COVID-19 is shifting the way people work across industries, and the geospatial community is no different. Between modernizing the way remote users are handling unclassified information to reimagining training and conferences online, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) and USGIF, along with the help of anchor universities like St. Louis University (SLU), are leveraging the pandemic to continue moving forward toward the future.
In a facilitated discussion at Geospatial Gateway Forum on Oct. 20, 2020, NGA Director Vice Admiral Robert Sharp, Dr. Fred Pestello, president of SLU, and Dr. Roger Mason, acting chairperson of USGIF, came together to discuss education, the state of GEOINT in St. Louis, and a call to action for NGA, the industry, and academia for the future of America. The following are just a handful of the questions and answers discussed during the event.
In May 2020, you released the Director’s Intent, which addresses what you called a historic inflection point, where we’re at with this global pandemic and this fast-changing international order. Could you share the highlights of that document with us today?
Sharp: This Director’s Intent is a call to action, a call to focus, to take advantage of this strategic environment.
When I talk about the strategic environment, I talk about two components: an evolutionary component and a revolutionary component. The evolutionary component talks about this changed environment—a return to great power competition. Competitors are developing weapon systems that are kind of scary and dangerous, and designed to defeat our ability to defend against them. The competition is in domains that have existed, like cyberspace, but they’re becoming more congested and more contested.
On the revolutionary side, we see the opportunity that comes with this proliferation of sensing capability, of understanding location science, what’s happening, where it’s happening, and great advances that we have with computing power. But as we see that as opportunity, we also see that as our competition space. So that’s driving our efforts right now, and we issued a call to action in this document. The time has come to take urgent and decisive action to reorient and realign the GEOINT community to navigate through this new operational environment. And we describe four mission imperatives for us to remain the best at geospatial intelligence, which culminate in what we’ve declared as our “moonshot.”
A year and a half ago at Geo-Resolution, you announced the standup at St. Louis University of a Geospatial Institute. Could you update us on how that’s going?
Pestello: Universities develop what’s called selective excellence. We’ve had to decide where we want to build for the future. We’ve heard from Director Sharp the urgency here and the pressing case for this. As an anchor institution, it made perfect sense to leverage the assets of the region. Under both the former and current directors, it’s going to become a more porous wall between the NGA, the industry, and the academy. It’s incumbent on us to collaborate, to advance knowledge, transmit that knowledge and apply that knowledge in the race that Director Sharp called us to.
So our faculty has stepped up in a big way. We’ve developed a certificate program, which we are incorporating in a number of majors. We are hiring and retaining faculty who are advancing, transmitting, and applying knowledge in this area. We received a $5 million grant from the Department of Defense to train geospatial analysts. So we are much further along today, as well as in our collaboration with other universities and industries, to strengthen this relationship between the academy, industry, and the NGA for the betterment of our country and humankind.
USGIF is, at its heart, an educational foundation. Can you describe how USGIF partners with academia to build the workforce of today and tomorrow, and to advance our collective geospatial tradecraft?
Mason: Education is one of the core reasons for USGIF in the first place. So it’s something we’ve spent a lot of time on.
Think about the arc of one’s education, starting from kindergarten, through high school, through college, and then post-college. USGIF and its partner universities are at every step of the way. In K–12, we’re trying to look at new ways to prepare teachers in terms of educating the STEM aspects of GEOINT. There are a number of programs, and we just partnered with the Gateway Global American Youth and Business Alliance academies here in St. Louis to help pilot a credentialing program.
In colleges, we have a very robust and growing program. We partner not only with the universities but also through the support of NGA. We have a number of accredited programs and accredited universities—SLU, obviously, being one of those—and we’re up to about 20 different universities that have a full curriculum for GEOINT certification.
None of us are done learning when we leave college or graduate school; we think about professional training, as well. That’s another area where USGIF is partnering with NGA, and we continue to accelerate that. We offer certified geo and professional exams and training courses.
The other important thing that the team has tried to do—and I think has done very successfully—is making sure that it’s not linear. In other words, you don’t have to attend the high school program to do the college program, and you don’t have to do the college program to attend the professional program. They’ve developed a number of on-ramps, and you can enter this whenever it suits your interest, your career, and your educational goals.