When the U.S. government decided to put boots on the ground in West Africa last fall to help staunch an emerging Ebola epidemic, agencies needed a lot of highly- trained medical and logistics personnel. But they also needed reliable maps — something Liberia didn’t have at the time.
It does now, because local officials, overseas governments and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency agreed to work together in an open data framework. NGA led the effort to develop that geographic information in exquisite layers of detail in the span of just a few months, and posted the results on the open Web in real-time.
Robert Cardillo, NGA’s new director, said the approach NGA employed in Operation Unified Assistance is the first big example of an agenda that will mean “unprecedented transparency” for his agency.
If openness is a goal for the intelligence community — and it is, according to the director of national intelligence — NGA has always had an advantage over its sister agencies, since much of the data it works with comes from commercial or otherwise unclassified sources.
But Cardillo, who took over as NGA director last October, wants to take things a step further. Noting that commercial companies are increasingly launching their own satellites and doing other sorts of data collection which used to be the sole province of large governments, he said NGA would be wise to line itself up as a partner — not a competitor — with commercial industry. The agency, he said, wants to take advantage of new data sources, and will do its part by exposing its own data for public consumption to the maximum extent possible.
NGA sees its work in Africa as the first big test-case for that notion. Instead of restricting access on the need-to-know basis that the government is accustomed to, it decided to open its data to anyone who might be able to use it help mitigate the Ebola crisis, and put it in a public cloud, available to anyone with a smartphone or a computer.
“We’re already quite adept at supporting military deployers. But in this case, our objective is to support medical deployers, helping them save lives by posting as much of our data as we can,” Cardillo said. “No passwords, no closed groups.”
NGA has been on the ground in Africa since last October, and since then, it’s posted 202 mapping products (including 111 of Sierra Leone, contributed by its UK government counterpart), 68 different mapping applications and all of its unclassified elevation data for the region.
“This work has guided life-saving decisions by the World Health Organization, USAID and many non-governmental organizations,” Cardillo said. “And we have helped the Liberians learn new geospatial skill sets so they can deliver their own content to their own customers. So we have not just given them fish, we have taught them to fish.”
NGA showed off its west Africa data project at a Washington conference hosted by Esri, a commercial geospatial data firm, and said it aimed to make its open, self- service approach to data sharing the norm in the future, including for disaster responses in the U.S.
In one instance, an NGA employee embedded with the Army’s 101st Airborne Division — working with local officials — was able to respond to a washed- out bridge on a key supply route by doing the equivalent of pressing the “re- route” button on a GPS unit — but in a country that had no reliable maps of its roads until a few months ago.
“The analyst provided two map products with 22 images showing the major turns and bridges for essential supply mission planning. And in the future, the Liberians will be able to use their new geospatial content and techniques to build a modern database about their country for a future census, future elections, and future economic development,” Cardillo said. “This is new for NGA, but it’s our future. We won’t get it exactly right, but I’m highly confident that the experience we’re having in Africa is not the last instance in which we’ll need to expose our data as much as possible.”
While the Ebola datasets are the most prominent open data feature on its public website, they’re only a part of what NGA has taken out from behind the intelligence curtain so far, Cardillo said.
As of this week, the agency has made about a quarter of the unclassified data on its servers accessible via the public Internet. But that’s about as far as NGA can go at the moment, given the legal agreements it has in place with vendors and government agencies who supply much of that data. Cardillo said NGA is actively working with licensors and foreign nations to raise that percentage.
“What I’m finding very constructive about our experience on the Ebola front is that it’s forcing us to confront these issues, and we’re working through them like we’ve never done before,” he said.
NGA wants those data barriers to be broken down as quickly as possible, Cardillo said, because of what he sees as a “democratization” of geospatial intelligence.
Now that a large proportion of planet’s population now carries Internet- connected devices in their pockets which also happen to have built-in GPS receivers, compasses and cameras, commercial and open-source platforms like Waze and OpenStreetMap have turned average citizens into what would normally be called a “sensor” in government intelligence-speak.
And NGA, Cardillo, said, would prefer to cooperate with that movement instead of competing with it.
But the torrent of data that flows from all of those new sensors is daunting, even for a large government agency whose mission is to deal with precisely that type of information.
So besides adopting a cooperative posture toward data sharing, NGA also wants to help build a professional workforce that can make help make sense of it, including through a cooperative research and development agreement NGA established in 2011 with Penn State University.
Through that CRADA, Penn State has recruited commercial experts from Esri, the U.S. Geospatial-Intelligence Foundation and Digital Globe. In the last few months, the Penn State group has created a massive open online course (MOOC) on the interpretation of geospatial information, using the information NGA published as part of the Ebola project as its first case study. More than 12,000 people from 183 countries have signed up for the introductory course so far.