NGA makes real-time intell top priority

Barry Barlow talks about the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency's acquisition strategy and finding technology enablers to get real-time geospatial intelligence into people's hands.

Barry Barlow is director of the Acquisition Directorate of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), a job he has held since late 2009. A member of the Defense Intelligence Senior Executive Service, he has been with the directorate, either as director or deputy director since 2006.

The Acquisition Directorate is responsible for the acquisition of systems related to imagery, imagery analysis and geospatial intelligence (GEOINT). Barlow spoke with Defense Systems Editor-in-Chief Barry Rosenberg and NGA’s acquisition strategy and finding technology enablers to get real-time geospatial intelligence into people’s hands.

DS: How does acquisition fit into NGA’s strategy of putting GEOINT directly into the hands of the users?

Barlow: The NGA vision has three goals, one of which is more relevant to acquisition than the others. The first goal is online on-demand access. The second goal is broadening and deepening analysis, and within that is the third goal, which is to put in place the changes that are transforming our business processes to be able to support that.


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The first goal of online on-demand activity is the one that is more germane to acquisition. There’s a set of things we’re doing now in several areas, an example of which is visualization, or what we call the GEOINT Visualization Service. If you go into any ops center, even an ops center that’s not in the intell community, you will see people using a Google Earth representation of what’s going on in the world. We want to provide that Google Earth visualization capability so that people can get [the same] context to what’s going on.

We are expanding and bringing this into play with social media tools such as chat and instant messenger capabilities, so that as an event is occurring, we’re not just getting updates on the hour or twice a day, we’re getting those updates in real time so that people looking at the globe can see that.

A second thing that we’re doing is we’re actually just letting the technology work for us. When we migrated to our new facility, we took the majority of our data off tape and put it in spinning disk. Technology enabled that because it became cost effective to do that. But now what we see is that online on-demand access lets people get any information that’s been taken in two to three minutes, whereas in the past it might have taken two to three hours. That will lead to broadening and deepening analytics because they’re not going to have to look for the information; it’ll be available.

DS: You’ve said that your philosophical approach to contracting is evolving, based on new priorities and efficiencies related to cost and otherwise? How does NGA look at the way it contracts for GEOINT in today’s economic climate?

Barlow: We’ve always tried to be a good steward of the taxpayers' dollar and the funding we get, and, so as a part of that, our approach to contracting does continue to evolve based on the needs of the mission, based on the budget and based on the technology. We have to balance flexibility and innovation with using sound contracting strategies so we know we are getting good value.

Now, fortunately, we’re probably in the best place we’ve ever been from a marketplace standpoint because there are so many companies that have been investing in GEOINT-type technologies, and we’re also riding the wave of what’s going on with social and mobile technology. We have changed our strategy in a couple of areas that are important. One, it used to be that when we would acquire a system we would acquire it as a bundle. The hardware, the software, the application was all one thing. That’s not the way the market is right now.

Now we’ve started to split out infrastructure from applications. The commercial equivalent of that is what Apple is doing with the iStore. There are a lot of people developing applications, but Apple still maintains fairly tight control over the infrastructure. And so our approach to contracting is that we want to put in place a flexible IT architecture that is reliable, efficient and agile that can support a variety of applications. So as the mission needs evolve, we’re going to be able to accommodate those changes and remain timely, relevant and accurate in terms of what we provide to the partners.

DS: What enabling technologies do you need in contracting to improve the way you go about acquisition of GEOINT? Is it coming from industry or within the Defense Department?

Barlow: If we want to stay relevant, and if we want to stay the premier source of GEOINT, then we’ve got to have the latest technology and we think we’re going to get a lot of that from the industry base. Having said that, we’re going to be working with In-Q-Tel, as one example, to find some leading-edge technologies and actually leverage the R&D investments that those companies are making. [Editors Note: In-Q-Tel is a not-for-profit organization founded in 1999 to connect the intelligence community with new industry technologies.]

You say, “Give me an example of something that might be.” In April, I was at the National Association of Broadcasters show and looking at the video technologies. They were actually making the R&D investments that we need to cope with some of the emerging data sources that we see coming at us from video. Whether we’re talking about full-motion video, and unmanned aerial vehicles or not, we think industries like those associated with the NAB are going to bring us the technologies we need.

Now, having said that, there’s probably a set of technologies that we need to drive, as well, and it has to do with just the volume of information that’s coming in. What we’re trying to do is work with companies like Google, as one example, and get insight from them on how to deal with issues like scale. They get something like 3,000 hours of video on Google and YouTube every minute. And so we need to unlock the secrets that they use to catalog that and serve that out to meet their customers’ needs, because we have the same needs of getting that level of data out to our customers.

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