Intel office wants industry secrets
Agency faces IT challenges similar to other government departments
- By Brad Grimes
- May 20, 2004
Chris Tucker of Ionic Enterprise Inc. said agencies that use geospatial intelligence systems have inherent interoperability problems.
Henrik G. de Gyor
The U.S. Geospatial Intelligence Foundation, directed by Stuart Shea of Northrop Grumman, will bring together integrators and vendors to share information.
J. Adam Fenster
At a top-secret industry conference this week, a federal agency with no budget to speak of will tell integrators and technology vendors how they can win business helping defense and intelligence agencies.
It's not that the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency doesn't have money to spend. The agency recently doled out $1 billion for commercial satellite imagery and plans to place another $500 million order in September. Rather, NGA is tight-lipped about its budget, which is largely classified and comes from a variety of sensitive sources, including the intelligence community and Defense Department.
But NGA's business, combining maps and imagery to describe and assess places and events on Earth, has become increasing important in the government's war on terror, homeland security efforts and other initiatives. As a result, the agency is investing heavily in a variety of technology areas and working closely with industry to accomplish its goals.
"The growth in geospatial intelligence is exponential," said John Ray, manager of defense and intelligence business development at ESRI Inc., a Redlands, Calif., developer of geographic information systems and mapping software. "It has become a new and powerful framework on which to hang, analyze and display all other intelligence information."
Mark Schultz, director of NGA's corporate relations office, said geospatial intelligence is fundamental to the U.S. national security strategy. Many of the government's next-generation defense initiatives, such as Future Combat Systems and network-centric warfare, can't succeed without it.
"It's a natural way to array information, understand what you're seeing and take action on it," he said.
Although Schultz couldn't reveal details of what NGA will present to contractors at its May 26 industry day, he described for Washington Technology some of the areas where the agency is exploring new solutions.
Significantly, many of NGA's IT requirements have little to do with satellite imagery, remote sensors and other specialty geospatial technologies. To accomplish its goals, the agency also requires high-bandwidth networks (wired and wireless), Web services, data storage solutions and more.
This means the opportunities to work on geospatial intelligence contracts are greater than companies might perceive and are not limited to what one usually thinks of as intelligence agencies, experts said.
"Intelligence, to some extent, is a dirty word, but it shouldn't be," Day said. "Geospatial intelligence can be about finding the right place to open a Starbucks."
Although none of them will be running coffee shops, Day said the Interior Department, including the U.S. Geological Survey, and the Agriculture Department, including the Forest Service, are customers of geospatial intelligence solutions. Schultz said NGA collaborates with several civilian agencies.
"The challenge at any of these agencies will be building the enterprise systems [to enable geospatial intelligence] and integrating them into their workflow," Day said.
Sharing information is critical to successfully exploiting geospatial intelligence, Shultz said. NGA is working hard to build an integrated National System for Geospatial-Intelligence, which will provide an interoperable network for pulling data together and making it accessible across agencies.
Related to that, Shultz said, the practice of actually assembling geospatial intelligence and making it available must undergo fundamental change, with large object-oriented databases and Web services playing key roles.
Until recently, geospatial data was transmitted in large files and assembled by the end user on powerful workstations. In the new paradigm, processing geospatial data will take place on back-end systems, and it will be made available through Web browsers, said Chris Tucker, chief executive officer of Ionic Enterprise Inc. and former head strategist at In-Q-Tel, the Central Intelligence Agency's private venture fund.
Getting data in and out of current systems to allow for this processing and distribution is the real challenge.
"You can't go into a customer that doesn't have at least two geographic information systems, and an Oracle spatial database, and some other database," Tucker said. "They automatically have an interoperability problem."
Alexandria, Va.-based Ionic develops software so agencies can publish geospatial data as standards-based Web services. The company builds its products around OpenGIS specifications, which are developed by the non-profit Open GIS Consortium and endorsed by NGA.
In addition to information sharing, next-generation visualization technologies will be important to the government's ability to understand the data it's looking at and take appropriate action. Interestingly, Schultz said, gaming companies have been on the cutting edge of visualization techniques that allow 3-D exploration of geospatial data.
"The power of visualizing information is understood only by a few," Shultz said. "As that becomes more apparent, you're going to find a huge industry grow up here."
Commercial products and services will be important to NGA's evolution as the geospatial intelligence community weans itself off homegrown applications and augments its own data sources, Schultz said. Last fall, the agency awarded a five-year, $500 million contract to Longmont, Colo.-based DigitalGlobe Inc. for high-resolution images from the company's commercial satellites. And it's considering extending a similar contract to Thornton, Colo.-based Space Imaging Inc. to provide additional imagery.
In 2002, NGA (then known as the National Imagery and Mapping Agency) hired Northrop Grumman Corp.'s IT division to develop the Commercial Joint Mapping Toolkit, a set of off-the-shelf applications to replace the Defense Department's proprietary tools for handling geospatial data.
[IMGCAP(2)]Stuart Shea, vice president of Northrop Grumman IT's space and intelligence unit, said the tool kit is now being installed.
Recently, the IT industry created a new springboard to continue development and implementation of commercial products at federal agencies.
The U.S. Geospatial Intelligence Foundation, of which Shea is director, brings together systems integrators and technology vendors to share information and build comprehensive, integrated solutions. The group, announced this month, includes Boeing Co., DigitalGlobe, ESRI, Harris Corp., Lockheed Martin Corp., Northrop Grumman, Oracle Corp., Science Applications International Corp., Raytheon Co. and others.
"Until recently, the geospatial intelligence contractor community has lacked focus," Shea said, adding the foundation will encourage new technologies. "The greatest technological development is happening in small, agile companies," he said.
Schultz said because procurement cycles can be long, NGA "needs to be joined at the hip with industry" to ensure access to the best new technologies. The agency's InnoVision directorate is tasked with forecasting future needs and identifying the latest solutions.
Schultz said the rate of change at NGA will accelerate over the coming years. "There's a huge sense of urgency here," he said.
Staff Writer Brad Grimes can be reached at email@example.com.