AWS Government, Education, & Nonprofits Blog

NGA’s Open Collaboration and Public-Private Partnership

With a drastically changing technology landscape, Sue Gordon, Deputy Director, National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), explained during the customer spotlight at AWS’s re:Invent conference how we must all adapt to execute our missions. In recent issues of this blog, we have heard from a nonprofit (Quorum), government-funded not-for-profit corporation in Canada (MPAC), and NGA rounds out the federal government customer segment from this event.

NGA delivers world-class geospatial intelligence that provides a decisive advantage to policymakers, warfighters, intelligence professionals and first responders. Sue Gordon’s perspective is that NGA “provides the content and context so the nation can know the truth, see beyond the horizon, and be able to act before events dictate.”

Is she speaking of spy satellites? Sure. But if NGA is going to fulfill its mandate to know the earth, show the way, and understand the world now and in the future, Gordon believes they are going to have to bring a lot more. NGA is in its 20th year and the mission is as vital as ever.

There is absolutely nothing about the mission that is not still valid today, but the conditions in which NGA must execute its mission have changed.

From the beginning

For most of their history, intelligence agencies have been a sturdy, strong (somewhat isolated) house on the prairie. They collected data and stored it in stovepipes. They dealt with issues that were essentially constant. Their customers were a fairly specific set, and although they communicated with each other, it was point-to-point in a very secure manner. But at the time of the attacks of September 11th, the world changed.

Everything was different; it was complex, and chaotic. Data was exploding around the world. And it came at a time where the intelligence community needed to know so much more.

The nature of NGA’s customers and their needs changed.  In order for NGA to be successful, it would require adaptation to the new landscape and movement away from the isolated model of years past.

For example, even the most fundamental element of NGA’s craft—geography—requires new thinking. Borders may look the same as they did in the atlases studied in school, but there is much more going on beyond that. Cultures, relationships, and networks are also vital to truly understanding geography. These microtrends help put what can be seen into the context of what people need to know.

Simply put, what got us here won’t get us there.

Using data

In late 2014 and early 2015, NGA played a behind-the-scenes role in addressing the Ebola crisis. NGA gave the world access to important geospatial data, which was leveraged by medics and international workers to help solve the problem. Since then, this type of information, which has expanded to include data focused on the Nepal earthquake among other data sets impacting the world, is now more routinely made available to the public. With source code and applications, you can use the NGA’s data as well as your own to make important discoveries.

NGA uses AWS and partners, by way of the cloud, to fill in knowledge gaps to fulfill its mission, which is often less secretive than that of other intelligence agencies. “It is key to what we must do, because we must succeed in the open,” Gordon said.

NGA needs a public-private partnership to make the most of the technology available. Industry brought them the cloud infrastructure, but NGA was able to test the technology and use it in innovative ways.

“Being in the government, we can’t pursue things blindly. We have to be sure,” Gordon said, “It is a matter of balance between speed and accuracy, crowdsource and pedigree, national security and civil liberties, classified and unclassified.”

NGA has a compelling mission, a sure need, insurmountable obstacles, and an incredible opportunity.

Learn how NGA adapted to fulfill its mission in this video.