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GEOINT 2019 Symposium

Remarks as prepared for
Vice Adm. Robert Sharp,
Director, National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency

Thanks for that wonderful introduction, Carmen [Medina, USGIF Board of Directors], and thanks to USGIF for this awesome conference.

I’d also like to thank, once again, Skunk Baxter for that tremendous rendition of the Star Spangled Banner. What a great way to kick off the symposium, with the perfect blend of attitude, amplitude, and just the right amount of reverb.

And we’d all like to thank the city and citizens of San Antonio, for being so welcoming. NGA has a connection to San Antonio I just recently learned about through the Inter American Geodetic Survey team -- or IAGS. 

The IAGS mission began right after World War Two, training international partners throughout Latin America and the Caribbean on how to map their countries. Working for this team was easily one of the most dangerous GEOINT jobs ever -- they paddled up and down rivers, climbed mountains, and hacked their way across jungles. If they were lucky, they hitched rides on helicopters. They finished surveying Cuba two years before the Cuban Missile Crisis began -- pretty “timely and relevant,” wouldn’t you say? While they were initially based out of Panama, and ran many of their operations from Miami, they also had some of their mission here locally at Fort Sam Houston. They were heroes, and we’re proud to call them legacy members of the NGA family.

Anyway, good morning everyone! For those of you I haven’t yet met, I’m Bob Sharp. As a life-time Sailor with over 30 years in the Navy, and as someone who’s relied on GEOINT every day of my career, it’s a tremendous honor and privilege for me to be serving as NGA’s 7th director. And it’s an honor and privilege to get to speak to you all this morning in that capacity at my first and undoubtedly my best GEOINT symposium ever -- the first of many more to come!

I’ve inherited a great Agency, one with a tremendously talented workforce that uses and develops some of the most cutting-edge technology in the world -- and pursues mission accomplishment with passion and joy. 

Along with me being relatively new, we have some other new faces, in some of our leadership roles since last year:

  • A new CIO
  • A new Contracting Services head
  • New leadership in our Associate Directorships for Support …
  • for Enterprise…
  • … and for Operations
  • A brand new Senior Enlisted Advisor
  • And a recently announced new Deputy Director.

These individuals along with other members of NGA here in San Antonio are your targets – seek them out, meet them, find out the challenges they’re facing, and discuss how we might get after solving problems together. That, to me, is what this symposium is all about.

And before I get into my actual remarks, let me share some other faces with you:  


These are some of the greats in this field. The ones from the 20th century onward have all been inducted into NGA’s GEOINT Hall of Fame. They were all pioneers … discoverers … individuals -- who made the seemingly impossible, possible … people who charted the course and lead the way.  They represent our history and heritage. They remind us of all we can accomplish, together, when we set our minds and energy to it. Keep that in mind, as sort of my scene setter.

For my remarks, I’m going to cover three things with you. When I speak, I like to stick to 3 main points. Early in my career a friend and mentor of mine Paul Becker taught me -- all great things come in threes:  think about it … the Holy Trinity, Earth Wind and Fire, the 3 Musketeers -- both the swashbucklers and the delicious candy bar. I could go on and on…and I’ve seen Paul do so.  So I want to address three main areas with you:  our strategy, our values, and our plea for help.



Starting with NGA’s Strategy 2025 -- it’s somewhat new, but somewhat not. We just rolled it out with our workforce last week and are releasing it more broadly here today -- I hope you can grab a copy.

We say it’s “somewhat new,” because it’s not radically different from the one we issued last year -- which is why we’re calling it version 1.1.

It still emphasizes the same basic four strategic goals and priorities -- in simple terms, it focuses on people, partnerships, mission today and mission tomorrow.


Our first priority is taking care of our greatest asset -- our people. I’ve often heard organizations emphasize “mission first…people always.” At NGA we’re flipping that around.  We like to say “people first … mission always.” Our people are our strength.

And we know we’re in a competition for our Nation’s best and brightest.

That’s why we’re taking deliberate actions to help us acquire, develop and retain talent. 

We have a broad range of initiatives designed to help us spot, attract, assess, recruit and onboard talent. For example, in FY-15, we had 56 interns … this year, we’re bringing onboard 300. And we’re looking to reach out to perspective talent at an earlier age -- exposing the next generation from K-12 to the exciting opportunities in GEOINT.  

We’re taking a turn to ensure we continually invest in our existing workforce -- both professionally, and as leaders. Professional athletes at the very top of their game continue to train and to evolve their game plan. We’re taking that same perspective and approach at NGA, and across the GEOINT enterprise.    

And we’re concentrating on creating the environment where our people want to stay on the Team -- where they’re properly resourced, where they’re families are taken care of, where we’ve set the conditions for them to contribute, to grow, and to succeed. Where barriers preventing them from “being all they can be” are removed. It's also important that we’re leveraging the broad range of perspectives and talents from across our nation.

That’s why we’re passionate about diversity and inclusion. We need a diverse set of backgrounds, skill sets, experiences and expertise to help us solve hard problems. And we need to set the conditions where all our brilliant people have the opportunity to contribute -- inclusion. The inclusion part of diversity and inclusion is critical … because the opposite of that is exclusion -- and if we do that, we’ll miss brilliance … we’ll miss opportunity. 

NGA was recently named Public Sector Employer of the Year by CAREERS & the disABLED Magazine. They recognized us for our commitment to recruiting, hiring, and promoting people with disabilities. We’re proud of this commitment, and we’re dedicated to expanding our inclusion efforts. 

Let me end this People section with a plug for what our brilliant NGA teammates will be discussing at the Lightning Talks in the Exhibit Hall, this afternoon and tomorrow afternoon.

And you’ll be equally impressed by the folks at our NGA Booth. We have “Speaker Spotlights” during lunch, plus great demos that highlight some of our latest unclassified accomplishments.  Don’t skip our booth, booth 435, or we’ll hunt you down … and we’re pretty good at that.



Now, let’s talk about NGA’s second strategic goal -- Partnerships.

To put it bluntly, without partnerships, you’re weaker … and you’re more apt to fail.

For us, it’s our people and our partnerships that provide competitive advantage over our strategic competitors. Our strength comes from our people and our partnerships. Our vulnerability is that we’re an open and free society -- you can steal from us. And we often restrict ourselves on what we’ll do or how we’ll do it, because we’re pretty passionate about human rights, and privacy, and oversight to ensure we’re doing the right things right. But at the end of the day -- I’m convinced that if we get our people and our partnerships right -- we’ll be successful.

Team NGA relies on a broad range of partners -- they’re represented in our National and Allied Systems for Geospatial Intelligence; in our Intelligence Community and Interagency partners; in our partnerships as a Combat Support Agency with all the Service, Combatant Commands and Joint Warfighters; in our strong collaboration with First Responders and those who do Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief -- domestically and internationally; in all our strong partnerships and friendships with our International teammates (many of who are joining us here this week); and with the great brain trust of our nation in our labs, our think-tanks, our academic institutes … and in our industry.

Our goal is to continue to strengthen and expand our alliances and partnerships across the full spectrum of GEOINT missions.

We’re striving for data interoperability, and for setting the conditions so that we can share our expertise, our technologies, our training, our ideas...and our missions.

Here are a couple of examples of great partnerships in action -- having impact:

While we’ve pretty much always had bilateral international partner agreements -- we’re up to more than 70 now -- we’re doing some exciting work in multilateral arenas.

  • The International Program for Human Geography (IPHG) shares human geography data between 12 countries.
  • The TanDEMx High Resolution Elevation Data Exchange (TREx) Program shares elevation data with 31 countries.
  • And the Multinational Geospatial Co-Production (MGCP) shares mapping data with 32 countries.
  • NGA
  • Esri
  • Digital Globe
  • The Ohio State
  • The University of Illinois, with the famous National Science Foundation Supercomputer Blue Waters
  • And the Polar Geospatial Center at the University of Minnesota

And these first-ever high resolution, publicly available digital elevation models of the polar regions came about thanks to non-traditional partnering between:

These are so stunning, they look like wall art – and more importantly, they help us know the earth and understand the world in ways we hadn’t until we pulled all these great minds together.

I was schooled by a great leader who used to often say “it takes a network to defeat a network.” When it comes to how we define and build our own network, we’re only limited by our imaginations, and our willingness to create meaningful relationships. It’s not only important – it’s a mission imperative.

I’ll end our Partnerships section with a plug for Dave Gauthier and Christy Monaco -- Wednesday at noon.



NOW Let’s talk NGA’s third strategic goal -- Mission Today.

At NGA, we exist to “Show the Way” -- to literally get you from point A to point B, to help illuminate options and inform decisions, or to carry out actions with precision. We do so by knowing the earth and understanding the world. By maintaining detailed, foundational characterizations of the Earth from seabed to space, by observing and analyzing what’s occurring, where and when, and by building a wide array of GEOINT products providing unique context and insights to answer questions from a broad range of customers.  

As highlighted in both the National Defense Strategy, and the National Intelligence Strategy, we’re currently faced with a security environment that is more complex, inter-connected and volatile than we’ve experienced in recent memory -- one which will require us to do things differently if we’re to navigate ourselves through it successfully. 

Some quick examples of our Mission Today and how we’re doing things differently:

We’re developing improved processes:

For example, for our Enterprise Engine -- Notice to Mariners we recently modernized and automated a 150-year old process to ingest source data in 14 languages from 75 countries. It now uses translation algorithms and optical character recognition to read documents in different formats, and it puts maritime symbols, numbers, and words into a GIS-enabled workspace. That means analysts don’t need to scrutinize pages of source data and charts by hand anymore -- they have electronic records that are way easier to work with than manually annotated hard copy records.

We’re making GEOINT products available to a broader customer base: Back in March, Cyclone Idai made landfall on the shores of Mozambique. Immediately, we started coordinating the efforts to help AFRICOM start transporting aid and workers. 

We had a deployed team in Djibouti that resolved tactical problems forward, and our Central-Southern Africa Branch and the AFRICOM NGA Support Team handled the analysis. Our NGA Support Team within State Department worked with USAID to understand the requirements of a broad range of groups providing humanitarian assistance and disaster relief to include Non-Government Organizations. After a lot of coordination, including with the Protected Internet Exchange team, they got geospatial data released to people who desperately needed it, in time to help them save lives.

And we continue to push the envelope on providing unclassified products that can help illuminate activities of concern and inform discussions important to maintaining long-standing rules-based international order.

For example, for many years, we’ve monitored China in the South China Sea, and their maritime and territorial disputes with the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Taiwan, and Brunei.  The annual flow of oil and commerce through those shipping lanes amounts to more than 3 trillion global trade dollars.

Over the last decade, there’s been land reclamation and outpost building on two archipelagos there – the Paracel Islands and the Spratlys. And last year, we noticed the deployment of Chinese military equipment to their Spratly outposts.

Exposing and illuminating developments such as these is an important role for the GEOINT community, and we need to continue our cooperation and collaboration in doing so. 

So, let me end our Mission Today section with a plug for our Associate Directors for Ops and Enterprise, MG Charlie Cleveland and Ms. Jennifer Daniel, on Tuesday. The lash-up between Operations and Enterprise is vital to our mission success.



Our final strategic goal is Mission Tomorrow.

Intelligence is about providing timely insight into opportunities for, and threats to, our national security. NGA needs to mitigate the element of surprise by improving its ability to Understand the World -- and anticipate future events.

So, we have to ensure our people and our partners have what they need to conduct our mission not only today, but tomorrow. We’re committed to modernizing our IT infrastructure, collection services, networks, training and business practices. We’ve got to keep up with the deluge of data that’s on the horizon ... or in some regards, already here.

If you’re looking for an area to partner with us, I highly recommend you focus on Artificial Intelligence, Automation and Augmentation -- what we call AAA.

Our goal is to partner with machines so that we can make best use of the exponential growth in volume and source of data, letting machines do what machines do well and analysts do what analysts to even better -- think critically and solve problems.

A vitally important part of our future is our Next NGA West construction project in St. Louis.  We view it as a “game-changing” opportunity not only for NGA, but also for the entire GEOINT community.

It’s going to be a place to thrive, and the hub of a new GEOINT technical ecosystem.

It has a number of geographic advantages, including proximity to strong industry and academic communities.

About 20% of the workspace will be unclassified and designed to improve and enhance the way we interact with academia and industry partners. Another 20% will be reconfigurable in order to create meaningful workspace for interacting with a broad range of customers. There’s a lot of energy and activity going on in St Louis these days for the GEOINT community, and we invite and encourage you all to check it out and get involved.



So that’s our Strategy, I’d also like to talk to you about NGA’s core values -- because I want you to know what you should expect of us -- it’s who we are.

We have 5 core values we adhere to:

  • Excellence – we will be first-rate in all that we do
  • Accountability – we will answer for our conduct, even when no one is looking
  • Respect – we will leverage diversity and creativity to perform as one NGA
  • Team Teamwork – we will work together to achieve a common goal
  • And Honesty – we will be truthful at all times to ourselves and to others

And our values spell “EARTH” which is pretty cool.

Many of you may have heard that we start every week at the Agency with an announcement on our PA system.

It’s a chance for me to give kudos to team members who went above and beyond the call of duty, highlight big events from the last week and announce upcoming events. And then we play a song.  

We always pick the song for a reason. This is the very first song we played.

We picked that song, because R-E-S-P-E-C-T is our central core value.

And although it may not be a coincidence that our core values spelI “earth” we think it’s pretty cool that can be arranged very easily into “Heart.”

We’re going to be spending a lot of time this week talking about technology. We thought it worth the time to ensure you understood who we are as humans -- what you’ll get each and every day when you partner with Team NGA.



That brings me to my third and final topic -- seeking your help.  

A few years ago, I read Start with Why, by Simon Sinek. It was one of many, many books from the Chief of Naval Operations’ reading list, and I’m a firm believer in the perspective that what your boss finds interesting … you should find fascinating. Sinek’s central premise is that while most companies define themselves in terms of “what” they do -- the really successful companies start with a clear understanding of “why” they exist, and then build upon that core to discuss “how” they do their business, and then, eventually, “what” they do.

So, we’ve been spending some time thinking about NGA’s “why?” We’re convinced it’s captured right in the central part of our motto -- to “show the way.”  

We exist, to “show the way”… we do so by Knowing the Earth and Understanding the World -- but we exist to show the way.

And we seek your help in showing the way.

The fact is … we’re facing some significant challenges … some “hard problems” … and we want your help.  We need your help.

We just went through a drill to identify some of our most significant challenges, and captured them in an 8-page booklet, which we’re handing out at this Symposium. We’re calling it “NGA Tech Focus Areas.” We’re seeking your feedback on the challenges we’ve identified -- data analytics and visualization, advanced GEOINT exploitation, Activity Modeling, Earth Modeling, Collection, Search and Discovery, and Business Intelligence and Data-Driven Production.  

We’re also seeking your partnership in solving these challenges – and challenges we may have missed.  

This isn’t the first time we’ve been challenged … where we rallied together to address those challenges.

In a 1962 speech here in Texas -- at Rice University -- President Kennedy said: “We choose to go the Moon in this decade … not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

The best way to deal with hard problems is to partner up on them, with creative people and innovative teams. People and partnerships.

That’s what our country did in the 1960s, with NASA and all its partners. It exemplified the American spirit. 

Less than 7 years after the President’s speech, on July 20th, 1969, a Navy veteran, Neil Armstrong, and an Air Force officer, Buzz Aldrin, on loan to NASA, touched down on the surface of the Moon in Apollo 11’s Landing Module -- the Eagle.

And 3 days later, not long before they safely splashed down in the Central Pacific, the other Air Force officer on that mission, Mike Collins, who piloted the main spacecraft, the Columbia, radioed this message to the people of Earth:

“All you see is the three of us, but beneath the surface are thousands and thousands of others, and to all of those, I would like to say, ‘Thank you very much.’”

That’s part of our legacy -- because our predecessors were there, alongside NASA. They were among those “thousands and thousands of others,” and their job -- their hard job -- was to show three astronauts the way -- on a quarter-million mile trip to the Moon.

Here’s the story. Scientists from the Army Map Service and the Air Force’s Aeronautical Chart and Information Center were critical to that effort.

NASA realized that if anyone were to actually land on the moon, they’d need to know the exact details of its surface features.

So, they asked the Army to make a lunar relief model for their Lunar Module Simulator. Nine months later, AMS had an exquisitely detailed model that weighed 600 pounds, and covered almost 300 square feet.

And it created a near-perfect illusion of what landing and taking off from the Moon would look like, from the windows of the spacecraft.

Over in the Air Force, cartographers had already been heavily involved in producing charts to assist with Mercury and Gemini.

By the time Apollo came around, they really knew their business, and ACIC produced a number of products critical to mission success.  

They provided charts for launch, trajectory, ascent and descent, landing, exploration and the capsule recovery stages.

They also created a lunar reference mosaic -- a guide for the Moon’s feature names and lat-long positions. And a lunar atlas -- with photos of the surface, as it would appear from above.

I’m proud to say that both those agencies are part of our legacy. Fifty years ago and 250,000 miles from the destination -- they showed the way.

And we’ll continue to be there -- today and tomorrow -- to “show the way.”

Now, over the past several weeks, people have been flocking to the theaters in record numbers to view the Avengers film.

It was the culmination of the most successful film franchise of all time -- 11 years of Marvel movies -- and people really enjoyed these resurrected comic book hero stories. I’ll admit -- I’m one of those fans. But I’m an even bigger fan of some of our real heroes.

The women and men of Team NGA and the greater GEOINT enterprise. Those who map, and chart, and provide context as to what’s happening where …

Our true life heroes that point the arrow … and Show the Way!  

I mentioned how we like to start our week with announcements … and a song, and we wanted to share that experience with you today. We talked about some of the great work folks have been doing – discussed where we’ve been, and where we need to go … and now it’s time for that song.

Let me take you back to early 1976. I was a young teenager when the album Frampton Comes Alive hit the airwaves. That was a few years ago, back when Peter Frampton and I both had hair -- it was a great time. 

It was on the charts for 97 weeks -- that’s a lot of weeks!

The song we’ve chosen from that album to share with you is ostensibly about a relationship; but the lyrics also refer to the stars, the sea and even submerging -- for any submariners out there.

And of course, it’s about why this Agency and the greater GEOINT community exists … it’s about showing the way. In the past … in the present … in the future … showing the way!

And now, I’d love to take any questions.

Thanks very much.

And let me leave you with this. If you’re up for a challenge, I highly recommend two panels at the Government Pavilion this afternoon.

They both should help you with as we team on “the hard problems,” where we’re looking for answers together -- as partners.

Not only will there be some great discussions, there should be some great opportunities for you as well.

All right -- everybody have a great day, and go do great things!

Thanks again.