Geospatial-as-a-service isn't far off

As commercial satellite imaging companies multiply, NGA is looking for new ways to acquire mapping data.

Robert Cardillo, Director of the National Geospatial Intelliengence Agency

NGA Director Robert Cardillo said the agency wants "to become more agile and revisit fundamental acquisition strategies."

Instead of fielding its own systems, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency is developing a "credit card swipe" approach to adding commercially gathered, unclassified intelligence to its data, according to NGA Director Robert Cardillo.

With the rise of commercial satellite imagery providers such as Google's Terra Bella, Planet Labs and BlackSky, NGA is developing new acquisition methods to make its operations more cost-effective and efficient, Cardillo said in a rare public briefing before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on Sept. 27.

"The era of multiyear, billion-dollar contracts for services that last decades have had their time," he told the committee. "We have to become more agile and revisit fundamental acquisition strategies."

NGA launched a commercial geospatial intelligence strategy nearly a year ago to help it conduct nimbler acquisitions and make better use of unclassified information. It has partnered with the General Services Administration on the Commercial Initiative to Buy Operationally Responsive GEOINT (CIBORG), which will smooth commercial purchases of geospatial intelligence data, products and services.

Cardillo said the CIBORG contract model, which will be completed early next year, will give the agency the ability to try commercial services in small amounts in a "let me swipe my credit card and explore opportunities" approach rather than committing to a years-long contract with a company.

Senators at the hearing encouraged Cardillo's innovative data acquisition efforts. "That sounds constructive," Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said. "I'd like to see you turn the dial way up on that."

NGA has been moving on other acquisition fronts as well. On Sept. 12, it signed a $20 million contract to subscribe to Planet Labs' imagery products and services. The contract will allow the Defense Department and intelligence community to access the company's global imagery, which is updated every fifteen days, according to NGA. The introductory contract will last for seven months.

The agency has also turned to crowdsourcing by using Challenge.gov to get working code that can take data with different formats, schemas, interfaces and locations and make it centrally available for search and analysis.

NGA's open, flexible efforts to acquire commercial geointelligence data "hasn't hit any walls yet," Cardillo said, adding that understanding "the art of the possible" can sometimes be difficult for organizations that cling to the "comfort zone" of old ways. But small innovative acquisition wins can build momentum over time, he said.

Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) said the committee held the open hearing -- the first for NGA officials and only the seventh for the committee so far this year -- because the agency's work is important and becoming more public.

In response to senators' questions about using geospatial intelligence to inform the intelligence community's work in crisis zones around the world, Cardillo said NGA was supplementing commercial and classified data with nontraditional sources -- such as social media, open-source data and even news reports -- to keep tabs on activities in international hotspots.

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