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June 11, 2015
Defense Watch: Taking an Agile Approach to Sustaining 
NGA’s Analytic Power

By Michaela Mesquite, Analysis Technology Executive Team, National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (www.nga.mil), Springfield, Va.

When satellite imagery was novel and through the early years of geographic information system (GIS) computing, the predecessors to the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) stood nearly alone in the world of remote sensing and GIS technology. Now geospatial intelligence (GEOINT) is commercialized, and many previously considered privileged capabilities are in the hands of every Internet-connected smartphone user, tablet enthusiast and geography aficionado. Mobile device users search the Yelp app for the best nearby restaurants and then seamlessly initiate Google Maps to find their way there.

Although NGA and its predecessor agencies may have helped bring Google Earth to the world, today GEOINT’s creation and use is something the general public participates in and private industry shapes. This open and agile GEOINT environment is filled with fast-paced technology development, requiring increased vigilance by NGA technology watchers to keep the agency on the cutting edge.

Introducing a New Plan

To that end, last fall, the NGA Analysis directorate’s technology executive, Todd Johanesen, rolled out the first of a three-part plan to the agency and its mission partners: the Analysis Technology Plan 2020. The plan’s first part, Defining the Analysis Technology Vision for 2020, outlines a future vision that addresses four categories of technologies: Research & Discover, Access & Visualize, Exploit & Analyze and Expose & Report. Fulfilling the technical needs in each of these categories should provide NGA’s analysts with the much-desired time to dive into deep analysis.

“It is fundamentally about empowering the GEOINT analyst,” said Carter Christopher, a former technology executive team member and integral crafter of the plan. “Analysts’ jobs will be increasingly difficult in the coming years. With GEOINT data volumes growing exponentially and rarely being purposely built for GEOINT analysis, we’ll need to rely on new technologies to help our analysts efficiently triage, integrate, analyze and expose the data and our insights to our customers.”

Prior to the plan’s release, strategic technology goals were ill-defined and addressed internally with a tactical approach, according to Johanesen.

“The Analysis directorate published a technology plan to explain to the workforce, industry and academia the direction we were headed, our expectations for leveraging new and emerging technology, and to put into context how we want to do GEOINT analysis in the 2020 timeframe,” he said.

Given the rapidly changing landscape of GEOINT technologies, the plan isn’t a prescription, but rather a broad vision.

“As technology matures and we leverage it against intel issues, we expect the end results will be slightly different than what we originally proposed,” added Johanesen. “This should bring the agility to our technology plan that’s similar to the agility expectations of our analysts.”

Timing Considerations and Consequences

When the plan was released, there were technological, research and development (R&D), and acquisition initiatives emerging simultaneously that supported internal NGA projects with substantial technological requirements. The timing of the plan’s roll out was fortuitous, according to Johanesen, because it informed NGA’s R&D partners of the end goals that often are lost in the language of contract vehicles or in one-on-one internal communications.

According to Johanesen, because the plan came out when it did, industry and academia will be able to compete for funding and contracts with a “big picture” idea of what the analysts will be looking for in these initiative support contracts rather than just a list of technical requirement details.

“From an internal perspective, the plan should give our R&D teams a common direction for their strategic planning, rather than a long list of things we wish we had that is hard to plan against,” he said. “From an external perspective, academic, industry and R&D partners can form their own strategies for meeting our goals that separate the long-term projects from our day-to-day technology needs.”

The next two pieces of the Analysis Technology Plan 2020 will be released later this year.

“This document is an attempt to better define our needs and expectations,” said Johanesen. “In turn, this will help NGA arrive in 2020 with a state-of-the-art system that supports GEOINT analysis across the broad spectrum of customers we support, reinforcing NGA as the premier place for geospatial analysis.”

For more information, download the plan at www1.nga.mil/MediaRoom/PressReleases/Documents/NGA_Analysis_Tech_Plan.pdf.

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