Geospatial intel agency opens doors to new Virginia headquarters

Building's IT systems are designed to improve speed and range of visual intelligence while easing information sharing among dispersed employees.

With hard-hatted construction workers trudging through icy mud visible behind her, Letitia Long led the way into the massive new headquarters for the spy agency she heads.

The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency opened its $1.7 billion Campus East to several hundred employees on Jan. 18. Director Long said the new building in Springfield, Va., is designed to enable NGA's 8,500 analysts and other workers to deliver better intelligence faster.

"This is an opportunity for the NGA to implement its vision of increasing our analytic depth," Long said in remarks before leading a tour of finished sections of the 2.4-million-square-foot structure.

The building was designed to promote collaboration among NGA employees, she said. Through greater information sharing and computer systems built on a new information technology architecture, NGA hopes to produce improved geospatial intelligence, including predictive intelligence, Long said.

Geospatial intelligence -- or "GEOINT" -- is sensitive information gleaned by fusing maps, charts, photographs and images collected by satellites, reconnaissance planes and assorted sensors, along with other data. It is intended "to help warfighters and national decision-makers visualize what they need to know," NGA noted in a press release.

Long said the new headquarters is the first the agency has had that was "purpose-built" for the GEOINT mission.

Key improvements include new information technology and an IT architecture that eliminates a multitude of separate systems, she said. In the past, as NGA developed new applications, it added servers dedicated to those applications. The result was "banks of servers for individual systems," Long said.

In the new architecture, "we have applications that can ride on any server," perhaps at the East Campus, or perhaps at the West Campus in St. Louis, Mo. The result will be "much more flexibility" because applications will no longer be dependent on particular servers, an NGA spokesman said.

Even NGA employees who have not yet relocated permanently to the new headquarters now can log in on any computer there and gain access to their files, e-mail and other digital data, said spokesman Timothy Taylor, who attended the opening-day visit.

Long said NGA analysts will be able to produce GEOINT faster because more data have been digitized for the new system. Imagery that might have taken a day or more to locate on archived tape now can be found within minutes, she said.

And with greater speed and better access to data, NGA hopes to anticipate events rather than simply provide intelligence about them after they have occurred, Long said.

To do that, the agency is turning to "human geography." Essentially, that means studying how human beings interact with their physical environment.

Human geography includes a range of elements, from tribal boundaries and population centers to birth and death rates, education and the proximity of people to health facilities. "Culture, race, language and where people congregate" are also parts of human geography, Long said.

By combining this knowledge with other geospatial intelligence, NGA hopes to predict such things as where pandemics might break out, where transnational crime might spread, where populations are susceptible to extremist ideology and where mass migrations are likely.

Long said she hopes NGA will be able to "tip off the rest of the intelligence community on what to focus on."

Donning her own hard hat, Long led visitors into an enormous eight-story headquarters building. She ushered visitors into large, open rooms filled with short cubicles dominated by computer screens. White noise piped through small speakers in the ceiling masks office sounds such as phone calls and conversations.

Several rooms are grouped together into "neighborhoods" for workers performing related jobs. And the neighborhoods are connected by common areas that feature refrigerators, microwave ovens, tables and chairs, and rooms filled with printers, including large map-making machines.

The idea is to make it easier for employees within neighborhoods and in different neighborhoods to collaborate, Long said. That has been has been difficult for NGA workers who now work in offices as separate as the Navy Yard in downtown Washington; Reston and Dulles 25 miles to the west in Virginia, 10 miles north in Bethesda, Md., and 12 miles south at the Army's Fort Belvoir, also in Virginia, NGA officials said.

The new offices are cooled in summer by a system that circulates chilled water through ducts in the ceiling rather than by forced-air air conditioning. The small pumps that circulate the water are much less expensive to run than the fans that circulate the air, said Thomas Bukoski, NGA's deputy director for facilities.

The roof over a soaring atrium is made from two layers of tough translucent Teflon fabric separated by a pillow of air, Bukoski said. And a "green roof" of hardy plants will shield lower levels of the building against heat and cold.

Construction work is 86 percent done, and Campus East is scheduled for completion in September, he said. NGA employees are scheduled to move into the building several hundred at a time between now and then.

Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly stated the name of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.

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