The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency is the biggest contradiction in the government today. It started out stodgy. Everyone knows that in the Washington hierarchy, three-letter agencies are considered more important that four-letter agencies. So when the National Imagery and Mapping Agency was renamed in 2003, the NGA was born, despite there also being four words in the new agency’s name. (To get around this, they cleverly hyphenate “Geospatial-Intelligence” which makes no grammatical sense, but I digress).
Several years ago, according to one source who spoke to Daily Intel on the condition of anonymity for obvious reasons, people were fired for simply listing NGA as their employer on their Facebook profiles. So the agency’s new openness is a little surprising. Their website, at least in places, could be mistaken for a Millennial-run startup. And since 2014, it has produced a podcast called “Geointeresting.”
Most surprising of all is the establishment of the “NGA Outpost Valley,” a satellite (sorry) office in Silicon Valley.
NOV is a way for the agency to tap into West Coast tech talent, especially in the several startup satellite imagery companies, as well as other “Space 2.0” firms. This new office is there, as NGA Director Robert Cardillo said at the GEOINT 2016 symposium last May, to “leverage the organic capabilities and energy of the Valley’s open, vibrant, geospatial community.”
When he announced NOV, Cardillo, a career imagery analyst who became the agency’s director in 2014, was introducing a new paradigm at NGA. He said that it was time for NGA to “reject outdated ideas about the value of open source data,” adding the agency’s leadership needed to “overcome our historic reluctance to allow analysts to engage externally.”
In its formative years, the CIA was almost building the proverbial plane while in flight. It hired many people with what intelligence professionals would have considered “non-traditional” backgrounds. NGA is following that model, hiring Hollywood 3D experts, artists, and archaeologists to breathe new life into the agency’s thought processes.
And to oversee the NOV, Cardillo turned to another non-traditional choice. Anthony Vinci is a former tech entrepreneur who studied philosophy at Reed College (from which Steve Jobs famously dropped out) and earned his Ph.D. in international relations from the London School of Economics. He’s worked in the DoD before, but he doesn’t act like your typical Federal employee, which is why he was tapped to be the NGA’s director of plans and programs (his title is now “associate director for capabilities”).
As it gathers more and more data, the NGA is faced with the same problem that has plagued the CIA and NSA: the sheer volume of the data makes it nearly impossible to find (to borrow from the title of statistician Nate Silver’s excellent book) the signal in the noise. Combing through raw intelligence isn’t like finding a needle in a haystack, analysts will tell you; it’s like trying to find a particular needle in a mountain of needles. The NGA is trying to solve that problem by bringing in fresh talent.
To solve that problem, Vinci and NGA Chief Data Scientist Andy Brooks are looking to poach some of the Silicon Valley brains who have solved big data problems for industry. Stay tuned for more on how NGA is breaking the mold… as soon as we’ve combed through the mountain of needles.