NGA Looking at Amazon, Apple for Imagery Distribution Ideas

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PARIS — The new director of the U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) said Nov. 2 the agency will adopt the practices of online retailers and smartphone application developers as it seeks not only to change the way it distributes satellite imagery and related intelligence products, but also the way end users can interact with the data.

NGA Director Letitia Long, who was appointed to the job in August, also said her organization needs to expand its expertise from analyzing what is happening in a given area toward anticipating what is likely to happen.

Addressing the GeoInt 2010 Symposium here, Long promised that the NGA would be doing more to transform itself into a provider of online, on-demand geospatial information services whose data are available without laborious intervention by NGA personnel.

She said the NGA will aim to provide data in the same way that online retailers like Amazon.com provide products. In addition, she said, the NGA will be encouraging users to provide applications — using Apple’s iPhone as a model — that the NGA can layer onto its website.

The NGA, she said, has not fully capitalized on location-based services offered by the Internet and mobile devices, and the agency must allow its users to help develop the applications — or apps — of the future.

“Would you like to determine potential helicopter landing zones? We’ll build an app for that,” Long said, adding that making it easier for users to “serve themselves” from the NGA’s website is her near-term objective.

“NGA has not taken full advantage of these technologies and incorporated both what’s possible and increasingly commonplace today in how we deliver what we have and what we know,” she said.

Today, the NGA’s intelligence products are fairly static and typically must be downloaded from local networks not accessible to many potential users of the information, Long said.

Earlier this year when a massive Earthquake rocked Haiti, the NGA responded by making many geospatial products available online to aid the international relief effort there, she said. NGA products showed the location of airfields as a function of distance to the earthquake’s epicenter so aid could be delivered; lidar maps of the country were created to show the initial levels of destruction; and detailed graphics showed the location and level of damage to hospitals, transportation routes and refugee camps.

But creating these products was a labor-intensive process, and once they were initially made available, they had to be updated manually by NGA personnel. All of the NGA’s products must be made available online, so that users anywhere in the world with any type of digital device can  access them and even add information, Long said.

“I’d like to see transparent access to as much raw data as possible, including open source data,” she said. “I’d like to see a proliferation of apps, developed both by providers and users alike that empower users to ‘do it themselves’ when and where they want. I’d like to see innovative use of social networking behavior and technology to enhance and easily share what we know on a continual basis.”

At the same time, another goal for the NGA is to evolve its products to incorporate more cultural data, or “human geography,” about the places that are depicted, Long said. This is the next step in providing more predictive information to decision makers, she said.

“By moving to a more anticipatory posture, we can create new value for the policymakers, the warfighters, the intelligence community and first responders,” she said. “The potential value added is significant: If we can use our GeoInt expertise to focus the national security community on an issue before it becomes a crisis, we will have given everyone the opportunity to leverage their assets more effectively, and we will have given the policymaker valuable time to consider a broader range of policy options.”

The NGA is interested in incorporating information such as tribal boundaries, political ideology, birth and death rates, principal commodities, languages, education, and access to media.

The NGA already is working to implement all of these changes to its products and technical infrastructure, Long said at a Nov. 2 media briefing here following her speech. The NGA does not anticipate requesting more money to fund these efforts, and thus is looking across the agency for areas from which money could be redirected, Long said.

The NGA’s budget is classified.