NGA looks to tech to support unclassified workforce

Rendering of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency's western headquarters in St. Louis, expected to be completed in 2025

Rendering of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency's western headquarters in St. Louis, expected to be completed in 2025 James Lowe / U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency is looking to the future with plans to accommodate uncleared employees and to be prepared for "a changing world environment that we don't anticipate," said Mark Andress, the agency's CIO.

The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency is imagining a hybrid work environment that supports uncleared workers and visitors while trying to make space for unanticipated needs, the agency's CIO said.

Mark Andress, the CIO for the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, said modernizing the IT infrastructure for its St. Louis campus is a priority for 2022, calling it a "post-COVID, intelligence community facility designed and conceived prior to COVID." 

The goal, he said during a virtual event hosted by the Intelligence and National Security Alliance on Jan. 6, is for the facility to handle traditional, highly classified intelligence gathering and analysis "in the same facility, or networked in and out of facility, with a purely unclassified production environment. And that is what has been a huge security goal."

Andress said the idea is to be able to "rapidly attract the right workforce" and have them "start working in an unclassified environment on intelligence production, on software development, and being able to harness that knowledge and energy while they're getting vetted." 

A hybrid-capable facility also opens NGA to work with academic institutions or companies that don't have security clearances, he said. 

Andress said the plan is for NGA to have half of its workforce cleared to work in sensitive compartmented information facilities, 25% in unclassified, and the remaining "25% will be able to accommodate a changing world environment that we don't anticipate." 

"We're also taking on a lot of work on making the facility wireless," Andress said, "and on the relationship to cloud computing, and the desktop, so going from thick, to thin to zero clients."

The NGA has been open about its handling of hybrid telework environments during the earlier parts of the COVID-19 pandemic, a trend that other parts of the Defense Department is embracing as well. 

"We deployed a secure unclassified production environment for our topographic team, so that they can, from their home, update topographic features, and that's only going to expand," Andress said.

And while unclassified work from home on personal devices is possible, that embrace of flexibility is tempered a bit when it comes to bringing your own approved device into the agency's facilities. 

"I'm coming to you from my own device in my home today, and I can log right into my unclassified, [for official use only] secure environment and go right to work in an unclassified environment. So we're already there," Andress said. 

"Where we have not gotten is bringing those devices into our buildings and using those. And I don't know that we're going to pursue that anytime in the near term from a security perspective." 

Other modernization priorities

Andress said untangling the myriad of legacy systems of systems also tops priorities for 2022, and the NGA plans to release its service-centric platform and common operating environment, while also modernizing its global compute and storage infrastructure by migrating to the Intelligence Community's Commercial Cloud Enterprise (C2E). The agency also recently awarded a $4.5 billion contract to General Dynamics IT for user-facing and data center IT services at its headquarters and other facilities. 

Additionally, Andress said the NGA is preparing to publish a coder's "cookbook" for in-house tech workers and contractors that focuses on metrics and "how we want our software development before you write through the development, through the first deliverable, and then operationally through the iterations."

Andress said: "This doesn't sound like much, but it's a big deal. And these will be the two big drivers this year."