Vice Adm. Robert Sharp starts every week at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) by playing a song over the public address system. Upon taking the helm as the agency’s seventh director in February, the selection was Aretha Franklin’s “R-E-S-P-E-C-T,” which he called “our central core value.”
Monday in San Antonio, Texas, Sharp played Peter Frampton’s “Show Me the Way” for the GEOINT 2019 audience.
“At NGA, we exist to show the way—to literally get you from point A to point B, to help illuminate options and inform decisions or to carry out actions with precision,” Sharp said in what was his first GEOINT Symposium keynote address.
The sentiment was in reference to “Mission Today,” Goal No. 3 of the agency’s four-pillar 2025 Strategy.
Goal 1 is taking care of the agency’s “greatest asset—our ‘People,’” Sharp said.
Goal 2 is “Partnerships.” “To put it bluntly, without partnerships, you’re weaker … and you’re more apt to fail,” he continued.
He pointed out that networks can be established with partners from across government, industry, and academia, in addition to allies.
The agency is up to more than 70 bilateral international partner agreements, according to Sharp. Some of the accomplishments achieved through partnerships include sharing human geography data among 12 countries, elevation data with 31, and mapping data with 32.
“I was schooled by a great leader, [Gen. Stanley McChrystal], who used to often say, ‘It takes a network to defeat a network,’” Sharp said. “When it comes to how we define and build our own network, we’re only limited by our imaginations, and our willingness to create meaningful relationships.”
NGA’s fourth Goal, “Mission Tomorrow,” was the primary area of interest for many of those in attendance hoping to learn more about the agency’s Artificial Intelligence, Automation, and Augmentation (AAA) initiative.
“If you’re looking for an area to partner with us, I highly recommend you focus on … AAA,” Sharp said.
In a press conference following his speech, Sharp included AAA as the top priority among “three things that are necessary to moving us forward.” He then cited: modernizing IT infrastructure, ground infrastructure, and data storage and processing; and interaction with industry and academia as additional priorities.
NGA arrived at GEOINT 2019 with abundant copies of its “Tech Focus Areas: Hard Problems List,” which included technology to aid in data analytics and visualization, advanced GEOINT exploitation, activity and Earth modeling, data collection and discovery, and business intelligence.
Sharp also discussed the agency’s planned Next NGA West campus in St. Louis, Mo., at which 20 percent of the workspace will be unclassified, enabling the agency to work with more uncleared partners.
Like so many in the geospatial field, Sharp envisions a future that is machine-aided, not necessarily machine-driven.
“Our goal is to partner with machines so that we can make best use of the exponential growth in volume and source of data, letting machines do what machines do well and analysts do what analysts do even better—think critically and solve problems,” Sharp said.
Asked what attributes future NGA employees should possess, he named intellectual curiosity and a capacity for critical thinking.
One question from the audience sought amplification. The questioner queried Sharp about how younger members of NGA’s staff could gain a greater voice within the agency. He agreed that was important, saying, “Great ideas have no rank.”
“When you create an environment in which ideas can flow from junior to senior, that’s when the magic happens,” Sharp responded.