NGA Director Robert Cardillo speaking at the 2018 GEOINT Symposium in Tampa, Florida.

TAMPA, Florida — The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency plans to continue adding datasets, tools and challenges to GEOWorks, the collaborative data-sharing platform NGA Director Robert Cardillo unveiled April 23 at the 2018 GEOINT Symposium here.

NGA launched the GEOWorks site as a way to invite U.S. people and organizations to look at some of its unclassified data and use the data to build algorithms, participate in hackathons and compete in challenges.

“Over time, we will be releasing new and unique datasets,” said Anthony Vinci, NGA chief technology officer. “The target market for this is the wider geospatial intelligence enterprise of companies and academics who want to engage in that way. Maybe they want to find a doorway into NGA to do contracts later or they are just interested in learning more about geospatial analysis.”

NGA built GEOWorks much like a startup would, racing for eight weeks to roll something out in time for the GEOINT Symposium. The site continues to evolve. Within days of announcing GEOWorks, the agency added a second challenge competition to address a problem NGA identified.

Since NGA is careful not to reveal classified data or the actual problems its analysts wrestle with, the GEOWorks challenges and hackathons are aimed at identifying transferable tools or techniques.

“You figure out a proxy problem that is similar but not the same as what you are really interested in,” Vinci told SpaceNews.

To gain access to GEOWorks, individuals create accounts on Once there, they have access to a MITRE Corp. toolset, called Symphony, to explore and interact with data. Symphony, lets people “quickly set up networks that are highly secure,” said Jay Crossler, MITRE chief engineer.

GEOWorks is designed to reach beyond traditional government contractors to individual inventors and small companies who don’t have contact with the intelligence community.

“I think about the way innovation happens,” said Vinci, the former founder and chief executive of Findyr, a technology company that crowdsources data collection globally. “The wider the audience of people trying out new ways of doing something, the higher the probability that we’ll come upon an answer. For a long time, the intelligence community has been so closed. We’ve done great things, but we want to inject new ideas into the system.”

NGA needs innovative ways to keep up with the ever-expanding flow of sensor data. “The amount of data has increased significantly and that curve is only getting steeper,” Vinci said. “We, as an agency, have a duty to use all the data available to us to create the best intelligence products for decisionmakers or warfighters.”

NGA’s team of analysts is not expanding, which means the agency needs artificial intelligence and automation techniques to perform the work more efficiently. “We need some form of automation to perform some parts of the analysis and ideally to augment the analysts themselves so they are focusing at higher and higher levels of the analytical chain,” Vinci said.

Rather than counting aircraft at a specific location, perhaps machines could perform that work while analysts considered what the presence or absence of aircraft meant and drafted their recommendations for decisionmakers, Vinci said. “We want analysts to focus as much as possible on those questions and not have to focus on the who, what and where kind of questions,” he added.

As GEOWorks evolves over time, companies could contribute their own datasets.

“The commercial space industry is growing like crazy,” Vinci said. “We want to take advantage of that at NGA. But when you have something truly new, it’s not always easy to bring it to a government agency. I would tell those who have new datasets, ‘Making data available on the site may be a good way to show it to NGA and to other people within this wider geospatial intelligence community.’”

Vinci sees GEOWorks as part of a continuum that could lead to government contracts. Someone who creates an algorithm for a GEOWorks challenge could be eligible for an Other Transactions Authority (OTA) agreement. Defense and intelligence agencies are using OTAs increasingly to obtain prototypes. Unlike standard procurement awards, OTAs are not subject to the lengthy Federal Acquisition Regulations.

“From GEOWorks, they could be invited into an OTA,” Vinci said. “And from an OTA, we might want to scale that prototype, into a contract. This becomes the lead-in for companies to do something with the agency.”

Debra Werner is a correspondent for SpaceNews based in San Francisco. Debra earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University. She...