By Paul Frommelt
NGA Office of Corporate Communications
With a forecast of warm spring weather, the weekend agenda for Terry Wilcox included cutting the grass, a BBQ and watching a baseball game. Those plans quickly changed when a devastating 7.9-magnitude earthquake struck Nepal in the early morning hours of April 25.
Within hours, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s Integrated Working Group — Readiness, Response and Recovery, or IWG-R3, was hard at work collecting data to support disaster relief for the region, said Wilcox, acting GEOINT mission manager for IWG-R3.
This data included damage assessments, operating status of airfields, estimates on internally displaced persons and studies of transportation routes, said Stephen Gibson, NGA national geospatial intelligence officer for South Asia and Nepal earthquake mission manager.
By the evening of April 25, NGA ensured that the 69-member Fairfax County Urban Search and Rescue team, based out of Fairfax, Virginia, was able to download the agency’s search and rescue atlas for Kathmandu to its standalone mobile devices prior to their deployment to Nepal to assist with rescue operations.
The next day, NGA opened a public website to host unclassified geospatial intelligence data, products and services in support of the U.S. and international relief efforts and was using its social media channels, particularly Twitter and Facebook, to disseminate topical products to the general public and drive additional traffic to the site.
While supporting humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, or HADR, is nothing new for NGA, the speed and sophistication in which NGA began getting meaningful data into the hands of first responders for this crisis was unprecedented for the agency.
“We learned a lot from the Ebola crisis about how to establish our unclassified presence, and how to leverage the skills and capabilities of GEOINT components from all parts of NGA and the U.S. government,” said Gibson. “Our successes in clearing administrative hurdles and changing data and imagery sharing [practices] that we learned during the Ebola crisis have helped us hit the ground running during the Nepal earthquake crisis.”
The NGA team’s focus on providing their data in a timely manner and at an unclassified level comes from the top, Director Robert Cardillo, who has concentrated much of his first year at the helm of NGA on a renewed commitment to transparency.
“Successful partnerships depend on integrity and transparency,” said Cardillo, in a speech at the Esri Federal GIS Conference last February. “And we at NGA are determined to uphold the highest standards and be as transparent as we can be. Of our many missions, NGA’s disaster relief efforts allow us to be transparent in ways our sister agencies cannot.”
Another aspect of that transparency involves raising the profile of NGA and the agency’s mission.
“We used to be able to disseminate information but we had to do it without attribution to NGA. NGA was not able to get credit for our support,” said Wilcox.
In coverage following the earthquake, BBC attributed an NGA produced map in its reporting — thought to be a first for the agency.
Wilcox said that this focus on transparency and attribution has increased the number of customers who now use NGA for its GEOINT.
“They go online and they see that NGA is supporting this event and it just opens up a lot more avenues to come to NGA,” he said. “We are getting a lot more folks asking for additional support because of it.”
As with support to the Ebola crisis, which was the first time that NGA set up a publicly available website for disaster support, the Nepal earthquake team is already compiling a list of lessons learned to continue to improve the speed and breadth of data dissemination in the future. This includes continuing to minimize the red tape of administrative hurdles, data and imagery sharing policies, and licensing restrictions with commercial providers, said Wilcox.
The team is also still fighting the deep-seeded desire to keep information close to the vest that comes with years of working in the secret environment of an intel agency, said Gibson.
“We have faced challenges adjusting our mindset from the classified, ‘need to know’ mindset that comes from decades as an intelligence agency, to an ‘unclassified, need to share’ mindset,” he said.
However, Wilcox said that with each successive crisis, NGA is sloughing off the barriers and hindrances from its classified legacy and revealing its transparent future.