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Susan Smith
Susan Smith
Susan Smith has worked as an editor and writer in the technology industry for over 16 years. As an editor she has been responsible for the launch of a number of technology trade publications, both in print and online. Currently, Susan is the Editor of GISCafe and AECCafe, as well as those sites’ … More »

FedGIS Day 2 Plenary: From National Geospatial Intelligence Agency to Greener Infrastructure

March 3rd, 2016 by Susan Smith

At Esri FedGIS held in Washington D.C. last week, the second day opened with inspiring plenary speaker, Susan Gordon, deputy director, National Geospatial Intelligence Agency (NGA).
Susan Gordon

A scientist and zoologist, Gordon met Esri president, Jack Dangermond, “about a year ago” at the same conference, when she was one month into her position as deputy director. At that time, she said, Jack told her the NGA “was doing it all wrong.”

“We have been working with Esri to advance our GEOINT capabilities,” said Gordon. “We have no choice but to succeed, but we need partners to do that.”

Robert Cardillo, director of the NGA, talked about sharing data openly re the Ebola crisis. This was done in partnership with Esri.

Currently, the NGA are in the midst of developing elevation models of Alaska and eventually the whole Arctic. This effort includes vital information such as how residents of the Arctic get their drinking water, military operations and supports anything that requires elevation.

The vision of leveraging partnerships, both today and tomorrow, requires a geospatial platform in a shared environment, according to Gordon. “GEOINT Services enable that vision and will be available this year across multiple security domains,” Gordon said. GEOINT services represents more at NGA, empowers analysts and by doing so supports community.

She listed a number of threats that face the nation, including the most obvious – terrorism and natural disasters. 54% of the world’s population are living in cities, and the availability of drinking water has become critical to many.


NGA’s Team GEOINT includes media, public, intelligence community, industry, international partners, government, think tanks, academia who find and use data.

Sharing data has not been popular in the federal government, often for obvious reasons.

“We now share cloud based services,” said Gordon. “We can share information among agencies to allow information to move freely between them. NGA will be moved to cloud-enabled within two years. It will allow us to respond quicker.”

NGA will have a cloud-based scalable geospatial platform, where they will expose their content and your content in a way that’s useful. “We will demand every piece of intelligence is tied to a place in time even if it’s not traditional GIS data. The biggest impact is it will speed up discovery, access to, data.” This way NGA will be able to get more solutions to their workforce faster.

“Time is crushing us, we cannot afford to tarry,” said Gordon. “You will be able to spend less time hunting and gathering and more time deploying.”

The NGA’s fiscal year 2016 plan, includes building GIS tools into Insight, a repository to help users.

One of the NGA’s initiatives is harvesting the data in images, “every feature from every image independent of the frame,” continued Gordon. “not a single possibility is enough if you don’t have services to allow you to manipulate them so you can test your hypotheses and demonstrate what they show.”

In additional the NGA are changing the way they acquire and develop tools. DevOff methodology establishes a developer environment that supports insertion of software directly into the NGA cloud. This reduces the timeline dramatically so that they can push out tools hopefully in minutes. This process will be applied in all networks.

NGA’s foundation GEOINT layers enable military men to access information on the network they work on. This provides a platform for analytics and geosharing on all NGA portals and provides services in one location. The NGA wants to provide a user-friendly online presence, support resource allocation and “more than maps.”

Gordon said as of “yesterday” (meaning Wednesday of last week) ICGS portal users have been active and expect to be over the next 90 days. Using the tools within the ICGS portal, analysts could do mapping, real time updates, within days.

The Rio 2016 Olympics will be a study in enhanced situational awareness, with tools provided to the community. Data piles up quickly, so the goal is to make data useful, enable answering of questions. Leading up to the games, these are the issues that will be addressed:

  • 12 million residents across the Rio metro area
  • 4,781 people per square km within Rio City limits
  • 17 days, 206 countries participating 306 events
  • Over 500,000 foreign visitors and millions of Brazilian tourists

The many logistical challenges for everyone involved: visitors, officials, and locals requires anticipatory analysis to obtain situational awareness and facilitate critical resource allocation in advance of the Olympics:

  • Social services
  • Public safety and security
  • Transportation logistics
  • Tourist/spectator services

There is a balance between working for combat support, balance between speed and accuracy, crowdsourced and pedigreed data, and balance between openness and protection.

So much data is now available that was not produced for the NGA. “When the government produces data, there is an expectation that it is validated,” said Gordon. “When we match government’s purpose, tradecraft, with industry, good things happen.”

Gordon is working to create cultural change in an organization that is somewhat stovepiped. “We like relevance more. We talk about how hard this moment really is, and in the end there is comfort because you’re doing something right. ‘The way we always did it,’ is no longer valid. When we get to a moment when it’s hard, we think the idea is bad. Culture loves achievement. Appreciate acknowledgement. We have great people. Our struggle is not to treat our processes as though they were handed down on stone tablets.”

Structured observation is the act of taking information content out of an image and making it available for use independently of it. Another way of looking at it is, “When you have all the world’s images and all features contained therein and now they’re available for play,” said Gordon.

Gary Knell, director, National Geographic

Gary Knell, President and CEO, National Geographic

Gary Knell, president and CEO of National Geographic spoke about the history of the National Geographic briefly, from its beginning in 1888 in Washington D.C. A precipitous event was Frederick Olmstead’s viewing of Yellowstone, in 1865, when he realized that viewing nature was favorable to health and vigor.

Knell suggests that our brains don’t do well if we don’t have enough nature in our lives. “The presidential debate should be outdoors,” he joked.


Studies have shown nature encourages empathy and increases brain activity. In partnership with Esri, the National Geographic has provided a map to create a greener infrastructure for America.

“We will work with Esri on providing several products, tools and resources for states to be used by planning professionals, from local conservation groups and local property owners, to make informed decisions about their open spaces, our newly formed Open Excellence in Mapping,” said Knell. For more information, look up Green Infrastructure Framework for America.

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Categories: 3D Cities, analytics, Big Data, citizen science, climate change, cloud, cloud network analytics, data, disaster relief, emergency response, Esri, field GIS, geocoding, GEOINT, geospatial, GIS, handhelds, image-delivery software, location intelligence, mapping, mobile, National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, NGA, OpenGeo, remote sensing, resilient cities, Rio 2016 Olympics, satellite imagery, spatial data, UAVs, USGS

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