How the NGA App Store Put Tech Acquisition in Top Gear

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The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency can bring innovative software tools to government in as little as a few months.

The federal acquisition process can take years to complete, and in the fast-paced world of tech, that means agencies may not get their hands on the latest tools until they’ve become obsolete.

But the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency found a way to bring innovative software tools to government in a fraction of the time, and for smartphone users, it might sound a bit familiar.

The agency partnered with Engility in 2015 to create the Innovative GEOINT Application Provider Program, or IGAPP, a secure platform akin to the Apple and Google app stores where the Pentagon and intelligence community users can download a wide array of pre-vetted applications to support their mission.

“Adding this operating model to [existing contracting mechanisms] just makes sense, especially because of the turnover in technology,” said T.J. Draper, a geospatial-intelligence engineer at NGA, in a conversation with Nextgov.

As an intermediary between users and designers, Draper works to understand the problems the IC and Pentagon face on the ground and “translate them to technical speak” to help developers build a solution. Sometimes NGA knows exactly what it’s looking for and other times it doesn’t, which gives developers the leeway to try more creative solutions, Draper said.

Once NGA outlines its issues to Engility, the company goes out to find technologists in academia and the private sector to build a solution. Developers then build and submit their software to Engility, which tests the app against government cybersecurity and procurement standards. If it checks all the boxes, the app becomes immediately available in the store and developers get paid per download.

From start to finish, the process can take two months or less.

And given that payouts are directly tied to how many people download their apps, developers have a constant incentive to keep their software secure, user-friendly and up to date.

IGAPP dramatically shortens the timeline for agencies to adopt new tech while also letting more groups compete in the government space, Draper said. Previously, most government business was available only to vendors who could jump through the many hoops of federal acquisition, but because Engility handles the legal responsibilities for IGAPP, small businesses can partake without diverting resources away from developing products, he added.

Today, IGAPP offers 58 different apps in its store—up 90 percent from last year—with another 35 in the works, Draper said. The store has amassed more than 24,000 downloads so far, providing a steady revenue stream for developers, the vast majority of whom are small businesses.

For instance, Aviation Mobile Apps, a one-person company that released seven apps through the program, won this year’s IGAPP Grand Challenge, in which vendors vied to build the best solution for a Defense Department problem. After the victory, the company’s CEO Bill DeWeese told Engility he planned to use the prize money to hire his second employee.

“This is a guy that would’ve never gotten into the process,” said John Holcomb, the IGAPP Program Manager at Engility. “He’s a small business, and he got his foot in the door because of IGAPP. We leveled the playing field for him so he could compete against the big guys, and he won.”

NGA Chief Ventures Officer Christine Monaco told Nextgov working with government can give companies more credibility when they move to the commercial market, and indeed Holcomb said many developers have taken the tools they’ve developed for IGAPP and commercialized them right after they were approved.

Holcomb said traditional contracting models worked well when government conducted most of the country’s research and development—nitpicking the details helped ensure the taxpayer wouldn’t be left holding the bag if something went wrong. While there are some areas where that level of due diligence is needed, Holcomb said a model like IGAPP can help agencies cash in on private sector innovation without bearing too much financial risk.

While not every agency needs its own app store, Draper said IGAPP could pave the way for groups to pilot more innovative ways of bringing emerging technologies into their operations.

“I consider this still a very young program,” he said. “I see this growing [at] NGA and I would like to think other areas within government may look at [IGAPP] as a model of something they may do as well.”