COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — The world of geospatial intelligence is undergoing a "seismic shift," the head of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) said Tuesday — one that will require a growing reliance on unclassified sources of intelligence.

Robert Cardillo said today's the rapidly evolving threat environment of the modern world means closer ties with industry and exploitation of open sources such as social media are key to making sure his agency can continue to provide top-level intelligence to the US government.

"We have both a challenge and a warning," Cardillo said at the 31st Space Symposium here. "We have only a limited time to transform our mindset and unleash the power of our people to leverage our enterprise and fulfill the potential that these massive changes offer."

As an example of how quickly the world moves, Cardillo pointed to the last several months that featured Russia's invasion of Ukrainian territory, the spread of ebola, the growth of the Islamic State group and the ongoing fallout from the Arab Spring uprisings has put stress on the GEOINT geoint community.

"We must move to understanding more quickly by trending, predicting, forecasting and — anticipating — the threat in hours, if not minutes," he said. "And we must offer our customers potential courses of action dynamically."

The good news, Cardillo said, is that new technologies can also be exploited by NGA analysts. He highlighted three areas his team is focused on.

The first is technological game changers that are publicly available, such as cheap small satellites or the growth of social media. The second is the growth of networked capabilities like automated big data analysis and cloud technology. The third, he said, are the people who know how to understand that information.

"To unleash the power of our people, we must transform outdated government processes, embrace diversity, adopt new workforce strategies, and encourage them to master the new methods and tradecraft," he said. "And we need a better flow-through of talent and experience."

In order to get there, Cardillo said, his team must "leverage the unclassified world far more than we ever have before."

As a first step, Cardillo laid out a program called GEOINT Pathfinder, which will attempt to answer intelligence questions using only unclassified data, commercial information technology and flexible contracts that would allow new technology to be exploited quickly.

"The GEOINT Pathfinder team will consist of a world-class group of data scientists, application developers, open source researchers, methodologists, and analysts," Cardillo said. "It will take several months to set up the team. But as soon as they start, they will do 90-day sprints to answer intelligence questions."

That will require forming what Cardillo called "an even more powerful partnership than the strong one we now enjoy."

"We realize that we have added many new technologies and tools, but we have wrapped outdated business practices around them," Cardillo told the audience. "We especially need your help to identify and apply leading-edge business practices so we can maximize the impact of these massive technological changes."

He added that he wants to see NGA officers move in and out of industry more frequently, bringing back the knowledge from the private sector with them when they return to government service.

Asked about potential policy roadblocks to doing more work in the open, Cardillo expressed confidence that the issues can be worked around. Similarly, he showed a willingness to work more with the international community.

"I think the limits [of international partnerships] are just in our mind, so I'm anxious to accelerate that," he said.

Cardillo ended his comments by noting that the new GEOINT world may be scary in some ways, but ended on a hopeful note.

"The pace of change is accelerating," he said, "but it is also exhilarating."


Twitter: @AaronMehta

Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.

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