Diana Hughes (center), director of NGA's Office of Small Business, speaks at a panel at the GEOINT Symposium, June 6, 2017. Credit: Chuck Janda/USGIF

SAN ANTONIO, Texas — In five years, space-based, airborne, maritime and ground sensors may collect a million times more geospatial data than they do today, Robert Cardillo, director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, told attendees during a keynote address at the annual GEOINT Symposium. Because NGA could not possibly hire enough imagery analysts to visually inspect all the data, the agency is eager to work with companies that possess expertise in artificial intelligence, machine learning and computer vision.

Diana Hughes, director of NGA’s small business programs office, works with the agency’s program managers, technical personnel and procurement officers to help NGA find small businesses to solve this problem and other challenges the agency faces. Hughes spoke at the annual GEOINT Symposium with SpaceNews correspondent Debra Werner.

Why does NGA work with small businesses?

They bring an agility and responsiveness that’s a little bit quicker and easier for them than it would be for a very large business that has its own management bureaucracy. We are looking for innovation. New companies spring up around great new ideas. We are looking for that kind of out-of-the-box thinking. Solutions to problems we know, intractable problems or things that we don’t know are problems yet. Lastly, we are looking for good prices. We buy a lot and we want the taxpayer dollars we spend to go as far as they can. Sometimes small businesses will bring a better value to the government.

What percentage of NGA’s contracting work is with small businesses?

We are trending upward with small business contracting, both in prime contracting and in subcontracting. For fiscal year 2016, it was 11.2 percent. That is definitely trending upward. We have a lot of small business awards in the works now.

How do you find these companies or do they find you?

They find us. It’s a deliberate decision on the part of a business to do business with the government because we bring a lot of rules. And sometimes we are not just looking for a commercial solution, we are looking for a special solution to a problem that is unique, that nobody else has. So it takes a certain level of commitment for a company to do business with the government.

In addition, to doing business with the government and dealing with federal acquisition rules, does security add another layer?

That does add another layer of complexity but we have a well-established program in the Department of Defense for security. It’s been around a long time. It’s very stable. We have a lot of mechanisms to help companies that haven’t done business with the government before. We help them get through that.

First they have to understand the problem. I imagine some of the problems you are trying to solve are classified. It seems complex.

It really is and it takes commitment on both sides because it doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a special group that commits to working with us in our sector of government.

What are your challenges in working with small businesses?

We’ve heard a lot about our challenges at this conference because the geospatial technology is changing so much and so fast. The technology is exploding. We in our community are facing new problems that we are having to dive deeper to solve. One of the challenges for us is that when you think about government contracting, you don’t think about something that is rapid or agile. How do we shorten our timelines to get inside that technology cycle? That has been a real challenge for us and something we are thinking hard about. At this conference, we are getting ideas from other agencies and from technology companies. How can we change ourselves to take advantage of what’s going on in the commercial market right now?

Are there specific areas where small business can contribute?

Yes. Particularly in geospatial technology, we are looking for artificial intelligence, machine learning, computer vision, those automation and data-analysis algorithms that are going to help us make sense of this explosion of data so the analyst, instead of spending all of their time looking for different data, is going to have data that’s relevant to them served up. It’s imperative that we bring in these capabilities.

If a small business thinks they have a capability that would be of interest to you, what’s the best way to get in touch?

We have a number of outreach activities and vectors to bring in knowledge of those capabilities. We attend conferences throughout the year where we meet businesses. We have outposts in Silicon Valley, New York, St. Louis, Boston, San Antonio and Tampa. The past year or so we’ve been doing a lot of hackathons and challenges, trying to attract that creative tech thinking. Then, we have the good old government contracting way we’ve always done business. We have a presence on Federal Business Opportunities. We are trying to announce programs in the open as much as we can so we reach the broadest segment of the market. We are also trying to look at what we buy and break it into smaller, more manageable pieces so a small business could say, “I could code that service for you” or “I have the product that can do this discreet piece.” We call that modular contracting. We are trying to use those techniques to get inside that technology cycle.

It sounds like a lot of this activity is recent or accelerating.

It’s accelerating. It’s only been in the last few years that we’ve seen the commercial market growing so quickly. Geospatial information is a part of our everyday lives now. We all carry it on our phones and depend on it. Our customers demand that kind of responsiveness too.

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...