By Rosemary Heiss, Office of Corporate Communications, National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (www.nga.mil), Springfield, Va.
More than 90 percent of the stored data in the world has been created in the last two years, according to a recent Financial Times article on big data. About 2.5 exabytes—1 billion gigabytes—of data are created every day, which is nearly as much as all the data created in 1986.
That’s a mindboggling increase in the volume of data created, and that volume only reflects one part of the big data challenge users must solve to make high technology work for an industry. Data variety and velocity are equal parts of the challenge, according to a recent Mashable article. Variety refers to the different data and file types, including movies, images, text strings and geolocation data. Velocity refers to the rate of change in the data.
The geospatial intelligence (GEOINT) community, long known for its bent toward high tech, has been working to take advantage of this onslaught of data to serve visualized intelligence data as the foundation for integrated intelligence. The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) is in the middle of this drive for transformation.
In June 2012, NGA hosted members of the National System for Geospatial Intelligence at NGA Campus East in Springfield, Va., for the NSG Infotech Users Conference. Speakers provided updates on how the community is adapting information technology (IT) to make GEOINT data more relevant to the intelligence community. During the conference, NGA Director Letitia Long provided attendees an overview of NGA’s efforts to transform.
Long talked about NGA’s IT strategy, which outlines two goals—online, on-demand access to GEOINT and broader and deeper analysis—and the seven objectives that will help the agency achieve those goals.
“The changes we’re making are crucial,” said Long. “We know we have a lot to offer. We have to deliver it in a totally new way in a format that our customers will want.”
We are overwhelming analysts with data, according to keynote speaker Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, who was assistant director of national intelligence for partner engagement at the time of the speech and is now director of the Defense Intelligence Agency. Analysts face the problem of solving data challenges—including storing, cataloging, searching and processing data—instead of spending their time solving intelligence problems, related Flynn. The analyst is the customer.
NGA is working to make the volume, velocity and variety of data that is available to the intelligence community easily and quickly accessible to GEOINT analysts, regardless of where the data are stored. NGA’s emphasis on better serving its customers is being led by its Online GEOINT Services (OGS) team.
According to OGS Director Barry Barlow, a GEOINT analyst might have to search more than 1,400 content storage sites to find useful data. OGS is working to change that. His team has been working with customers to better understand their GEOINT needs, with the aim of using this knowledge to develop a new online GEOINT content site. Part of his team has taken a fresh look at NGA’s customers to validate legacy understanding of their GEOINT needs and collect information about needs that GEOINT hasn’t filled.
“We know a lot about our customers and how they use our current products,” said Christine Batchelor, who works for OGS’s customer service focus area. “But what we’re trying to focus on more is their need for dynamic products or services that today we may or may not provide or that we would be able to provide better in the future.”
“In traditional IT development, the user’s definition of a requirement can be different from an engineer’s interpretation of the requirement, which is sometimes obvious when looking at the final product,” explained Mark Riccio, director of OGS application services. NGA’s agile development process is “very interactive,” he said. “The developer and customer are in constant coordination to make sure that what is delivered meets the intent of the user.”
NGA already has seen this process make GEOINT data more accessible and more useful. Integrated work groups, which contain analysts, source strategists, human resources specialists, research and development scientists and other skilled people working together to solve key intelligence problems, are testing the agile development process. The work groups collaborate routinely with NGA mission partners to identify requirements.
Through the agile development process, NGA is delivering solutions. The integrated work group responsible for creating new ways to operate in an unclassified environment already has used applications created through this process to benefit some of their partners—first responders. Information NGA analysts traditionally provided to first responders in hard copy—expensive to print and often out of date before the ink dries—was instead placed into a mobile application that first responders could dynamically update and share in the field.
“When first responders call, we are providing unclassified, near real-time, mobile GEOINT—not in hours, but in minutes,” said Long. “We are giving first responders the decision advantage and equipping them to save lives.”
NGA will use business analytics to learn what GEOINT applications are used most frequently and, conversely, what apps aren’t used, according to Barlow. Business analytics will provide the metrics that guide further GEOINT creation and acquisition of GEOINT IT support.
Instead of buying application developers’ time, the agency is instituting metered service—paying for applications based on how much customers use them and how valuable they are to the user—based on quantitative and qualitative metrics provided by the online GEOINT site. NGA is working to provide a customer-focused environment that gives GEOINT analysts the tools that harness all three data dimensions—volume, velocity and variety—to solve intelligence problems.