NGA crowdsources data access

NGA launches campaign with $200,000 in prize money for best solution to a data access problem.

The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency is tempting coders with $200,000 in prize money through the federal government's hub for challenge and prize competitions.

NGA's "disparate data solutions" campaign is seeking working code that can take data with different "formats, schemas, interfaces and locations" and make it centrally available for search and analytics.

NGA has issued an RFP for an enterprise-scale solution to its data search challenges, but Air Force Col. Marc DiPaolo, chief of mainstreaming capabilities in NGA's Enterprise Innovation Office, said there was an opportunity to go beyond the traditional mechanisms.


"If we release the same RFP to the same group of companies, we might tend to get the same types of responses we've always received," he said. "And maybe we could enhance our own understanding with what's possible with the challenge."

He emphasized that the challenge is parallel to the RFP, and not replacing the traditional process. But NGA is using as part of its effort to prototype acquisition reforms.

DiPaolo said the government's current acquisition model is "totally appropriate for buying an aircraft carrier, but not at all appropriate for getting a slight modification to open source software."

DiPaolo added that this challenge is as open ended as possible to allow contestants to be creative and innovative in their approach to the problem.

"We had a hypothesis that there is existing capability right now that could meaningfully move the ball on our search problem if we could only find it," said DiPaolo.

"So, for a maximum of $200,000… we're going to prove or disprove hypothesis, and either way there is value to the government."

The choice to launch this challenge was also informed by one NGA issued earlier this year. Nicholas Starke, a penetration tester and computer software evaluator in Iowa, won that challenge to "track changes to a story in a dynamic, fast and aesthetic way."

"Here was this guy in the middle of Iowa who is contributing intellectual property to the intelligence community," said DiPaolo. "We didn't have to prequalify him as a small business, we didn't have to have him run through a prime contractor, [and] he didn't need a security clearance. We just said, 'here's what we need' and this guy did it, and he did it better than anyone else."

DiPaolo said that NGA would never have had access to Starke and his innovative solution through traditional acquisition channels.

"I think you're going to see more of this as the federal government, as DOD begins to understand new ways it can use its challenge authorities to do things differently," said DiPaolo.

The current challenge will have two stages. The first will award 15 prizes of $10,000 each for "solutions that successfully implement functioning code that can access and retrieve either part or all of the provided representative datasets."

In the second round, a panel of NGA judges will test drive the winning solutions and award $25,000 to the winner.