NGA director hopes to foster next “unicorn” by inviting innovators to feed at agency’s data trough

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LOGAN, Utah — The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency plans to establish a public-private partnership that would allow companies and academic researchers to dip into its vast geospatial-data archive in exchange for access to the new products and services they create, like change-detection algorithms, hyperspectral imagery applications or automated ways to label objects in images.

“Our idea is to invest the data into the U.S. economy, U.S. companies, universities and inventors,” NGA Director Robert Cardillo said Aug. 7 at the annual Conference on Small Satellites here. “We give data and get back data and technology in return.”

Cardillo’s announcement comes less than a month after NGA awarded a $14 million contract to smallsat success story Planet for a year’s worth of imagery from its fleet of more than 140 active remote-sensing Dove cubesats.

The U.S. government has decades worth of geospatial imagery labeled to identify its contents as well as maps and other types of geographic information system (GIS) data.

“We must find inventors who have the skill and talent and experience to take that and turn it into something even more valuable,” Cardillo said. “For example, if a company comes up with a great change-detection algorithm, they can sell it commercially and become the next unicorn. We just want to be able to use the new invention ourselves and combine it with our classified sources and apply it across our mission spectrum.”

NGA is seeking congressional authority to begin forming these new public-private partnerships in 2018, but Cardillo cautioned, “It’s a bold idea with many challenges.”

For example, NGA is working with lawyers to figure out how to share data openly, while protecting government sources and methods, and safeguarding intellectual property, Cardillo said.

If NGA receives congressional authority to proceed, it will offer data and analysis to “promising startups, longstanding industry partners, schools and think tanks,” with the goal of obtaining a return on the government’s data investment, Cardillo said. The return could take the form of new algorithms, machine vision approaches, applications or “something we never thought of,” he added.

NGA hopes to form this public-private partnership as part of its ongoing campaign to take advantage of the proliferation of space-based sensors and the geospatial information they offer.

“If we attempted to manually exploit the expected satellite imagery that we will receive over the next 20 years, we would need to hire eight million imagery analysts,” Cardillo said. “That is not a viable solution.”

Instead, NGA seeks to work with the entire geospatial community to harness dramatic improvements in computing power to analyze data in a less labor-intensive way and use that analysis to help U.S. defense and intelligence agencies anticipate threats, confirm intelligence reports and give leaders the information they need to make decisions, Cardillo said.