WASHINGTON — In today’s intelligence climate, considerable importance is placed on the need for government agencies to quickly and seamlessly share data with one another. But the fact that the different agencies do not always have systems that are interoperable has been a major impediment to turning that goal into reality.
To solve that problem, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) established the Center for Geospatial Intelligence in 2002, not long after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. Since its establishment, the center has been instrumental in defining a group of about a dozen standards that it hopes will become used universally in the geospatial community, said Mark DeMulder, the center’s director.
In the context of geospatial technology, the term “standards” refers to defining a universal system of files and formats for software that is used by everyone in the geospatial community, whether it be the agencies that gather and produce the information, or the companies that build geospatial applications to be used by government customers, DeMulder said.
The center’s responsibility is to define and develop standards on its own, and work with other groups, whether they are international organizations or industry associations, to communicate the standards to the geospatial public.
The center recently completed a baseline group of standards that it believes should be used by the community. With that job done, the center has shifted the focus of its mission to making sure that NGA is following through on the adoption of those standards, DeMulder said.
Some of the new standards include the Web Map Service standard, which defines how graphical images saved in such file formats as GIFs and JPEGs are displayed in geospatial applications.
The center also gives its stamp of approval to existing technology. For example, it has endorsed the use of the Geography Markup Language, a way of encoding geographic information on the Internet, as an approved standard.
Another important standard for the community is one governing metadata, or data about other data, that appears on geospatial information documents, DeMulder said.
One standard still in development would tie together the many types of platforms that hold different airborne sensors, DeMulder said. Developing a set of parameters for the airborne community could provide a savings of more than $100 million, according to NGA’s research, DeMulder said, as the users would not be spending money on efforts to try to get the sensors to work together.
Now that the baseline standards have been set, the center is still working on developing standards for some of the more detailed aspects of geospatial work.
For example, DeMulder said the geospatial community still does not have a standard way of displaying symbols on geospatial maps. If a civil agency and a defense agency each use a different icon to represent a feature such as a lighthouse or a cell phone tower, when the groups are thrown together to respond to a disaster, confusion can result, DeMulder said.
Now that the baseline work is done, the center will spend the bulk of its time doing compliance testing to determine whether the systems that NGA uses meet the standards they have set, DeMulder said. This effort has just gotten under way, and is expected to heat up in 2007, DeMulder said.
NGA got some feedback that it is on the right track in June, when it received three certifications from the International Organization of Standards (ISO), a global governing body that certifies compliance with accepted technical standards for a wide variety of technology. It is the first intelligence agency in the United States to receive ISO certifications, DeMulder said.
In order to ensure that standards are implemented not just by NGA but throughout all government agencies, the center established a Geospatial Intelligence Standards Working Group in 2004, which includes more than 24 member organizations, such as the U.S. Navy, the U.S. Air Force, U.S. Strategic Command and the Department of Homeland Security. It also works with business organizations such as the U.S. Geospatial Intelligence Foundation.
John Moeller, a senior principal engineer for Northrop Grumman and head of the Geospatial Intelligence Foundation’s technical committee, said that the standards have had a positive impact on the geospatial community.
“They’ve encouraged industry to understand how interoperability can be achieved, to work on processes that result in the transfer of shared data between industry partners working on different applications,” Moeller said.
Moeller said that the standard governing meta data is particularly relevant to his community, likening it to a nutrition label on a food item, because it lets you know exactly what you are getting when you receive a piece of information.
He said that having an ongoing institution devoted to standards is important because applications are becoming more advanced all the time, and before long more standards will be needed to govern the new technology being developed.