Why Open Data is the Future of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency

NGA Director Robert Cardillo

NGA Director Robert Cardillo National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency

“Don’t send a spy where you can send a schoolboy," says the intelligence official leading the agency's effort to work with unclassified data.

Times are a changin’ for the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.

In the past, it was the supercool, secret sauce-worthy stuff NGA did to deliver world-class geospatial intelligence to warfighters, stakeholders and decision-makers on which the agency focused the majority of its efforts.

In recent years, with the explosion of publicly available open data and tools like cloud computing, startups and talented data gurus have encroached on what used to be territory occupied by NGA and its partners.    

The agency still relies heavily on its classified operations, but in recent months, NGA Director Robert Cardillo announced a “seismic shift” underfoot that elevated the importance of unclassified sources of intelligence. To drive that effort, the agency has launched the “GEOINT Pathfinder” team to answer intelligence questions with unclassified data, agile acquisition tools and commercial technology.

“The organization needs to be completely inverted,” said Chris Rasmussen, NGA’s public open source software development lead and the Pathfinder program manager.

“Right now, the base is classified operations and we sprinkle a little open source on top,” Rasmussen said June 25 at the Amazon Web Services Government, Education and Nonprofits Symposium in Washington, D.C.  

“That needs to be completely inverted – the workflow, the culture, the hiring, everything,” he added.

Like flipping the proverbial iceberg over, Rasmussen said NGA’s “base” should actually come from unclassified data and not the other way around.

“If we continue to default to (classified data), we’re going to be irrelevant,” Rasmussen said. “Don’t send a spy where you can send a schoolboy. Intelligence does not always equal secrecy. If the information you need to know is wide out in the open, you don’t need to send a spy. The number of places on this Earth that are open vastly outnumber the closed societies.”

That transition is still quite a ways down the line. 

Rasmussen suggested in the future, the agency might hire more talent without requiring a security clearance. Of course, unclassified data is not necessarily all data that is open to the public, as Rasmussen noted, and the agency would always still have a “high side,” meaning large, high-value classified data sets. But more of NGA’s core mission could be driven by work at the unclassified level, he said.

“That is not to say we won’t spend money on North Korea, but North Korea is the exception, not the rule,” Rasmussen said. “We are not the CIA, we are not the NSA, we have a totally different title, mission and brand.”

Increasingly, that brand has been ingesting more open data and sharing it back with the public, as was the case during the Ebola outbreak and the Nepal earthquake. Given NGA’s national security focus, the agency will always have a secret sauce component. But in the years ahead, its future looks to lie in open data. That is to say, its future is much more open.