Mapping Threats

New software is helping intelligence analysts, but the most powerful processor is still the human brain.

Around the time the computer game “Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?” was teaching Generation Y about geography, grown-up versions of geography software had analysts at spy agencies a little concerned about job security. Back then, Defense Intelligence Agency imagery analyst Robert Cardillo and his colleagues thought visualization technology would replace their tradecraft. Today, as director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, Cardillo and his roughly 14,500 employees only wish more powerful image recognition software existed.

“Going back to 1983 when I was welcomed into the business, somebody said to me they are going to automate our job,” Cardillo recounts in an interview. There will be “these ones and zeroes” that will pinpoint the changing positions of tanks, missiles, ships. The rumormonger told Cardillo it would be another six months or six years before the technology arrived, so he didn’t have to worry about a pink slip just yet.

“Fast-forward 32 years: We’ve come a long way, but that’s still a very hard thing for computers to do—not impossible, very hard,” he says, speaking from inside NGA’s Springfield, Virginia-based headquarters, which is shaped like a giant eyeball lens. 

Right now, technology is up against a problem that didn’t exist in the Atari age: big data. The ever-increasing petabytes of pictures and other information generated by sensors require quick and constant observation. 

“If you’re my analyst on sub-Saharan Africa, I don’t want you spending time scanning all that imagery searching for something that wasn’t there last year, last month,” Cardillo says. “I do want you thinking hard about the Boko Haram [terrorist group] challenge or thinking hard about Central African Republic sectarian divide, Muslim-Christian, etc., and building mental models yourself.” So, he’s got computer programs handling “broad-based change detection,” a method for flagging items that didn’t appear in the previous day’s data dump and items that have disappeared
from view. 

Such analysis, however, is no substitute for the experience, education and curiosity of the human mind. The computer is “looking for those triggers—whether it’s a text or an email—and then cueing the brain to go engage,” says Cardillo. 

On certain problem sets, such as Chinese aggression in the South China Sea, the software is doing a good job at prompting analysts. “That’s a very tough place to monitor,” he says. “Very big, very broad, very noisy. We have had some success with modeling to help us cue when and where something has changed.”

For instance, the Chinese slowly are “dredging up sand and they are building these islands” to mark their territory and “over time, our ability to human-cognitively process all of that coverage is just going to be overwhelmed,”
Cardillo says. 

Paul Weise, who spent over three decades analyzing imagery for the Pentagon, says any rumor about software taking over the role of analysts is misplaced. 

“I can’t tell you how many times we brought on a new system, a new software set, that showed promise in either doing that job entirely or greatly assisting the analyst or cartographer,” he says. “We ended up turning the tool off because it took more time for the cartographer to fix the mistakes that were falsely interpreted by such algorithms.” 

Weise retired three years ago from his role as director of the Office of Geospatial Intelligence Management. Now, as Lockheed Martin’s GEOINT mission officer, he helps the agency expand its signature Map of the World project, among other things. The portal consumes and synthesizes all sorts of intelligence so analysts can submerse
themselves in the situation at hand. 

The quest to automate image recognition began in the 1980s and 1990s, when it became apparent technological progress was creating too many pictures to examine. Automation has shifted the tools of the trade from wet plate
photography and hand-drawn maps to geographic information systems. Increases in computer processing power, software agility and Internet connectivity, along with decreases in the cost of storage, now allow geospatial products to be spit out faster than a hand can cut and paste. And advances in sensor technology from small-satellite providers—like DigitalGlobe, Planet Labs and Google’s SkyBox—have expanded the field of view.

In the Zone 

Ultimately, however, the new equipment reveals only a basic level of the full picture.

“The reality is the most agile processor in this process remains the human brain,” says Keith Masback, chief executive officer of the U.S. Geospatial Intelligence Foundation, a professional
association. “Human engagement is required to do the quality control and the fact-checking and the ground-
truthing, especially in the world of safety of navigation.” Masback, a former NGA source operations group director, adds: “Because of the very ongoing life and death nature, the navigation products—whether subsurface, surface or air—have got to be right.”

The Arctic, for instance, is one of the more treacherous zones. Almost by definition, the North Pole is not thought of as a global hot spot. But as the polar ice melts, the Arctic is becoming a nexus of geopolitical tensions over subjects as diverse as penguins and Ukraine. New transportation routes and energy reserves are rising to the surface, accompanied by turf wars.

Because all the commotion has economic and not just military ramifications, Cardillo sees the Arctic as a place that could bring his agency out into the open. Again.

Since becoming NGA director last fall, he has garnered attention for pulling the curtain off certain geospatial data, such as maps of the Ebola spread.  “I think the Arctic is a wonderful place, where we should be thinking about our next piece of open code,” Cardillo says. “A great deal of what’s known about the Arctic is unclassified. We don’t have a rich history of classified intelligence collection in the Arctic because—guess what?—it wasn’t a priority.

Now it is. President Barack Obama in a May 2013 Arctic National Strategy outlined strategic priorities for the Arctic region that call for, among other things, a greater awareness of activity in the region as well as charts and scientific research to better understand the landscape. That would include NGA’s geospatial intelligence—insights derived from pairing satellite imagery with historical data sets.

“I’m not going to dive into the ‘Why is the Arctic warmer than it used to be?’ But I know it is,” Cardillo says. “And I know there’s less ice up there now, and I know there’s more ship traffic now. I know there’s more potential for natural resource exploitation than there ever has been before. Those facts have driven state actions. Russia, as one of the claimants for the resources and maritime navigation and control, etc., has made decisions based upon those changing facts. Some of those decisions are military based.” 

‘It Changes Your Thinking’

Venues for hosting public geospatial intelligence on the Arctic might include Apple’s app store, the code-sharing site GitHub and NGA.mil, where interactive viewing tools are powered by Esri mapping software. The site currently serves up unclassified data sets to aid Ebola relief efforts.

NGA’s first app, Anti-Shipping Activity Messages, or ASAM, details incidents of hijacking on the high seas all over the world. The underlying code for the app, which was released last fall, also is available on GitHub.

“We’re all in on GitHub. We’re very proud of our [GitHub] page,” Cardillo says. “I’m encouraging our team to create conditions and the context so that our policymakers and decision-makers can have a better footing to think about employment of resources, deployment of diplomatic engagement and, potentially, security-related actions—whether it’s just to protect or it’s to project. In some cases we project force throughout the world to ensure safety of navigation, for example,” Cardillo says. 

Cardillo likes to show people polar projection maps. “It’s very disconcerting, it destabilizes your mind,” he says. “When you look at the North Pole at the center of a projection, it looks very unfamiliar.”

At first, gazers say, “ ‘Wait a minute, the United States isn’t that tiny. It doesn’t sit on the edge of the Earth like that. We’re at the center of the world.’ You get those reactions,” Cardillo says. But, he adds, they also “clearly see Alaska and Canada and Norway and Russia—what I like about it is the way it changes
your thinking.”