Penn State partners with National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency

November 04, 2015

On October 2, 2015, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) renewed two five-year partnerships with Penn State, one with the Department of Geography in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences and another with the Applied Research Laboratory (ARL). The partnerships, or cooperative research and development agreements (CRADAs), focus on improving both education for geospatial analysts and an imaging tool used by geospatial analysts known as urban terrain zones (UTZs).

The NGA delivers world-class geospatial intelligence that provides a decisive advantage to warfighters, policymakers, intelligence professionals and first responders.

“You don’t see an episode of ‘24’ or ‘CSI’ without seeing the service we provide,” said Robert Cardillo, director of the NGA. “Simply stated, we help our customers understand where they are, and in what context or environment they are existing. We then add to that our expert understanding of an adversary’s capabilities, and the harder part is adversary intentions.”

Cardillo and several NGA officers visited the University Park campus October 1-3 to sign the CRADAs. While on campus, they met with researchers and students, held a press conference and participated in the University’s Military Appreciation Day.

During the press conference, Cardillo said that transparency has been a key theme of his directorship since he took office in October 2014 — and it’s also a new initiative for the NGA.

“This discipline is exploding, commercially and in a way that’s much more transparent than it ever was before,” he said. “When I came into the business, you started at top secret and you worked your way across. You could never be in a room with windows and talk about our business because it just wasn’t safe.”

The commercialization of geospatial data and GPS-enabled locational data — largely led by companies like Google, Apple and EarthCast Technologies, as well as governments worldwide — has “created an open conversation” around geospatial intelligence that “couldn’t have existed before,” said Cardillo.

“Here at Penn State, I’m allowed to engage in this conversation at the academic level so that students could have as an enriched experience as possible,” said Cardillo.

Renewing Two Partnerships

Since 2010, the NGA has been working with the Department of Geography through a CRADA to better understand how geospatial analysts think and how they learn new analytical tools.

“Unfortunately, the science of understanding how a person becomes a better analyst has not been well understood. We need to know what works for them, what needs to be changed or added. The whole thing is about improvement,” said Cardillo.

The initial work through the 2011-15 CRADA has already begun to initiate a global dialogue in the geospatial intelligence industry, which further supports the NGA’s mission of transparency. As part of the CRADA, Todd Bacastow, professor of practice in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences’ John A. Dutton e-Education Institute, was able to interview NGA geospatial analysts about how they learned new skills. That experience, he said, paved the way for his ability to create a massive, open online course (MOOC), “Geospatial Intelligence and the Geospatial Revolution,” which ran for the first time in the spring of 2015 and included Cardillo as one of 22,000 actively engaged students.

“It would not have been possible to create a meaningful MOOC curriculum without the CRADA. It enabled me to understand what the NGA does at a large scale, what the various geospatial intelligence disciplines are and what topics people know or don’t know,” said Bacastow.

The ARL CRADA involves urban terrain zones, which are geographic information systems (GIS) databases created using various sources including satellite imagery and open source information. UTZs are designed to show military and other personnel what types of terrain to expect when entering an unfamiliar territory.

“It’s time consuming to create UTZ products. We’re also looking for ways to make them more accurate and make the process more efficient,” said Cardillo.

The CRADA will examine ways to enhance the UTZ creation process through automation and other specialized data sources. Additionally, the CRADA will allow both the NGA and Penn State to look at more efficient ways of assessing image quality.

Finding inspiration from students

During their visit, NGA officials stopped by the Red Cell Analytics Lab (RCAL), where they were briefed by students from the College of Information Sciences and Technology (IST) on current research and activities in the lab.

"The overall mission of the Red Cell Analytics Lab is to understand the point of view of the adversary for the purpose of understanding security, and Director Cardillo was very interested in students' abilities to use complex frameworks such as the Military Decision Making Process to solve problems," said Meghan Graham, president of the Red Cell Analytics Lab and graduate student in the College of IST.

Cardillo said he was “blown away” by the visit.

“These students are doing more innovative work than I was able to do in my first few years in the intelligence community,” he said.

"Director Cardillo's visit was great for the lab and the University," said Andrea Forster, Red Cell Analytics Lab member and senior in the College of IST. "We were able to share multiple projects with him, including our work on MH370, a geospatial game created by the Red Cell board, and our work with different organizations around campus. He seemed impressed and was able to give us constructive feedback for places we can explore more."

“We are always looking for collaborations to expand the work we do in the lab,” said Forster. “A relationship with the NGA would be great to bring in more geospatial activities as well as contacts within the intelligence community.”

Cardillo said he values the chance to engage with students and hopes that, by visiting campus and meeting with researchers around the University, he can help grow Penn State’s relationship with the NGA over time.

“Penn State is known for, on top of the foundational aspect of educating students, having a broad-based research program,” said Cardillo. “And then around all those things is this unbridled enthusiasm, a different way of thinking — and the Red Cell Lab is an excellent example of this. When you combine those three things, it’s a win-win-win.”


(Media Contacts)

Last Updated November 05, 2015