An interview with Chris Rasmussen, NGA’s GEOINT Pathfinder lead

 Most of what the U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency does is carried out in secret, using imagery and other intelligence data collected by government-owned assets. Chris Rasmussen is looking to turn that on its head.

Rasmussen, a veteran analyst who’s spent his career working with military intelligence, is now heading up the NGA’s GEOINT Pathfinder project, which will study new ways the Springfield, Virginia-based agency can create valuable intelligence products from unclassified sources, using tools, data and services from the commercial world, including purchasing satellite imagery subscriptions available on the open market.

NGA already purchases high-resolution imagery from commercial remote-sensing heavyweight DigitalGlobe through a cornerstone contract that’s given the 20-year-old combat support and intelligence agency a say in how the company builds and operates its satellites.

Rasmussen’s effort is in part a push for the agency to become a more hands-off customer by, for example, buying satellite-imagery subscriptions sold on the open market and finding out whether useful intelligence can be wrung from using unclassified tools or services.

Pathfinder is also taking the same approach to terrestrial data sources, including mining new troves of public information for geospatial intelligence.

NGA Director Robert Cardillo, speaking at the 2016 GEOINT Symposium in Orlando, Florida, in March, said unclassified data must become an integral part of the agency’s work.

“Classified sources, methods and networks will always have value in our agency and to our customers, but we cannot always view unclassified information as supplemental,” he said. “Moving forward the reverse is more likely to be true — that which is exquisite but classified will supplement an ever broader and richer unclassified base.”

Rasmussen is leading that effort. SpaceNews spoke with him about the ongoing work.

What exactly are you trying to accomplish with the GEOINT Pathfinder project?

The underlying tenet is the opportunity to produce and to do analysis at a lower [classification] level, as the government monopoly in space declines towards commercialization of GEOINT — not just in the commercial perspective, but from what we call ground analytics.

A lot of times people reduce GEOINT to overhead imagery analytics, which is a big, big component of it. But what we also found in Pathfinder is what we call ground analytic information, so it’s looking for original GEOINT content in financial information, in unstructured text analysis, social media analysis, things like that. The data on the ground is just as rich as from an overhead perspective.

So if you look from a volume perspective, the statement ‘Why do you rob banks? That’s where the money is.’ Why do we have to be in unclassified? That’s where the data’s at. There’s just a different skill set, and particularly a cultural shift as far as attitude and aptitude required to interrogate that volume of data and derive insight, and collaborate with a global team, and then generate something that somebody wants to read.

We’ll always retain some exquisite advantage, but right now it needs to kind of flip. We’re traditionally in many cases supplementing the base of classified information with open source, but moving forward that’s going to have to switch. And as the base becomes unclassified then you can focus the classified on the remaining gaps.

The transformation in skill sets and attitude and aptitude to interact with unclassified data is what the Pathfinder’s all about. So we do make investments in great tools, but the foundation piece is just pure hustle, with basically a browser in many cases. Without that foundation, all these million dollar tools, they’re very, very helpful but you can’t buy your way out of this challenge.

At the U.S. Geospatial Intelligence Foundation’s Small Satellite Workshop in November, you talked about the “coffee strategy.” Could you elaborate what you mean by that?

I was briefing a very senior official about our mobile strategy to deliver high-quality, original content securely. The “coffee strategy” is kind of a mental image. He said, “You know I wake up at five in the morning and I get the presidential daily brief at nine. If you could deliver large portions of the story in an unclassified manner before I walk into a secure facility, that would be awesome.”

The idea of somebody sitting with an iPad reading the secure unclassified story while they’re drinking their morning coffee before they come into a secure environment, that’s the concept behind the coffee strategy. That’s our goal.

The system that we’ve built is operational now, we’re tying the loose ends on the authentication service. The Pathfinder content that was developed, we’re going to release that to inspire the art of the possible. The key here is growing original content, so in Pathfinder we call it the “graduate school rule of original content.” Generally, your first year of grad school is learning the literature and where the data is, and who’s doing the talking about it. You’re finding out what the discipline is. Your second year is growing original content. So we have to take that next step. Because we’re not going to aggregate other people’s reporting, you have to know the lay of the land to truly do original analysis.

That’s what’s going to be pumping through the coffee strategy. It’s original content. It’s not repackaged pointers to the Wall Street Journal and other types of things. It will be properly sourced, but it’s focused on original content that’s flowing through the system, and to keep that at an unclassified level. We’re not talking about public products; this is going to be delivered securely. We’re going to authenticate the users through the browser on the phone or the apps that we’re going to release. But that’s the goal behind the coffee strategy, to deliver high-quality, original strategic GEOINT intel to a mobile device.

You mentioned there needs to be a cultural shift?

What needs to change is a couple of things. Let’s start with the…it’s not fear, but when you have the national systems, a lot of our work flows have been designed with that government monopoly in mind: we’re the only game in town that can fly, that can get that pumping through our systems and all the work flows around bringing that into our workflow. It’s just shifting away from what people often perceive as “dirty” or “unwashed information” that’s not completely controlled by the government.

The second perspective is just getting over some of the fear of attribution. There’s a time and a place to not put your name on something. But for certain strategic issues in particular, we should be telling folks what we’re doing because there’s no reason to overachieve with security on certain topics.

So for example, one of the topics we’re looking at in Pathfinder was related to ghost cities and mega cities in China. We went to the University of San Diego’s computer center to look at internet demographics data and how rural populations are shifting to these cities and how they’re using mobile devices. They have all that data. We told them exactly who we are and why we need it. There’s a time and a place to do the smoky thing, but on certain topics like that that have strategic appeal across the board, there’s no reason that we have to overachieve on security.

We should explain what we’re doing, and that helps us build goodwill with external partners. So when I’ve explained some of these Pathfinder goals to people who have been kind of skeptical of doing business with NGA or the government, it’s really, really helpful to have those types of cases. When you show them, “hey, this is what we’re doing,” you’re not going to see everything, but you can form decent relationships, particularly on strategic questions, and I think that’s a rallying point.

But the cultural piece is not to be afraid of the outside world. There’s also a fear factor in the sense that the data is just so messy and so vast that in a much more controlled environment, that workflow that’s been so carefully crafted from that government monopoly, when you step out and into the vast space, it’s just sort of overwhelming. What do I do? How do I start searching? How do I start writing scripts to help reduce this chaos? So there’s fear of the outside world because it’s not a “pure source.” Then there’s a fear of learning a new discipline that requires a lot more technical confidence to interrogate that volume of data to derive insight.

Are efforts like this going to change the way NGA uses satellites?

From our perspective, the more subscriptions that are available, the more analytics services that are available to consume from these organizations, the better. The thing that we’re pushing for is just to have an easier way to programmatically access this information. So if the these kind of emerging companies offer up [data] for us to interact with, we can get it into a much more subscriber-type of relationship.

And then there’s the co-creation process, so not just passively consuming what these organizations are building. We have to be able to co-create with them. We want to shape the services with the organizations, not just sit back and have them guess the market they’re going to be in.

Kind of like Mr. Burns from “The Simpsons:” “I’m no art critic, but I know what I hate.” It’s hard for these companies to just endlessly guess and then we’ll go, “oh that’s good, that’s bad.” If we can co-create together, we can reduce some of that “oh, that’s not it” type of thing. From my perspective, it’s co-creation with a subscriber service and then tuning that over time.

What sort of opportunities does this create for industry?

It’s not just all about the overhead and smallsat vendors and the emerging satellites. We’ve got quite a few relationships with ground analytic companies that we fine-tune some supply-chain analytic services with organizations.

It’s not just all about space, we do have relationships and we are looking for things that people generally don’t consider GEOINT. I’ll give you a perfect example. We invested specifically in using Bloomberg analytics in Pathfinder because most people don’t think that Bloomberg data would be GEOINT; but who’s financing construction projects and building roads and how that’s changing the map of the Earth — that is quintessential GEOINT.

I understand there’s literally a new room at NGA for this kind of work?

Yes. The requirement came from Pathfinder One. So Pathfinder One was offsite and in a commercial park and our requirement was very simple: it was to have that dry erase paint where you can write on the walls and a really fast Wi-Fi bubble. The director really wanted Pathfinder Two to be in this building and we needed to have the same kind of set up, and they built it. It’s a room where you can write on the walls, and it’s a really fast commercial Wi-Fi bubble, and you can bring in your own gear and we can check in guests with their own gear without the cavity search [involved in] coming into a secure facility.

We get probably 10 or 15 requests per week for non-Pathfinder groups to use that room and it speaks to the unmet demand for un-cleared space within a secure facility. “Hey, can we use this for a hack-a-thon? “Can we use this to interact with a vendor?”

Because a lot of these vendors, they’re making calls back to their services  and sometimes that doesn’t run as smoothly when you come inside the building, even though we do have a pretty good internet connection through our government coms. It’s just so much easier if a company can bring in their own computers, hook in and go.

What we’re seeing, I think, is that in the future there’s going to be a lot more un-cleared space in secured facilities like the Pathfinder space.

Working with unclassified data could also give you an opportunity to work with companies or people who don’t have security clearances. I understand you have a high school student on staff?

He’s downstairs right now working away on our Android app for the coffee strategy. He showed up at a job fair and said, “I’m a junior.” I said, “Oh, a junior in college?” He said, “Nope, high school.” We then had to come up with a relationship with his school.

This is kind of the shift, a focus on un-cleared talent. As the skill sets merge as far as more focus on STEM, big data analytics, science, mathematics, and things like that, those are all un-cleared talent. I made a joke at a conference years ago that “math isn’t classified.” The fundamentals of this work are not inherently classified. Certain variables may be, and certain data sources may be, but the underlying fundamentals are very similar to industry and academia.

So in Pathfinder we steer into that. It does not run clearances against everybody by default, and truly asks if a clearance is required. If the answer is no, they can come and work with us. That’s how [the high school student] ended up working in Pathfinder. “Hey look, he’s got Java coding chops. We’ll put him on the Android team, we’ll put him in communication and collaboration with the Apple developers, so they can have a similar look and feel for the coffee apps.” And he’s been outstanding.

Is this work affecting how NGA uses the classified information it receives from its satellites?

We’re going through a classification rewrite here at NGA, and all the practical experience from Pathfinder is massively influencing the rewriting of a lot of the classification guides; declassifying certain things, eliminating entire categories. And bringing rules of thumb to how to operate in this open environment. So without the practical experience of the Pathfinder, it would have been very difficult for me to really bring energy and real practical cases to this classification rewrite.

I think Pathfinder has been instrumental, in a center of gravity way, for much of the classification rewrite related to doing open source analysis. When people are around the table going through these line items, these are very practical cases that we see that can help rewrite this guide. So that’s been pretty cool as far as being a major player in terms of these classification rewrites within the agency, and what our classification really means in a world where most of the data and the analytics are going to come from the open side.

What do you think will be GEOINT Pathfinder’s major accomplishment in 2017?

We’re going to be first to market with high-quality strategic intel delivered at an unclassified level. There’s been a lot humanitarian disaster work that has been done, such as public releases of Arctic data the agency has done, [but not] consistent foreign military analysis that’s delivered securely at the unclassified level. The most practical thing in the short term is going to be having a brand and first to market, if you will, in the unclassified mobile space. That’s something that’s going to be pretty unique. We’re very, very close to releasing the Pathfinder content and we’re working now with our allies and others to start generating that original content. The key is the original content, so we need analysts and data scientist and others with the attitude and aptitude.



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“ Classified sources, methods and networks will always have value in our agency and to our customers, but we cannot always view unclassified information as supplemental.“ Robert Cardillo, Director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, speaks to Marine Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, AT NGA HEADQUARTERS