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Interview: Jump starting GEOINT apps

Job number one for Mark Riccio is to speed up the apps revolution promised two years ago by his boss, National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency Director Letitia Long. NGA has released about a hundred apps so far, but the agency wants as many as thousands out there on all three intelligence networks. Apps for counterterrorism; apps for disaster relief; apps for things no one’s thought of yet. Industry buy-in has been tough to get. Lots of software developers are doing just fine under the old model of meeting rigidly defined requirements. Riccio must sort this out in his role as director of application services within NGA's Online GEOINT Services Directorate. His solution? Gather industry reps in one room and start brainstorming. He spoke to Deep Dive about the Sept. 27 “Industry Outreach Day,” and what comes next. Excerpts below>>

NGA's Mark Riccio speaks to developers. Credit: NGA

Fear of change >> “This is something brand new, and there’s a lot of trepidation as we step forward on this because it hasn’t been done before. If I hadn’t encountered some of that skepticism, or some of the good hard questions that we got, I don’t know if we would have been pushing it far enough…I am very confident that we’re going to be able to succeed in this.”

Buy-in >> “Of the emails and communiqués I’ve gotten after that (industry day), I haven’t gotten any that said, ‘We’re not behind you. We don’t want to work with you. We don’t think we can get this done.’ A hundred percent, to a T so far, everybody says, ‘We want to work with you. This is something we can get done. Let’s kind of collaborate and figure out how we can move forward on this.’

Turnout >> “We had 263 discrete companies (at the industry day) and we are estimating that when all is said and done we had over 420 attendees.”

Next step >> “We don’t want this to be where we got everybody together, and then it’s months and months and months before you hear anything. We are ready to go and we are proceeding at a very expedient pace to get this (acquisition process) in place.”

Competition >> “Our directorate’s mission is to create the best user experience, and I think competition will enable that, and that’s what we’re interested in. This is a big opportunity for a much broader segment of the market to begin working with NGA.”

How many apps? >> “The intent is to spur the marketplace, and to spur the development community to help us fill that app store with hundreds if not thousands of different applications.”

Flexibility >> “The FAR (Federal Acquisition Regulation) offers a lot of capability to do things differently, to do things in a much more agile manner, and we’re going to be exploiting some of that capability.”

Rolling solicitation >> “It’s really different in the sense that instead of being super specific in terms of what we need, and then contracting specifically for those items, it’s more of a broad-based, open-based type solicitation, where we don’t want to be so specific that we hamper innovation.”

Exceptions >> “I think there’s going to be certain instances where we may get proscriptive. Maybe we’ll put something out that says, ‘NGA is interested in an app that does this,’ and we provide additional specifics. But the intent of the compensation model, as it’s (being) built, is to have that flexibility and the ability to cover situations like that.”

Payday >> ”A big part of what industry day was about is to develop a business-to-business application compensation model. And that’s really about publishing that speculative model for app development…It was made pretty clear at industry day that we’re still working on it.”

Innovation >> “We certainly don’t own all those good ideas, and we don’t want to put in place a mechanism that restricts us from enjoying the innovation that’s out there.”

No lemons >> “In the sense of multiple apps competing, just like there’s multiple weather apps, they all provide weather, but maybe some do it better. Maybe some are more pleasing, maybe the interface and utility and the use of that app is a little bit better. We’re not going to put any duds out there in terms of functions not working.”

User friendly >> “There’s a lot of different ways to build an app that shows a helicopter landing zone. The winner in a case like that is going to be the one that provides not only the validated output, but does it in a way that provides the best possible experience.”

Validation >> “If we’ve got an application that generates coordinates, does some kind of coordinate conversion, or gives one a heading, or computes slope, or something like that, we’re going to make sure that the output from that app is accurate and that it’s validated.”

Vendors can adapt >> “There’s a number of examples of traditional desktop software vendors who have made successful implementation of both existing technologies and new technologies within that [consumer app] type of market.”

Briefing Congress >> “We haven’t at this time, but it’s something we hope happens.”

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