The challenges of today and tomorrow require the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) to learn and adapt faster than ever before, protect the nation and its allied interests, and to deliver key insights at the speed of relevance. On Wednesday, the agency announced the release of its five core 2020 Technology Focus Areas.
More than 1,000 members of the GEOINT ecosystem joined the United States Geospatial Intelligence Foundation’s (USGIF) for its second iteration of the GEOConnect Series where NGA senior leaders discussed the technology focus areas and laid out the agency’s efforts to achieve its 2025 desired target state.
The panel outlined NGA’s 2020 focus areas and technological needs to streamline conversations between the public and private sectors to create a future together. The panelists, Chief Technology Officer Mark Munsell, Chief Ventures Officer Christina Monacom, Director of Technology and Tradecraft Analysis Melissa Planert, Director of Commercial and Business Operations David Gauthier and Deputy Chief Technology Officer Alexander Loehr, provided insight from across NGA.
“We spent the last several months working both internal and external to NGA to put together this group of tech focus areas and needs articulated under each,” said Monaco, in reference to the 2020 guide. “We [used] language that resonated not just internal to NGA, but external to NGA as well, in particular with partners who may not be familiar with us or familiar with our missions.”
The 2020 Technology Focus Area report communicates emerging important areas for the agency and the GEOINT community to enable stronger collaboration between NGA, industry, academia, and other government and community partners. The agency wanted to ensure that the technology areas outlined would align to all technology needs across the agency. The 2020 technology needs are divided into five categories—advanced analytics and modeling, data management, modern software engineering, artificial intelligence, and the future of work.
Advanced Analytics & Modeling
Advanced analytics and modeling enable the discovery, assessment, understanding, measurement, enrichment, and use of geospatial data from around the world. At its most basic level, according to Planert, modeling allows NGA analysts and their partners in collection and in mission to discover and describe objects in relationships, which enables discovery of new data sources tied to those objects of interest. With multiple data sources to address intelligence questions, modeling enriches the understanding of intelligence issues through data, enhances collaboration sharing, fosters organizational learning, and informs new collection approaches.
NGA’s Technology Focus Areas, according to the report, are shaped by analytical expertise derived from monitoring enduring threats, assessing emerging issues through activity-based intelligence, and conducting extensive research on long-term intelligence topics. To address the increasing complexity of today’s challenges and prepare for the imperative of future power competitions, NGA is investing in advanced analytical and visualization capabilities.
“You’ve all heard VADM Sharp talk about the need for speed, precision, and accuracy to stay ahead of our adversaries. Modeling and advanced analytics are absolutely key to achieving that goal,” Planert said. “Success in those efforts is also highly dependent on other needs described in this document—in particular, data management and artificial intelligence.
The creation and dissemination of GEOINT data, products, and services allow users to answer questions such as, “what’s happening where?” and, “what could happen when?” Observation datasets enable the GEOINT community to orient, decide, and act faster than ever before.
“Data management for us is a critical enabler, not just for any one group or just for our data scientists, but really for every contributor to the global GEOINT enterprise,” said Gauthier. “And management is more important than ever before, especially with prolific growth in the data services and the sources.”
NGA has a vision for a data-centric architecture and a distributed work environment that operates on that data versus the way they have experienced in the past, a workflow-centric architecture on a single network. Data management, according to Gauthier, is key to making that possible.
Modern Software Engineering
New software approaches are creating efficient ways for NGA’s government, military, and contractor teams to deliver the services and capabilities necessary for supporting the GEOINT mission.
“At NGA, we take in data, we store it, and we manipulate it in order to share it out or make sense of it to share our insights. In order to do that, software is core,” Loehr said.
NGA’s software engineering technology needs are driven by an infrastructure-as-code approach, the report details. NGA wants to ensure that software development and security practices meet the requirements of its internal and external personnel.
“Modern monitoring, both in individual application and our infrastructure as a whole, is incredibly important to the future of how we build software and how we run software and engineering,” Loehr said.
Artificial Intelligence & Future of Work
A revolution in geospatial AI is driving the urgent technology needs of the GEOINT community. AI is a necessary force-multiplier for advanced analytics and modeling capabilities. According to Munsell, while NGA has had success with conventional approaches to AI, the agency is seeking novel and innovative approaches.
“On the artificial intelligence side, it is really important for us to start pushing industry in a certain direction for us,” Munsell said. “What we’re starting to look for are more novel approaches.”
And while a majority of NGA’s focus is on imagery exploitation and deriving intelligence from that, Munsell added, “we have a very large part of our capability set that is not focused on that. So, things like using natural language processing to be able to bring in source material documents and a variety of other non-traditional GEOINT things.”
And NGA is looking to industry to expand on these non-traditional GEOINT capabilities.
Following the publication of the agency’s 2020 technology focus areas, according to Munsell, NGA will publish its first technology strategy. “The tech focus areas are the specific things, the what. The technology strategy is [about] the processes and how we’d like to operate differently,” Munsell said.