Get Smart

By Sara Barker, Xperience Communications

The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency wants to know what matters to its customers, partners and employees. Specifically, NGA wants to know which of their products and services these consumers find useful. Why? The agency is renewing its focus on delivering value to customers.

“Gaining a better understanding of what our customers value will enable
us to better inform the effectiveness of our operations,” said Barry E. Schuler, the director of the agency’s Xperience directorate’s Business Intelligence office.

According to Schuler, NGA is transforming how it does business by better aligning what customers need to resource allocation and new capability investment. This transformation supports NGA’s strategic goal of driving accountability and value by tying program and performance to customer impact.

NGA Deputy Director Sue Gordon has stated that NGA must get smarter about what it can do to bring real value to customers. “And while we don’t like to focus on the negative, the truth of the matter is that if we don’t start holding ourselves accountable by measuring our part in our customers’ success, agency programs risk falling victim to the budgetary ax,” said Gordon.

This is where the value of business intelligence, or BI, comes in.

NGA applies BI — which includes processes and technologies that transform large volumes of raw data into meaningful information — to understand and analyze national security issues. The same types of BI processes and technologies are helping NGA’s BI office gather insights to make smarter business decisions.

And that education has already begun according to Keith Krut, chief of the Analytics division in NGA’s Xperience directorate’s BI office.

“We’re doing this, not only by gathering data and adding it up, but through identifying meaningful linkages and trends within and across data sets,” Krut said. “And that can provide the agency insights into the products and services customers value most.”

According to Krut, BI can provide these insights at every level of the agency. For example, the Customer Compass webpage on the Globe — NGA’s secure web presence — allows agency analysts to see first-hand how many customers are accessing the online products they author. The Customer Compass, a BI dashboard, provides instant feedback to analysts on their work.

And these metrics can reveal more than simply whether the customer is clicking on a product. Using the Customer Compass, analysts can also determine if the path to reach a GEOINT product requires too many clicks. That user behavior data is a direct reflection of what the customer values and can inform decisions from what GEOINT products the agency should focus on, down to where to feature the products on the Globe.

BI is also poised to start informing decisions at the corporate level, according Todd Sweet, deputy director of NGA’s Xperience directorate’s Knowledge Curation office. Sweet wanted to explore how well NGA’s GEOINT Stories, a key feature of the Globe, aligned to customer need. GEOINT Stories — five stories on trending and important GEOINT topics that appear on the Globe homepage daily — are curated from multiple resources across various directorates.

“Using the Customer Compass, I can show the value of GEOINT Stories as evidenced, not only by the number of customers clicking on them, but, more importantly, whether or not these stories are driving customers to explore the specific links to the NGA GEOINT products referenced in the stories,” said Sweet.

Armed with customer behavior insights from reports and dashboards like the Customer Compass, decision makers can take steps to correct any misalignment between NGA resource allocation/capability investment and value to customers.

Behind the decision-informing power of BI is an intricate world of data engineering and processing that includes “big data” technologies. The agency is at the cusp of realizing the benefit of these technologies. Once
in place, they will enable NGA data scientists to shift their focus from simply capturing and managing data to actively drawing insights from it for decision makers on a regular basis.

“BI can be a game changer for organizations that seek to build effective customer relationships and improve strategic decision making,” said Christy Monaco, Xperience directorate deputy director. “As NGA evolves into a customer-centric enterprise with a keen emphasis on delivering consequence, data- driven decision making is a business imperative.”

Sidebar: Business Intelligence Challenges

The complex world of business intelligence poses some challenges for the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. Currently, one of NGA’s biggest BI challenges is growing its data science workforce. data scientists — who use mathematics and programming to deliver unique insights for decision makers based on data — are key to making BI a success at NGA.

“We need to foster a robust data science workforce,” says NGA data scientist Kevin Compher. “A good data scientist is curious and confident in taking risks with nontraditional approaches.”

Data scientists have rigorous math and programming skills, make sense of diverse data sources and draw out valuable insights from them.

NGA’s second BI challenge is the way its data is currently architected, or stored.

“We currently have our data in silos,” says Compher. “And the biggest problem with this is that silos don’t automatically connect to each other and they don’t scale.”

To generate meaningful insights from these disparate data sets, it is necessary to manually link them to each other. According to Compher, the lack of a usable and impactful architecture can be frustrating NGA’s data scientists and others who require it to generate meaningful insights for decision makers.

However, there is a hope ahead. A suite of capabilities that will advance data management is being envisioned under a program called Visualization Analytics data lake solution, or VANDL. VANDL enables the agency to automate “joins” across its disparate data sets.

For example, under VANDL, data regarding customer demands can be joined to data regarding gaps in production to reveal areas that need attention and, in turn, inform decisions regarding resource allocation.

According to Deputy Director Sue Gordon, NGA knows the data that it’s currently collecting would yield much more valuable insights when easily linked with other datasets.

“VANDL is a no-brainer,” Gordon said. “We’ve got to move in this direction.”