NGA maps the future of geospatial intelligence

Agency COO Ellen McCarthy discusses activity-based intelligence, the ICITE framework, the Map of the World and other aspects of NGA’s five-year plan.

How you incentivize the private sector, which is waiting and ready, was always the issue and it was never as easy as you think it’s going to be. But once we’ve defined that — and we’re very close to having defined that — we’re going to see tremendous change this year.

In 2012, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency released its 2013-2017 Strategy documenting the agency's near-term vision for where it is going in the early 21st century. The five-year plan, which lays out NGA's strategic objectives and priorities, was driven by newly appointed NGA Chief Operating Officer Ellen McCarthy, who at the time had just returned to government service from industry.

Having previously served as the president of the Intelligence and National Security Alliance, McCarthy seems to have learned the lessons of the private sector and applied them to NGA in her COO duties overseeing the daily business activities of the agency. “The concept of attaching resources to priorities are basic business principles, but it’s new for this agency,” she told Defense Systems.

Contributing editor Greg Slabodkin recently spoke with McCarthy about NGA's strategic planning, priorities for fiscal year 2014, and those technologies/tradecraft the agency is seeking to capitalize on going forward.

 DS: What was the genesis behind NGA's 2013-2017 strategy document?

 McCarthy: I came back about a year ago, after spending time in the private sector, and as the chief operating officer my primary focus is implementing our strategy. When I came into the role, what I noticed was that we had seven strategic objectives and lots of implementation plans under each of those objectives, but they weren't necessarily integrated. My focus coming in was to work on the strategies for 2013-2017 and identify what is NGA going to look like in 2018. What is the tradecraft? What are the technologies? How do we look on a very basic level?

 Without a strategy document, sometimes we all have a different vision of what that end state is supposed to be. And, so, we developed the future state vision, which identifies in some level of specificity how NGA is expected to operate.

 Our second challenge, of course, was we needed to establish some processes, but we were also faced with significant budget cuts and sequestration. We knew we were faced with significant budget cuts but sequestration only added to the challenge. Given that our resources were declining, we had to figure out how we were going to better invest what few resources we had with our priorities broken out by fiscal year. 

We hadn't really done that before. And, we decided that the tool we would use to actually start managing to our priorities, once we identified them, was portfolio management. We established five portfolios. We reverse-engineered the future state vision and identified what our priorities were in fiscal 2014, 2015 and 2016. It's about identifying our priorities, aligning resources to those priorities, and then empowering our senior leaders to make resource execution and divestment decisions.

DS: Specifically, what priorities are you focusing on in fiscal year 2014? 

McCarthy: The things that we are focusing on in FY14 really are those tools and tradecraft related to structured observation management, Activity-Based Intelligence, and we're also focusing on the Globe,  which is our customer service component and how we are getting our data out on all three security domains. We also have some internal business initiatives related to being more agile in how we make these decisions—agile acquisition and agile business. Next-generation collection is our other priority. So, those are our big initiatives in 2014 and we're aligning all of our resources towards them.

DS: What is NGA’s “Map of the World” initiative?

McCarthy: A priority is getting our Map of the World up on all three security domains [unclassified, secret, and top secret]. This goes to the idea about GEOINT being the foundation for multi-source intelligence. It’s the concept that this community can go to one map and hit a point and get everything they need from foundation data to intelligence. It will be there in all security domains and it will be easy to use. And, it is a priority for FY14.

DS: You mentioned that one of NGA's priorities in fiscal 2014 is Activity-Based Intelligence (ABI). There's been a lot of talk about ABI. You have been quoted as saying that ABI "reveals what we don’t know and helps us find what doesn’t want to be found.” Has NGA embraced ABI?

McCarthy: Absolutely. We are now looking at how we are aligning resources and making investments for those priority initiatives this fiscal year. It's absolutely fair to say that Activity-Based Intelligence has been openly embraced within NGA. Right now, we're at the point where we are laying out these portfolios and identifying what specific components of ABI we need to resource first in FY14. It really is the heart of our business.

DS: As a concept, ABI has been around for a number of years. From your perspective, is there some new technological advancement or something about the threat environment that really makes ABI attractive at this point?

McCarthy: Yes, it’s not a new concept. It’s now being embraced by the larger intelligence community and I think there are a couple of outside factors that have really driven the agency and the community towards ABI or advanced analytics. One is there is just a lot of big data — the amount of data that analysts have to work with right now. So, being able to use tools and tradecraft to better organize that data so that you can establish some norms and you can work within what is not the norm [is what] actually makes the analysts’ jobs so much easier given all of the data.

But, it’s also the change in the externals — the threat environment that we’re being asked to work in. I think 9/11 certainly had an impact on that. We really don’t have a stable adversary any longer. Our threats are no longer traditional to the extent that they are not foreign militaries or foreign governments. It’s a much more dynamic environment. And ABI also takes us back to sort of our traditional roots in the intelligence community and that gets to the “indications and warning” concept to the extent that we can get in front of the problem.

DS: The 2013-2017 NGA Strategy calls for using both traditional and non-traditional (such as human geography and social media) geospatial sources. What is being done in those areas — human geography and social media?

McCarthy: That is a part of our tradecraft. We’ve embraced it within this agency. And I would say that is certainly true for open source. The reality is that there is all sorts of data now that we need to help us better understand the geospatial intelligence [GEOINT] data that we primarily work with. Again, that is a facet of ABI. To the extent that we can better analyze that GEOINT information, it’s vital to our tradecraft.

DS: Are there advances in the area of smarter algorithms for GEOINT?

McCarthy: Structured observation management as well as ABI requires that we are constantly working both in government and with the private sector to refine the algorithms to help structure our data in a way that is useful, using all sources of data. So, we are regularly engaged with our partners in making the necessary investments to help us better structure the data to provide better support to our customers.

DS: Is cloud computing being leveraged by NGA to facilitate greater access to the data?

McCarthy: I think we’re a leader in terms of our involvement in the movement of cloud computing to the intelligence community and to the broader federal government. We’re the lead for developing the common desktop environment and are working very closely with our partners to then establish a cloud that will be used by the entire community. Our entire strategy is based on ICITE [the Intelligence Community Information Technology Enterprise] and the movement of the community towards the cloud.

One of the most critical components of our strategy is access to our data. The customer service component of our strategy is one of our priorities in this fiscal year and it’s about getting that data to our customers in a way that they can use and serve themselves. The cloud is how we are doing it.

DS: The first substantiation of the ICITE desktop is ongoing with a few thousand DIA and NGA users. What is the progress?

McCarthy: We’ve just entered a period where we’ve taken a bit of a pause to see how it’s going. We’re actually looking to see what the good, the bad, and the ugly was out of all of this. So, I think we’re on target and we’re on schedule.

Being someone who has left the intelligence community and came back, I’m a huge supporter of ICITE. I wish I had this as a tool when I was an analyst back 25 years ago. The concept of everybody that works in this community being given access to the same data no matter where they are. I’m very happy that is where this community is going and very proud that this agency has taken the lead. We’re basing our entire strategy and way of doing business off of ICITE. We are in 100 percent, and maybe even 110 percent.

We believe that is where we need to go. Not only because the budget drives us to operate much more efficiently, but because we’re going to provide better support to the warfighter, the policymaker and the first responder if we’re operating off of the same sheet of music. So, I’m in.  

DS: How is NGA leveraging mobile technology?

McCarthy: Putting intelligence in the hands of the warfighter is one of our primary objectives. We can’t do that alone. That’s why the director [of NGA] has made it very clear that her intent is to partner with the private sector, which is much more agile than us in that regard and can provide us with the tools to succeed in that goal.

DS: NGA seems to be making slow progress in enlisting the support of industry to develop applications for its GEOINT App Store. NGA director Letitia Long called for the formation of an application store in which industry would take the lead in developing apps. How is the agency going to increase industry participation in populating its app store?

McCarthy: That really gets to sort of the business model, business operations side of the house. Our big challenge is really capitalism at its best. You’re asking the private sector to help you with the apps, but then how do you ensure that the private sector is also getting resourced in a way that is legal and ethical? So, how is this partnership supposed to work? We’ve made great progress in that regard. And, so, we’ll be much more agile on this side of the house now. Certainly, this year I expect to see even more apps and you will see more engagement on the part of the private sector.