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IC uses people and technology to harness growing data

The intelligence community is dealing with burgeoning volumes of data. One reason is the growth in sources of data. To their traditional data gathering activities, analysts have been steadily adding open source and commercial data as they seek to enrich analytic capabilities.

Growth in data, plus the mixing of classified, sensitive, and open data brings both technology and human capital challenges.

Dr. Stacey Dixon, the principal deputy director of National Intelligence, put it this way:...

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The intelligence community is dealing with burgeoning volumes of data. One reason is the growth in sources of data. To their traditional data gathering activities, analysts have been steadily adding open source and commercial data as they seek to enrich analytic capabilities.

Growth in data, plus the mixing of classified, sensitive, and open data brings both technology and human capital challenges.

Dr. Stacey Dixon, the principal deputy director of National Intelligence, put it this way: “We do collect a lot of data here in the IC. That’s both through our own collection through people and sensors, as well as by purchasing data that’s available commercially, or obtaining data that’s available through open source.”

The conversation, she said, centers on how the IC improves data curation, whether data is suitable for artificial intelligence applications, whether it is compatible with other sources, and whether the IC manage data so that it’s discoverable across the community. Dixon said that when data meets all of those criteria, “we can speed up the time it takes to actually get those actionable insights from it.”

On the issue of data sharing within the IC, Dixon noted that the IC, in the post 9/11 era, was an early developer of wiki-style commons for sharing data. With nearly two decades of experience, “I would say the data is a lot more accessible to the variety of organizations. The question becomes less how do I get access to your data, than how do I take all the data and derive insights from it?”

Data growth is certainly affecting the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, one of the IC components.

“We do face the ever growing challenge of a large volumes of data and needing to be able to quickly analyze that information and turn it into actionable intelligence,” said Deputy NGA Director Tonya Wilkerson. “We see in the coming years, the next five to 10 years, that we’re going to have a significant increase in the volume of data for which we will need to be able to quickly assess and analyze.”

NGA’s technology focus, perhaps not surprisingly, is on artificial intelligence and machine learning.

“That helps us to be able to quickly identify patterns of interest for our analysts,” Wilkerson said, “then to review and be able to rapidly get intelligence into the hands of our customers.” She said NGA expect these technologies to increase the speed and capability of the nation’s military and humanitarian response efforts.

“We realize is that we also need to innovate at speed at a speed and scale that matches this dynamic threat landscape of the 21st century,” Wilkerson said. “That is leading us down the path of making sure we’re investing smartly through deliberate, well-planned and interoperable government and industry engagements.”

Diverse people needed

The best supporting technology won’t itself produce analytical products unless the agency has the people it needs.

Success, Wilkerson said, depends on “having the right talent to be able to ensure that we’re able to analyze this ever increasing magnitude of data.” She said NGA is actively hiring people, focusing on STEM – science, technology, engineering and math – backgrounds.  But NGA is also looking for people with social science skills as well as people with acquisition expertise. Teams of people with diverse skills, she said, “to modernize, for instance, our analytic workflow in a particular area.”

At the IC level, Dixon said, “we are always hiring all sorts of backgrounds, all sorts of disciplines, because we find that it makes for better outputs, it makes for better insights.”

She said there’s a focus on data strategists and coders. “We want people who can help us manipulate the data in ways that allows it to be analyzed more efficiently or more effectively, or to be able to bring in different kinds of insights at the same time.”

“But,” Dixon added, “we will never, ever not need people who are more focused on the social sciences, who know the history, who know, international relations.”

Ultimately, Wilkerson said, improving the intelligence mission and making best use of growing data “is a combination of having the right people and the right technology. That is going to help us to make sure that we’re successful with respect to our overall data challenge.”