Just as “information superhighway” was becoming a popular buzz term, President Clinton issued Executive Order No. 12906 to coordinate federal geospatial activities. His administration tasked the Government Accountability Office with reviewing how federal agencies use geospatial data to perform their missions and how much they spend to obtain it.
This activity led to the creation of the Federal Geographic Data Committee, assignment of a functional manager for federal geospatial data and the development of the National Spatial Data Infrastructure to establish data and metadata-tagging standards for geospatial data. It provided the bedrock for a defined lane for geospatial intelligence on the information superhighway.
This activity did not involve the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. It happened in 1994, two years before NGA’s founding. More importantly, it did not apply to geospatial data collected for intelligence or defense purposes.
Even today, NGA is only one of a pack of drivers — and not in the lead. As the agency and its customers venture deeper into the open territory of big data, NGA is mapping out exactly where and how its unclassified lane will converge with the public lane that has been under construction for the past two decades.
Why it matters now
Ensuring that NGA’s customers can successfully merge the unclassified and public domains when necessary will require careful attention to information technology infrastructure, standards and quality assurance. It will entail unprecedented transparency and collaboration with public GEOINT providers. Most significantly, it will influence how NGA designs and rolls out what it is currently calling GEOINT Services, a new strategic initiative defined by NGA Deputy Director Sue Gordon as simply “how we expose our content in a way that allows it to be used.”
Gordon, a champion of the GS effort, has been quick to clarify that there is nothing simple about the task; it will involve solving cross-domain and security challenges as well as establishing effective policies and procedures for the entire intelligence community working together on the same geospatial data. Building an open architecture and adopting standards that enable content to be integrated and shared across the GEOINT community is a challenge, especially for a government agency used to operating predominantly behind closed doors. Add that GS will have additional lanes to enable classified data users to use and share data and services behind the security barrier, and it becomes especially complicated.
It is a challenge NGA is prepared to conquer, according to Gordon.
“We have an obligation and imperative to provide GEOINT and ‘GEOINT-able’ content in a way that’s easy to use,” she told an NGA workforce assembly at the end of April.
She defines GEOINT-able content — a term she made up because no other words fit what she needed to convey — as information that can be used to help people make sense of their world. For NGA, that means providing customers with access to useful, relevant and timely location-based data from within the classified, unclassified and open (i.e., public) domains.
The public platform
How geospatial information is shared in the public domain is becoming increasingly relevant to NGA customers because of the proliferation of unclassified, publicly accessible GEOINT. The main avenue for GEOINT in this domain is GeoPlatform.gov, a federal repository comprising some 80,000 metadata-tagged records. GeoPlatform, which was launched by the FGDC in 2011, is an Internet-based capability that was developed to allow unclassified federal GEOINT data to be easily shared and accessed by federal agencies, state, local and tribal governments, the private sector, academia, non-governmental organizations, and the general public. GeoPlatform is hosted by the Department of Interior, the functional manager of GEOINT in the public domain, just as NGA is the functional manager of GEOINT in the classified domain.
According to the GAO, more than 30 federal agencies post and use GEOINT on GeoPlatform. Among them are several NGA partners in the agency’s unclassified humanitarian assistance and disaster response, or HADR, mission, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Geological Survey.
Mapping of wildfires, evacuation routes and natural disasters such as floods, hurricanes and earthquakes are examples of services shared on GeoPlatform. NGA has supported FEMA and other federal partners with GEOINT services during notable HADR events such as Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and the Washington state wildfires in 2014.
GeoPlatform is also at the center of efforts in Congress to eliminate duplication of effort and spending among federal agencies on GEOINT. While these activities do not apply to GEOINT gathered and used for national intelligence, they illustrate the potential for NGA’s unclassified services to either collide or converge with the public activity (see sidebar).
NGA will develop its GS platform to reside on the Intelligence Community Information Technology Enterprise, according to Gordon, so that users throughout the defense and intelligence communities will have shared access. In 2014, the director of national intelligence designated NGA as the agency responsible for developing a geospatial platform for the IC.
Carter Christopher, Ph.D., one of the authors of the GS business plan, calls the platform, “An IC geospatial-data ‘ecosystem’ where content value is defined by the user, not the originator.”
Christopher uses the term ecosystem to describe the new platform because it is intended to form a community where data and services — much like organisms in a true ecosystem — interact and create recognizable patterns of interacting, regardless of their type. Once created, the GS platform will be the place where customers can integrate data and services from all types of providers — traditional classified and unclassified sources, open source, commercial and other government sources — in a matter of seconds, rather than today’s norm of hours or days. It will be both open and secure, based on Open Geospatial Consortium standards, and will support open-source big data as well as traditional IC geospatial data and imagery. It will also provide processing services, and over time, the ability to create cross-intelligence analytic models to provide spatiotemporal context for current and future national security-related events.
“It will be a modular, component-based architecture, leveraging community best-practice components — including the Globe and Map of the World — to provide interoperability, key functionality, best value, ease of deployment, management and flexibility,” said Justin Poole, director of the Xperience directorate and NGA’s portfolio manager for customer service.
Whenever discussing the GS initiative, Gordon stresses that one of the main criterion is that its architecture enables content to remain where it resides, rather than requiring it to be imported to and managed in duplicative databases. Easy and smart integration with other Web-based providers of GEOINT, such as GeoPlatform, will be a consideration for the agency’s GS platform in the unclassified domain.
“If we build a platform in IC ITE with a common data-services architecture, standard APIs [application program interfaces], data services and security, then NGA and its customers can centrally organize, integrate and curate GEOINT with guaranteed levels of service, regardless of where the content actually resides,” said Brian Valletta, one of NGA’s lead enterprise architects for GEOINT Services.
Valletta and other NGA IT experts are already partnering with DOI representatives to ensure compatibility between NGA’s future platform and GeoPlatform. The relationship is proving mutually beneficial.
“NGA’s teaming with DOI forms a synergistic relationship that will greatly enhance the impact of GeoPlatform.gov in the unclassified environment,” said Jerry Johnston, Ph.D., a geospatial information officer at DOI.
Johnston acknowledged that a chief struggle has been to get agencies to integrate on GeoPlatform. Despite the executive order to integrate, many agencies have their own competing platforms. FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security are among them.
A major key to enabling successful integration of existing forums such as GeoPlatform with the GS architecture will be consistent use of standards, said Kevin Hope, NGA’s chief data officer.
“Proper implementation of standards is imperative for NGA to deliver critical data and services to our partners on the unclassified domain,” said Hope. “Consistent use and application [of standards] will allow us to leverage already-built platforms like Interior’s, but also construct interoperable environments as needed for unique requirements or missions.”
With all the necessary focus on standards, architecture, and other technical and governance issues, Poole said, “It’s important to remember that the bottom line is to provide better customer service to GEOINT users.”