Agency Provides Open Data for Disaster Response

By Allyson Versprille

The government’s leading agency for geospatial intelligence is looking to make more information publicly available during disaster relief operations, said one official.

The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency is responsible for obtaining, analyzing and distributing geospatial intelligence data to assist policymakers, intelligence professionals and military personnel providing humanitarian assistance. However, at times it has been difficult for the agency to disseminate its entire store of unclassified data to aid service members and other first responders in disaster relief efforts because of legal policies and use restrictions, said John Goolgasian, director of NGA’s source operations and management directorate.

Under new leadership, the agency is looking to address that problem and embrace more open information sharing, he said.

“Our current director, [Robert] Cardillo, has embraced open — open data, open technology,” Goolgasian said at an industry conference. Cardillo questioned the agency’s lack of polices for making unclassified information available to the public in disaster scenarios, wanting to shift from a model of only providing data in limited areas or controlled networks behind firewalls, Goolgasian noted.

“He pushed us beyond our comfort zone last year to see what we could do for helping with the Ebola crisis in Africa,” he said, and the problem was not a lack of shareable information.

“What we discovered wasn’t so much that we didn’t have a lot of unclassified data,” Goolgasian explained. “It was how we restricted access to that and how we purchased that data.” Much of the unclassified data that was bought or leased came with use restrictions, he said.
NGA buys data and imagery from commercial satellite operators.

The agency has started to work through those issues, and last year it set up a public-facing website in an unprecedented move, providing unrestricted online access to images and data to help mitigate the effects of natural disasters. The webpage currently has three portals addressing different global crises including the Ebola outbreak in Arica, the earthquake in Nepal and climate change in the Arctic.

 “In these areas we placed all kinds of data — unclassified imagery, virtual imagery, all kinds of mapping and charting products and, what we in the past would hold close, analytic assessments,” Goolgasian said.

To aid its own analytic assessments during the earthquake in Nepal, the agency partnered with DigitalGlobe, a provider of commercial high-resolution satellite images, to use crowdsourcing to allow local residents to map damaged areas of the country.

“We leveraged the power of the Internet, and DigitalGlobe put up a website and made their imagery available for free on their website and [added] capabilities for anyone in the public to go in and start mapping out damaged areas,” he said. “Then we reposted that information and made it available on our website.”

Providing more open data is emerging as the norm for future crises, Goolgasian said.

Photo: DigitalGlobe

Topics: C4ISR, Intelligence, International

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