“We need an edge.”
That’s the message from Anthony Vinci, a former tech entrepreneur turned executive at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency—the agency central to gathering and disseminating geospatial data relevant to combat support, disaster response and national security issues.
But NGA faces hurdles similar to federal agencies across government in today’s environment of rapid technological change: In talent and technology, it’s tough to stay ahead. The government used to invest in and develop many of the new, cool technologies commercial companies would seize upon and consumers would ultimately use, like the internet and GPS.
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“Now that’s flipped on its head,” said Vinci, who arrived at NGA in January as its director of plans and programs.
“The pace of R&D and technological change is increasing so rapidly now that there needs to be another additional way for these large organizations and agencies to relate and interact with those inventors of technology, and to drive that invention to solve their problems,” Vinci said.
As a former founder of a tech company called Findyr and seasoned management consultant, Vinci is keenly aware that the lion’s share of technological innovation exists in industry. So too do some of the top tech minds in the field.
Through public-private partnerships and upcoming workforce initiatives, Vinci said NGA is planning to tap both those companies and their brain trust. That’s “the edge” the NGA wants to harness.
“We want to partner with companies, inventors and academics to invent new things that can be used by both parties,” Vinci said, explaining how industry and the agency can benefit.
NGA’s data is the dangling carrot here, as well as its most precious resource.
Vinci can’t say how much data NGA holds, but it is most certainly at least hundreds of petabytes—if not exabytes of it. For perspective, a single petabyte could store the digital contents of the Library of Congress 15 times over. In a hypothetical partnership, NGA might “lend some of its data” to a company that in turn adds value to it, perhaps by creating new applications, algorithms, automations or other uses.
Both NGA and the partnering company would be able to use these new tools, but the NGA could get an extra benefit by melding whatever product is developed with its classified capabilities.
Vinci said NGA is in the early days of its public-private partnership exploration. The agency is conducting market research into the needs of companies in the geospatial realm and ironing out kinks with other parts of government, including the Defense Department and Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Security is a prime concern, and any data sharing would have to meet the intelligence community’s rigorous information security standards. Yet Vinci said the NGA “wants to open the door as wide as we can.”
“We can’t always be behind a [sensitive compartmented information facility] door,” Vinci said, referring to a room where officials discuss classified information shielded from the possibility of digital snooping.
A New Way to Recruit
Last year, the NGA unveiled its eNGAge initiative aimed at bringing more knowledge from industry into the agency. The initiative places NGA employees in temporary industry positions and invites industry employees to temporarily come into NGA.
In the coming months, Vinci said NGA plans to announce a new workforce initiative that has some similarities with the General Services Administration’s 18F program and the U.S. Digital Service.
Both 18F and USDS bring tech recruits from Silicon Valley and elsewhere for one- or two-year terms of service in government. Their employees work with other federal agencies to mitigate tech problems or help build or purchase modern IT systems.
Vinci said a similar program might help attract the kind of tech talent NGA craves at the moment, particularly data scientists, software and visualization engineers, and developers.
“We want to give people an opportunity to serve,” Vinci said.
The NGA’s mission might make it an attractive temporary destination for talented techies who want to serve their country—including those who are employed but seeking new challenges, those in between jobs and postdoctoral students. As with its plans for public-private partnerships, some kinks have to be worked out.
The soon-to-be-announced program does not yet have a name. The NGA must also determine the best way to deal with security clearances for temporary employees, which can take several months or longer. Vinci said many positions would not necessarily require a security clearance, but some likely would, and some techies might not want to wait around for one.
Yet the NGA has a unique advantage over its competitors in attracting this kind of talent.
“You could have a great time, do some cool things and literally save people’s lives,” Vinci said.