NIMA shows unusual openness in its RFP

The National Imagery and Mapping Agency a secretive agency with Cold War roots surprised industry and observers this month when it released a detailed and unusually open request for proposals for a contract to integrate its disparate mapping and imagery systems.

The RFP describes an estimated $184 million project called the NIMA Systems Engineering Services (NSES) contract for redesigning stovepiped agency systems that make up the United States Imagery and Geospatial Information System (USIGIS) an assortment of systems the agency uses to provide paper and electronic maps and images to the military intelligence officials and public-policy decision-makers.

Under NSES NIMA officials plan to make the USIGIS more tightly integrated with common graphical interfaces and greater interoperability among its pieces.

The current mixture of systems evolved over decades as a number of predecessor organizations - including the Defense Mapping Agency and the Central Imagery Office which were merged with other mapping agencies to form NIMA - developed their own tailor-made proprietary systems.

Too Many Systems

But in October 1996 when NIMA was created officials found that the new agency encompassed a hodgepodge of customized systems. They also learned that industry was already producing off-the-shelf products that NIMA could use removing the costly requirement of asking industry to develop government-specific mapping systems.

"NIMA inherited multiple engineering and integration support contracts with respective parochial approaches and methodologies as well as legacy organization goals and objectives " NIMA contracting officials wrote in the RFP. "This has resulted in the government spending an inordinate amount of time trying to integrate disparate redundant and/or conflicting efforts."NIMA officials could not be reached for comment.

"A Tremendous Breakthrough"

The RFP offers enormous detail industry sources said. It includes a 31-page statement of work and a 107-page technical letter of direction which sets out the description and objectives for the project. The detail is necessary if the agency is going to find commercial off-the-shelf products and services it needs said Louis Hecht vice president of business development for the Open GIS Consortium Inc. a group advocating interoperability among computer systems for processing geographic or geospatial information.

"It's going to floor a lot of people about how open they're going to be " Hecht said. NIMA and industry "have proved that COTS technology can be the basis for their next-generation system " Hecht said.

John Pike co-director of the Space Policy Project with the Federation of American Scientists and an observer of the intelligence community for almost 20 years said he was surprised by how open NIMA was in the RFP."I absolutely fell out of my chair when I saw this contract " he said. "This is a tremendous breakthrough for them" because NIMA issued such a detailed RFP on a nonclassified level.

What NIMA has done Pike said is successfully differentiate between information that needs to be protected and information that does not have to be protected rather than cover everything with a blanket of secret classification. "We're definitely looking at an agency in evolution. This is the new post-Cold War intelligence agency." The RFP "goes into unprecedented and excruciating detail about how the U.S. Imagery System works " he said. "Two years ago if you had talked about this they would've given you a one-way ticket to Leavenworth."

Pike said he learned about at least one new piece of intelligence software from reading the RFP.

An award for the systems engineering procurement is expected by the end of the year. Competition for the contract will be full and open. The procurement is a recompete of the five-year $150 million Defense Mapping Agency Consolidated Engineering Support contract awarded to TASC and TRW Inc. in June 1996.

A TRW spokeswoman confirmed that the company was considering bidding on the contract but would not comment further. Besides TRW companies expected to bid on NSES include TASC Lockheed Martin Corp. and Science Applications International Corp.

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