"Open is the Watchword"; Enhancing GIS Services at NGA

Mark Munsell, Deputy Director, CIO and IT Services, National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency
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Mark Munsell, Deputy Director, CIO and IT Services, National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency

Mark Munsell, Deputy Director, CIO and IT Services, National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency

At the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, we deliver a broad spectrum of services to a wide variety of stakeholders. We analyze geospatial data, and provide associated intelligence for policymakers and military commanders. We also help solve economic and energy security problems, and play an important role in disaster relief and responding to humanitarian issues around the world.

In an era when big data provided by a multitude of traditional sources, social media, and the Internet of Things is ever-expanding, continuing to meet these obligations meant transforming the way NGA does business. We had to find new ways to grow our workforce and to stay abreast of technological developments that would streamline our operations and provide the best possible consumer experience.

Providing exemplary service means NGA has to use lot of GIS software: in fact, NGA is probably the largest user of GIS-related software. In order to offer the best possible services, we have to use the most effective balance of open source and commercial software, while monitoring cutting-edge geospatial technology and data sources emerging from Silicon Valley.

 NGA’s cloud-based operations have also enabled new answers to GIS questions and created new opportunities for advanced analytics and source production  

Finding this balance was more difficult than it sounds. As recently as a decade ago, almost all the software NGA used was proprietary, and our primary sources of data were classified—even though there was a massive amount of unclassified, commercial, and open data to use.

Even though we were already using some of the best commercial software available—built by some of the biggest and most experienced companies—it quickly became apparent that the world was moving at a much faster pace: one measured in GitHub commits by the thousands and millions each week.

The practice of waiting years for new versions of software—and then waiting additional time for security approvals—was leaving NGA behind. This was despite the fact that, over the last decade, open source software was yielding more technological advancements than ever before. NGA had to change its approach, and move towards a services-based, DevOps environment.

In 2014, NGA became the first U.S. intelligence agency to contribute open Source code to GitHub, and we haven’t looked back. To date, our agency has put over 95 software packages into the public domain and has over 100 repositories on GitHub, including Hootenanny, a conflation engine; MrGeo, a “big data” tool for raster and vector data; and GeoWave, an Accumulo connector for GeoServer. NGA is looking to lead the community—not just by acquiring new technology, but by creating it with innovative algorithms developed by new talent.

This doesn’t mean that we’re abandoning commercial partners who continue to provide tried-and-proven software solutions like ArcGIS and RemoteView—far from it. Instead, we are using this commercial software as a platform upon which to build.

For example, NGA software developers are using ArcGIS’s new technology to process volumes of data that are larger than ever before. Analysts have written thousands of applications based on Esri’s portal technology: because we don’t have to build the applications from scratch, we can meet customer needs by publishing these applications in minutes.

Just as NGA is using a broader spectrum of open-source and commercial partnerships to develop our analysis, we have also established new partnerships with companies who can help us diversify and expand our development workforce.

One of those partnerships is with LaunchCode, a non-profit that is connecting NGA with a growing pool of non-traditional but extremely qualified applicants. Although the majority of future coders training at LaunchCode do not have computer science degrees, many have acquired tech skills that our agency needs to increase in-house development, especially as we complete our migration to the cloud.

NGA’s cloud-based operations have also enabled new answers to GIS questions and created new opportunities for advanced analytics and source production. Cloud scalability and agility has given NGA a fertile environment for both providing real-time analytics and situational awareness for our customers, and for continual development of the future GIS applications.

On an enterprise level, we’ve established GEOINT Services, a delivery platform that provides GIS content within a web environment, using cloud technology. This platform provides our customers—even in the unclassified domain—access to geospatial, sensor, and mission data services, including analytical and processing capabilities common in the GIS community.

In regard to GIS and technical development at NGA, “open” is the watchword, whether by using open-source software or by ensuring our industry partners use open standards. At an agency level, we’re invested in the development of new, open-source solutions and in the workforce talent to keep building them; as a service provider, NGA is providing a platform to exchange and enrich GIS content and services in a secure and open IT architecture. We will continue to foster development of these open solutions—for all our partners, customers, and stakeholders—for years to come.

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