NGA Open for Business
In the early spring of 2015, Maryland commuters returning home from the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s Springfield, Virginia, headquarters might have noticed a new state sign along the road, “Welcome to Maryland! We’re Open for Business!” The new greeting is a distinct departure from the former, “Enjoy Your Visit!”
Around that same time, NGA announced its GEOINT Pathfinder initiative and metaphorically posted an “open for business” sign to the public. The initiative, according to Director Robert Cardillo, is an effort to reduce the barriers between the agency’s bureaucratic system and the commercial market — a distinct departure from business as usual.
The intent of the initiative is to answer key intelligence questions using only unclassified data through a network of in-house labs and off-site locations interconnected through a secure collaborative service.
“The GEOINT Pathfinder is an experiment to transform NGA into a mostly open-source agency,” said Chris Rasmussen, program manager of GEOINT Pathfinder and NGA’s lead for public open-source software development.
The GEOINT Pathfinder was not the first initiative to “go public.” In April 2014, NGA launched its GeoQ application on GitHub, an online open-source version control system. GeoQ is an open-source workflow tool used to assist with humanitarian assistance and disaster recovery by crowdsourcing analysis of traditional and nontraditional data on a Web browser, allowing the crowd to contribute to a common damage analysis, including source data such as location-tagged photos and video of disaster-affected areas.
“GitHub is a nerdy software thing. But sitting down with [Cardillo] and showing it to him, his assessment of it was that it’s a new way of doing business,” said Rasmussen. “It’s part of the transparency efforts. Just because we have the word intelligence in our title, [it] doesn’t mean secret.”
Not quite opaque
Like other government agencies, NGA is moving towards a more transparent public presence.
Transparency in government allows the public to “see through” the restrictive barriers to understand how an agency does business. Working in the open-source environment allows citizens to participate in the tradecraft and business of NGA — a challenging culture change for an organization borne of secrecy.
However, because initiatives like GeoQ and GEOINT Pathfinder are open that doesn’t necessary mean public in the sense that anyone has access to it. Within that distinction lies a root source of resistance from some in the intelligence community. IC analysts resistant to a more transparent status quo often cite security vulnerabilities as the reason not to do something, according to Rasmussen.
“Posting on GitHub is putting source code to interact with the public. When I was selling that to the organization, a lot of my time was spent myth-busting,” Rasmussen said. “Because it exists on the Internet, people would compare it to the [access on the] Yahoo comment section — one has nothing to do with the other.”
GitHub works on a trusted repository model — to gain access to code you must be a developer. Changes are made to the code only after the suggested coding has been scrutinized and approved.
“Open means open to interact,” said Rasmussen. “You can have open data and still have restrictions, like FOUO [for official use only]. It’s more restrictive but it’s still going to the broadest base first,” said Rasmussen.
“If someone sees a description of the content we’ve produced from GEOINT Pathfinder in Data.gov that is FOUO — that’s much better than locking everything down within an FOUO system wholesale. You leave a descriptive breadcrumb at the lowest possible level for discovery and then you link up to the more restrictive set,” said Rasmussen. “But the fact is it’s discoverable at the lowest level first.”
Accessibility to tradecraft and business
Ray Bauer, an NGA innovation lead and GitHub Governance Board co-lead with Rasmussen, is someone Cardillo called “disruptive,” according to Bauer.
“So, what I take he meant by that — which is good — is that I’m disruptive from the standpoint of what I am working on and trying to accomplish with GeoQ on GitHub is not status quo,” said Bauer.
Bauer champions adopting open source as much as possible and proposes that proprietary standards impinge on transparency because they limit accessibility.
“We should use open and common standards like an OGC [Open Geospatial Consortium] and stop falling victim to proprietary data formats,” Bauer said. “Some of our vendors don’t want us to do this … because it doesn’t bring money back in for software updates and upgrades, but I believe the future business model will revolve around data and analytic services, not software.”
Much of what Bauer advocates requires a culture change.
“For example, a lot of people are comfortable with their very expensive tool suites. And they are needed for certain missions, but they’re not the only tools that could be used for what many of our analysts do today.”
When analysts use open-source techniques like GeoQ, it allows real-time collaboration. Bauer claims it enables them to do their work faster, smarter and more efficiently while taking advantage of the exponential growth of data sources.
“If you do traditional work, you’re going to get traditional results,” Bauer said. “If you really want to do something different, you’re going to have to change things.”
Industry leaders who do business with NGA couldn’t agree more.
Trust in transparency
Open-source code is to a developer what open communication and trust is to an NGA business partner. And for several industry partners or would-be partners, the status quo is stacked in NGA’s favor and just slightly less than opaque.
Ultimately, the intended consequence of transparency is to create a level playing field and build trust. To get there with its business relations, NGA has some work to do, according to some in industry.
“The first step is real communications, collaboration and dialog with the understanding that communications need to be two way,” said Keith Barber, an associate partner with OGSystems. “Simply hearing the same message about transparency with no details seems to articulate that the agency has not ‘figured it out.’”
According to Barber, NGA needs to provide insight into how decisions are made, provide clearer evaluation criteria up front and provide better visibility about the way things are actually procured versus developed.
NGA created an online collaborative site to connect with industry and academia called the GEOINT Solutions Marketplace. Its purpose is to bridge the gap between NGA and solution providers by sharing interest areas.
Barber’s company worked with the United States Geospatial Intelligence Foundation to stand up the Industry Solutions Marketplace. He said he feels that the linkage between GSM and ISM facilitates collaboration among users to gain insight into capabilities already built and used in other environments that could be adapted to operations.
“This [linkage] can enable transparency and increase collaboration between capability providers and users,” he said.
NGA gets high marks from Steve Ryan, a senior mission engineer with Northrop Grumman’s Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance division, on efforts towards transparency.
“NGA’s senior leadership has engaged well with industry through venues like GEOINTeraction Tuesdays, held by the U.S. Geospatial Intelligence Foundation. This has exposed industry leaders to NGA’s leadership and thinking with very positive results,” said Ryan.
But Ryan thinks the gatherings could be better.
“To make these kinds of events even more useful, NGA could consider including rising leaders from more of its operational workforce — across analysis, collection, acquisition, policy and many other disciplines,” Ryan said.
“This will facilitate the building of lasting relationships and mutual trust within the next generation of NGA leaders,” said Ryan. “[Doing so] will place industry and NGA on a path to better collaboration, which is a must-do in order to achieve NGA’s goals of context and consequence for its customers.”
Kathy Pherson, chief executive officer of Pherson Associates LLC, a woman-owned small business, said first and foremost to get to transparency [NGA must have] clarity of thought and communication.
“To say, give us your good ideas and we’ll decide what to do with them — that’s not transparent,” said Pherson. “Being transparent is being able to articulate the problem.”
Fairness and honesty are foundational stones in an agency’s path to transparency, and Rasmussen said that GSM allows for more of both.
“GSM lowers the bar of entry for people to interact with us, with our ideas or with our open data,” said Rasmussen. “Let’s say there’s a problem we’re working on. It goes out on GSM with a link to source code and documentation within GitHub. Source code with good documentation is a clear communication of how to help rather than esoteric insider language within BAAs [broad agency announcements], which are not recognizable to most outside the beltway.
“You start with the biggest pool of talent first, which let’s say is GitHub, which is open to everybody. Then, you go into the more restrictive territory and move up to the FOUO site,” Rasmussen said. “You click the link, you get a log in and you move up [to the next restrictive level]. But you don’t default upfront and make the door way too high to knock on.”
What will true transparency look like for NGA?
For Gene Keselman, cofounder and executive director at The Foundation for Innovation and Discovery, or FINND, it comes down to giving everyone who can help make the mission more successful the chance to do so.
“I have worked with some incredibly forward leaning leaders inside NGA who are willing to push the envelope as far as they can to get to “openness”— to allow new and innovative companies, technologies or people to get their foot in the door,” said Keselman. “When I ask them what’s stopping them from going even farther, their consistent answer is the established contract process.”
Karyn Hayes-Ryan, NGA’s component acquisition executive, is aware of the challenges and opportunities the current monolithic system of contracts and acquisition pose.
But she said GSM is more than contracts.
“It’s also allowing us to share openly what we need and providing that mechanism for some of those solutions to be industry partnerships,” said Hayes-Ryan. “If a company has part of a solution, they can talk to others who are interested in that activity. We’ve got the collaboration tools within GSM for someone to say, ‘Hey, I’ve got part A of what [we] need. Does anyone out there have part B?”
Hayes-Ryan acknowledges there is room for improvement in the acquisitions area. But despite remaining bureaucratic conundrums, she said getting research and development into the operational baseline in months — rather than years — is progress.
“This is the way we have to be doing business to stay competitive in the future,” said Hayes-Ryan.
More industry and academia collaboration, easier points of entry for a wider audience to interact in the agency’s tradecraft and business practices, and initiatives creating a larger public conversation — all signs welcoming outsiders to a state of greater transparency at NGA.