed in recent years, what has been the primary driver or drivers of those changes, and what are your top priorities right now?

Sue Gordon: I don’t think our mission has changed. We’re a combat support and intelligence agency. We provide world class geospatial intelligence (GEOINT) to provide decision advantage for policy makers, war fighters, and intelligence professionals. That’s been pretty constant throughout our history, and we do that with a great set of professionals who cover everything from knowledge of the earth, geography, cartography, image science, imagery analysis, and geospatial information production. So, maps to images and the analysis thereof.

What has changed for us is how much the world has changed. Even with that mission, if you look at how technologies have exploded, the expansion in commercial GEOINT to include commercial satellites that produce it, the technologies surrounding massive analytics, then the information revolution, the fact that everyone is carrying around geospatial information in their phones. What has changed is both the technologies available outside a closed system that we can use for our mission and the fact that we have a consumer base that is incredibly well steeped in the power of this.

In regards to your final point, the first driver is national security and plying our missions for combat support intelligence. This means supporting policy, supporting warfighters and their initiatives, and supporting disaster relief with the information that we have.

Internally, in terms of how we are responding to the changing conditions, I think our priority right now is what we call succeeding in the open and expanding team GEOINT, which is really working the power of partnerships and being able to operate where the data, issues, and technology are – wherever they are. If it’s out in the open, I want to be able to use it.

Those are probably the two biggest things that are our priorities. And then I think the foundation of that is working with our workforce so that they can evolve as the technology in that mission space moves.

TCB: How does the rise of commercial GEOINT interact with the NGA’s mission, and to what extent does it change how you operate?

SG: I think it dovetails perfectly with our mission. It has the potential to have incredible additive value to the remarkable information that has been produced for, or used by, our classified mission partners over many years. What it can offer for us is potentially coverage of even more areas and different sorts of supporting information that can help bring clarity to what we know. This allows us to put that information together to project future activity, because we now have so much more resplendent information to work with.

To your second point, it will change how we operate. We’ve worked in a world where you are using information that is produced just for you, and it is delivered to you, and you’re expecting it against the priorities that you know. That’s one way to operate, and it’s been incredibly effective. When you have this commercial GEOINT, you now have the potential to consider a whole range of information that you weren’t necessarily expecting and that allows you to answer questions, not just defined points. I think this opens up some really exciting opportunities for the types of analysis and information that we can share with our partners.

TCB: In that same vein, what is the role of these public-private partnerships in the NGA, and is that dynamic changing? What effect does that have?

SG: So, I’m old and I’ve been in the intelligence community a long time, and even older than I am, there has been a longtime partnership between the private sector and the national security apparatus. If you start back in the World War II days and the FFRDC’s (Federally Funded Research and Development Centers) that were so important to bring groups of remarkable scientists together, through the Skunkworks days when we had companies who produced very specialized small cells to produce capabilities, through the contracting days, through the time of In-Q-Tel where we have interesting public-private partnership with the purpose of identifying companies that can work against more undifferentiated requirements.

This is going to open up a new chapter where you have the commercial sector producing something that in some ways looks like what the national security apparatus can produce, has value to it, and can operate independently, but we want to intersect with it as well. So, I think it’s just a natural evolution of the public-private partnership in terms of how we protect both responsibilities – the sanctity of the commercial opportunity, the needs of the government, and how I bring it together to have better information than either can have alone.

TCB: What are the toughest challenges facing the NGA right now and what factors do you see as underlying those challenges?

SG: I think the two challenges are common to the intelligence community, and I’d say the Defense Department as well. The first is that the world is just moving so quickly—so how do we be as good as we need to be, as fast as we need to be? And so this notion of time speed is a real test for all of it. You see it in the acquisition process. How do we take advantage of these emerging technologies fast enough to have them make a difference? It’s really across the board in terms of how do you produce relevant intelligence analysis that is timely, remarkably specific, and valuable? So, I think that’s one of the great challenges—just time.

The second is data. We can talk about the embarrassment of riches that commercial GEOINT is going to provide, but in order to use it, you’re going to have to sort through massive amounts of data, and there are limits to what humans can just sort through manually. So how do we come up with processes that allow us to take this variety of data and be able to deal with it?

That leads to a third one. This is a world of integration, so how do I take my data and then let it interact with other sorts of data in order to produce a really robust intelligence product?

So those three: speed, data, and integration are probably the three biggest challenges we have.

TCB: And then on the other hand, what are you most excited about in regards to the future of the NGA?

SG: I am really excited about our mission and excited about the history that we have of excellence in accomplishing that mission. That I have this great mission, that heritage of history and tradecraft that now I can apply to a world that is producing information that I can put against that backdrop and do really interesting combinations. With that even broader coverage of the earth, I’m going to be able to produce analysis that will be against the foundation of the knowledge that we’ve had. I think to me, what’s exciting is the potential of the future combined with really solid, expert craft.

TCB: We know that one of the things the NGA does outside of the national security space as such is disaster relief and that sort of thing. Could you give some examples of some of the support that the NGA provides in terms of disaster relief efforts?

SG: One of the most exciting recent trends is our recognition that our products have incredible utility to a whole sector of humanitarian crisis relief and first responders. We have been innovating over the last two years in terms of how we get that information outside the classified realm into the hands of the people that are operating in open spaces, but who need what we have.

We started probably two years ago with responding to the Ebola crisis and put our data out on the world wide web. We have continued to expand that trend with contributing to the relief efforts in Nepal and providing our information on climate change to work on the Arctic.

But it’s going even beyond that to making our code available, so that the data and the mechanisms we use that are valuable to national security writ large, which includes response to disaster and climate change. We are really investing in being able to participate in that community rather than having to deal with this intersection between classified and not. I’m probably the most excited about that.

TCB: Looking forward, there is an election coming up. It’s been an interesting year. Do you see the role of the NGA changing at all in terms of intensity, significance, or scope, under the next administration, or do you think it’s going to be consistent?

SG: I think the environmental pressures and the mission space that we occupy is pretty transcendent. It’s as old as history itself, that decision makers throughout time have had geographers as their closest allies because of what geospatial information can do in terms of handling issues.

I expect that this mission area will continue. I also think that the direction we’re going in terms of openness and being accessible to every branch of mission, from the most highly classified to that which is more open, is a great trend that I would expect to continue. So, I cannot really envision much of a change, mostly because of the space we occupy and because of the investment we’re making in how to operate.

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