Evolving dynamic between intelligence and technology dominates discussions at NGA, Georgetown University intelligence conference

Story Carling Uhler, NGA Office of Corporate Communications
Photos by Erica Knight & Erica Fouché, NGA Office of Corporate Communications

The increasingly connected nature of intelligence and technology dominated discussions at this year’s Kalaris Intelligence Conference, hosted by the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency and Georgetown University Sept. 14 in Washington, D.C.

Panels and keynotes focused on topics ranging from big data to international partnerships to counterterrorism, but many participants seemed to circle back to the evolving dynamic between the potential — and challenges — of technology to the intelligence profession.

“Today, we find ourselves facing a rapidly evolving mission landscape at the same time that we face an explosive growth in new technologies and data sources,” said NGA Director Robert Cardillo in his opening remarks. “How do we navigate from a world of data scarcity to a world of data abundance?”

Cardillo highlighted one benefit of a closer relationship between intelligence and technology in his keynote conversation with Eric Schmitt, The New York Times senior writer for terrorism and national security. The two men discussed the role of public-private partnerships, a new data-focused brokerage between NGA and commercial industry and academia, in disaster relief, humanitarian assistance and food security.

“I see a way to take what we have much of and maybe level it with something we don’t have as much of as we like,” said Cardillo. “Maybe we [NGA] can trade our historical intellectual property with their [industry, academia] current cutting-edge property.”

Cardillo highlighted the recently-completed Arctic DEM project as a success story for the public-private partnership model. The Arctic DEM project teamed NGA with the National Science Foundation, the University of Minnesota and Esri, a private company, to produce 3-D digital elevation models, mapping the entire Arctic.

The first panel of the day, featuring professionals from Bloomberg Media, NGA, Georgetown University and the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity, focused on big data’s growing role in the intelligence community and striking the right balance between machine and human decision making.

“What intelligence is really about is providing information to decision-makers, to make a decision — that might be a soldier deciding what door to go in or a president deciding what to do with a massive national security issue,” said Anthony Vinci, Ph.D., NGA associate director for capabilities. “We have a duty to use all of those types of data, whatever data is available, and we can’t leave data on the table.”

Georgetown professor Gary Shiffman acknowledged the benefit of these new data avenues, but raised an important question.

“More data can’t lead to more work, it needs to lead to less work — but how much do we let machines versus humans process the data,” asked Shiffman.

IARPA Deputy Director Stacey Dixon provided one answer to Shiffman’s query.

“As we begin to rely more on the data, and our adversaries know it, the desire to influence that data increases — it’s going to be harder to protect,” said Dixon. “Having the critical-thinking skills and someone with the courage to say, ‘Something’s not right here’ [when analyzing data], is important.”

In the subsequent internationally-focused panel, participants from NGA, the National Intelligence University, and Georgetown University’s Center for Security Studies talked about the changing data-sharing landscape.

“Geospatial information has changed dramatically from 10 years ago,” said Dustin Gard-Weiss, NGA associate director of the GEOINT Enterprise. “Pictures from space were in the hands of a few people. Now with the commercial space industry, the explosion of information and sources are in the hands of each of us, not just a few nation states.”

The second panel also emphasized the importance of a strong workforce filled with analysts from all backgrounds in an increasingly automated world.

“Anything that can be automated, will be automated,” said Josh Kerbel, a member of the research faculty at NIU. “But creative thinking cannot be automated. The value of the analyst will be to synthesize and provide insight into what is happening. We need to cultivate the creative side of thinking.”

The second half of the conference, kicked off by a keynote with Brookings Institution’s Bruce Riedel and Michael O’Hanlon, shifted to focus on global trends, but technology and its impact remained a common theme.

“In this world of big data, you have an enormous amount of data to work with and processing that really makes your job easier in ways, but takes up more time with a lot more data points to work,” said Riedel. “I think in answering the big questions, we’re better off, the tactical questions, we’re worse off.”

Riedel agreed with previous panelists that one of the solutions in answering those big questions is the need for recruiting and retaining bright IC analysts with varied backgrounds.

“The art of intelligence is not a science,” said Riedel. “It’s poetry. It’s very hard to find poets these days, but that’s what we need in the intelligence business is poets, not scientists. It’s good to have scientists too, but figuring out what your adversary or your friend is going to do next is not a scientific game — it’s much more intuitive than that.”

Kim Dozier, executive editor for The Cipher Brief, moderated the final panel where participants discussed how to combat the post-9/11 adversary and — no surprise — technology is one crucial component to that fight.

“I think what we’re really trying to confront is a true paradigm shift in terrorism,” said John Mulligan, deputy director for the National Counterterrorism Center, who emphasized the ties between a terrorist organization’s operational activity and increasing media savvy. “That’s why we need to be working not just in the physical domain of trying to contain them, but working across the cyber, ideological domains as well — it’s a broader fight.”

Bringing the conference to a close was keynote speaker Suzanne Fry, National Intelligence Council, who detailed parts of the Global Trends, a report the NIC produces annually.

In 2015, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency partnered with Georgetown University to host the inaugural Kalaris Intelligence conference to focus on national security studies and issues. The event is named after George T. Kalaris, a former special assistant to the director of central intelligence.

Robert Groves, provost of Georgetown University, said he treasures the partnership with NGA and the opportunity to host the conference, for several reasons.

“The true spirit of Georgetown is the devotion to intergroup interaction, dialogue, discussion — this is an intersectoral meeting that will help us all,” said Groves. “We will learn from those who are not in our particular bubble and we will change how we live in a world with dramatic changes, happening every day, and be much more nimble than we ever were before.”

Susanna Kalaris, granddaughter of George Kalaris, said her grandfather would be ‘incredibly proud’ of the work done by Georgetown University and NGA.

“Conference panels often stay superficial, making generalizations rather than recommendations,” said Kalaris. “The Kalaris Intelligence Conference fosters conversations focused on the everyday realities and consequences of intelligence, and furthers a crucial dialogue between academia, industry and public institutions, in the era of big data, social media and increasing partisanship.”


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About NGA: The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency delivers world-class geospatial intelligence, or GEOINT, that provides a decisive advantage to warfighters, policymakers, intelligence professionals and first responders. Both an intelligence agency and a combat support agency, NGA fulfills the president’s national security priorities in partnership with the intelligence community and Department of Defense.