This article may reference legacy company names: Continental Mapping, GISinc, or TSG Solutions. These three companies merged in January 2021 to form a new geospatial leader [Axim Geospatial].
Axim Geospatial's Kevin Hope reflects on a 34+ year career, all in the US government, from entry level to senior leadership, and the changes in the geospatial industry over that time. Having worked at multiple government agencies in varying realms from defense and intelligence, cartography, digitization, and others, Hope provides a veteran perspective on the industry and shares his career journey, experiences, and standout accomplishments.
Starting a Career as GIS Technology Prospered
Kevin Hope: Over the course of 34+ years, my career certainly took some interesting twists and turns. I started my government career right after graduating from college in May 1986 with the US Census Bureau in Boston, Massachusetts. As a recent graduate in Geography/Cartography, I was hired to update road networks as a digitizer in preparation for the 1990 Census. After about 7 months, the Defense Mapping Agency (DMA) called and offered me an entry level position as a Cartographer in their Louisville, Kentucky field office. That really started my career proper.
After several years in Louisville performing manual cartography and terrain analysis, DMA came recruiting for individuals to move to their new Reston, Virginia office to begin work on the new ‘Digital Production System’ or DPS. This was before the era of ubiquitous GIS COTS (commercial off-the-shelf software), so the chance to work on what was then the cutting edge of digital cartography was an opportunity I could not pass up. So, I made the move and got in on the ground floor of the “digital revolution”!
This was before the era of ubiquitous GIS COTS (commercial off-the-shelf software), so the chance to work on what was then the cutting edge of digital cartography was an opportunity I could not pass up.
I worked for several years on the first digital systems for stereo data extraction and product finishing, helping to bring those systems into the production environment. Even then, we were working closely with our industry partners on automation, particularly automated feature extraction. I moved into an Operations Engineer position and took training in Machine Vision, Machine Learning and Neural Networks, and Advance Image Processing. I worked for several years developing the first Knowledge Based Systems for data extraction and population and computer vision tools. That early work was a forerunner to much of what has developed today in the area of Automated Feature Extraction.
Working in Various Federal Agencies
Never being one to sit still career wise, my journey then began to take on a series of interesting moves between federal agencies. In 1994, I left DMA to work at the US Geological Survey (USGS) within the Department of Interior. For the next 7 years, I worked on everything from digital data standards to dual use remote sensing programs, eventually becoming the Director of the USGS Advanced Systems Center (ASC). The ASC was the nexus of interface with the Department of Defense and Intelligence Community on dual use capabilities to support Federal Civil requirements.
After working for USGS, I was recruited to come back to the Department of Defense and Intelligence Community sector into what had evolved into the National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA). NIMA was sponsoring a major systems development and acquisition program to revolutionize their entire IT and systems development baseline. I had the opportunity to work on requirements development with a focus on industry and National and International partnership development. These requirements ended up supporting what eventually became the largest single acquisition program in NIMA history at that time.
Eventually I found my way back to USGS and became the Chief Architect for the developing National Map program. The National Map is the country’s premier public facing portal for accessing geospatial data and products. I acquired my professional certification in Enterprise Architecture and was responsible for overseeing change management and overall architecture development for the National Map program.
Advancing to a Senior Role at NGA
While engaged as the Chief Architect for the National Map program in 2012, my boss at the time entered my office with a fantastic opportunity. NGA had just advertised for a Senior Executive to become the first National GEOINT Authority (NGA) for Cartography. My boss strongly encouraged me to apply and put my name forward for entry into the Senior Executive Service. I applied for the position, was hired, and in early 2013, entered the senior ranks at NGA. Once in the executive role, I held positions as the NGA for Cartography, the first Chief Data Officer, the Director of the Foundation GEOINT Group within the Source Operations and Management Key Component, and lastly as the Deputy Director of Source until my retirement from federal service in 2020.
“… follow your passions, don’t be afraid to step out into new areas of endeavor, challenge yourself to learn and try new things and new positions, and always remember where you started!”
It has been a long and varied career arc from my first entry level positions, all the way to the Senior Executive Service. If my career trajectory holds any useful instruction to the next generation, I would say follow your passions, don’t be afraid to step out into new areas of endeavor, challenge yourself to learn and try new things and new positions, and always remember where you started!
I certainly had some incredible experiences during my career, with many highlights and opportunities to work on some truly amazing programs with some great people.
While serving at the USGS Advanced Systems Center, I had the opportunity to be the Program Manager for an activity called the Hazard Support System (HSS). This capability was a massive undertaking in data fusion. We were fusing, in near real time, national assets with unclassified civil and commercial remote sensing assets and ancillary data to detect and report on emergent wildfires, pre-eruptive volcanic activity, and volcanic ash clouds. This program was truly cutting edge and broke major ground in multi-data fusion. I look back at this program as probably my favorite program to work on in my entire career.
The opportunity to participate in the development of the Digital Production System very early in my career at DMA was another major highlight. In the early 1990’s there was no ubiquitous COTS GIS environment. DPS was a forerunner in the development of advanced digital cartographic systems. We were truly on the cutting edge in this area. The work undertaken by the Govt and our amazing private sector partners provided the push toward the commercial GIS capabilities that we take for granted today.
As an individual who started his career at DMA, the opportunity to lead the Foundation GEOINT Group at NGA as a member of the Senior Executive Service was another tremendous highlight. The position is essentially analogous to being the Director of what was DMA, with responsibility for the end-to-end production and dissemination of the foundation content so critical to serving the needs of the warfighter. Leading an organization of 1500+ professionals was a major responsibility, but one that I was particularly proud to have undertaken. It was the highlight of my time in the Senior Executive Service.
There are many other highlights that I could note, but those three stand out particularly to me as I think back over the span of my career.
The Transition from Public Service to Private Industry
Kevin Hope: Well on this front I’m just getting started! Having had the opportunity to work with so many amazing and talented partners in private industry during my federal career, it seemed natural to examine the possibility of continuing to support the geospatial community by transitioning to private industry. When I left my government role, I wanted to focus on working with a company that had a solid reputation, had the potential to grow and explore new opportunities, and that could accommodate some flexibility in schedule. While multiple offers were on the table, I felt the opportunity to work with Axim provided the best fit for all of the criteria, and more, noted above.
Thus far, the transition has been fantastic! Moving from my last position at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), where I was responsible and accountable for over 2200 geospatial professionals engaged in true no fail 24/7/365 missions, to the smaller Axim environment has certainly been an interesting transition. I feel I have so much to learn from the great team here and expect I will get a first-class education in how private industry operates versus the federal government. At the same time, I hope I can help to bring a sense of how the government thinks, operates, and a sense of the emerging priorities to the Axim team to sharpen the focus and help us and the government move ahead together.
So far, it has been a great transition, made even easier by the great reception I have received from all of the team members at Axim!
“…much of the essential work in producing geospatial content, and the services required to enable that work, are quite similar.”
Recurring Themes Across Agencies for Geospatial Data and Services
One perspective that my career has given me, working in geospatial agencies within Department of Interior (USGS) and the Department of Defense (DoD) and Intelligence Community (IC) is the commonality of themes that run across agencies. As an example, USGS and NGA have very different missions and customers that they serve around foundation geospatial production. However, much of the essential work in producing geospatial content, and the services required to enable that work, are quite similar. In many cases, only the scale of operations differs significantly. As we go forward in time, some of the recurring themes that permeate the geospatial domain across agencies would include the following:
- Speed. Every user wants it faster, faster, faster. Decreasing the time it takes to receive a requirement and turn that into actionable data in the hands of a user is becoming increasingly critical.
- Automation, Artificial Intelligence, and Machine Learning. It is everywhere. The need in all sectors to take advantage of automated processing of data against the backdrop of a tidal wave of data sources is critical. The ability to use multiple sources of data to extract value and make sense of that data to meet customer demands is a theme that resonates across the board. When we look at the automation hard problems across agency domains, there are many similarities in terms of priorities.
- DevOps. Service and IT development are quickly becoming essential tools in the geospatial community. We’re moving away from the historic method of massive, monolithic development efforts where requirements are piled onto a vendor and multi-year development efforts are spent to produce results are gone. A smaller, more agile partnership between agencies and the private sector that produce rapid results for the end user are and will become the norm.
I see Axim putting great efforts into developing efficiencies in tradecraft to expedite collection, processing and delivery to end customers. The DevOps staff are embedded with production teams to help identify pain points and bring Agile development processes to the table to conceptualize, build and deploy tools to increase speed, automate laborious processes, and improve storage and access efficiencies. What’s really exciting is to see DevOps leverage artificial intelligence to support the human operator so that they can do more higher-level thinking on topics such as quality control.
A Senior Government Perspective for Fulfilling Geospatial Requirements
I’ll answer that simply by saying it’s about results. When you’re on the other end of a phone call as a senior executive with a warfighter, a first responder, or a crisis response team, they care about one primary thing: who can fulfill my requirement. A senior role in government must be all about increasing agility, finding new ways to meet user needs, innovating, and pushing for new solutions. The end user wants a result, the government needs to be invested in figuring out better ways to accomplish that result. We need to do better at the “how” part of the equation.
It’s fair to say that the qualities mentioned above are not always the government’s strong suits. Historic inertia and the “we’ve always done it this way” mentality can be pervasive and hard to overcome. However, hanging on to purely historic methods and ignoring opportunities to innovate is a sure ticket to irrelevance on the government side.
Again, transformation is never easy, but I believe you will start to see a new breed of senior leader in the government that will begin to more aggressively push these ideas forward. This portends potentially exciting opportunities for private industry!
Government Benefits from Private Sector Innovation
The government is a major beneficiary of private sector innovation in the geospatial space. So many of the tools and technologies that government agencies rely on to meet user needs came out of innovative private sector break throughs. Whether its software, services, data processing, or artificial intelligence and machine learning, the private sector will often drive innovation that leads to positive change in the way government operates.
“Looking ahead, a major component in government geospatial sector growth will be the ability to support autonomous vehicles, both on and off the battlefield.”
In the late 1990’s, the government challenged private sector to come up with the capabilities to transition mapping from manual methods to digital. This transition did not occur without error, but today the government is a beneficiary of those early pioneers in the private sector innovating and coming up with solutions that made the digital revolution possible.
Cloud storage and processing is another area that is rapidly transforming government due to private sector innovation. The need for rapidly responsive massive capabilities to store, process, and secure data are all being led by private sector innovation.
Looking ahead, a major component in government geospatial sector growth will be the ability to support autonomous vehicles, both on and off the battlefield. It’s exciting to see Axim’s history in that industry from collection of roadway information to delivering data in open formats such as OpenDRIVE to support this growing industry.
Private sector innovations in satellite and ground based high resolution data collection tools and tradecraft to process and derive value from these systems of the future will provide huge benefit to the government and will enable these capabilities to blossom. I love seeing how Axim has already done this many times over the years
The Future of Geospatial Technology, Specifications, and Requirements
Kevin Hope: So many avenues to explore for the future! Some primary trends that I think are emerging for the future of geospatial include the following:
- Technology. Moving at the speed of user needs is the future. In the area of software development that means a commitment to DevOps and the ability to rapidly spin solutions to user requirements. Artificial intelligence and machine learning will be part of the future; you can see it all over the government landscape. The ability of the private sector and government to respond with algorithm development, advanced modeling, and effective solutions for automating hard problems will be key drivers for technology going forward. The proliferation of data and sources of information is exponential. Technology needs to find solutions that can rapidly turn data into coherent answers.
- Specifications. Open standards are a big part of the future. Organizations like the Open Geospatial Consortium work across the community to develop and promulgate open geospatial standards where capabilities can be developed that will be interoperable within the domain. Developing standards and supporting community-based reference implementations of those standards are keys to enabling data and service interoperability. Open source capabilities will continue to grow and advance. Investing in leading the development of the standards and specifications that will drive this forward is something all private sector geospatial entities need to consider.
- Requirements. I’ll use the current foundation geospatial requirements process at NGA as an exemplar. The documented, formal process whereby NGA works with the community to define requirements, accept requirements, and fulfill needs has served the community well for decades. However, the process must evolve. With the need to decrease timelines from requirement to output being demanded by the end user, the paradigm of requirements must evolve. There will likely be a need for standard products and data development as far as the eye can see. In some ways, the existing paradigm can support, but with users demanding updated content within hours/days instead of weeks/months, requirements satisfaction will need to include rapid, near real-time ability to respond to requirements. Employing automation, change detection, and capabilities like crowdsourcing will become part of the process of how we think about requirements differently going forward.
“More is not always better. Capabilities, automation, and other advancements must find a way to leverage the best of the information available to derive actionable information and answers in near real time.”
The Concept of Persistence: More Does Not Always Mean Better
This drives to the very heart of where the community is going. The days when the Government had a monopoly on a small set of exquisite capabilities and requirements vastly outstripped the ability of the system to respond are gone. The paradigm has been completely flipped on its axis. We now exist in an environment where the proliferation of advanced sources, national and commercial, make virtual persistence a reality. It is this shift that the DoD/IC community must face. How to turn that abundance into coherence is the analytic challenge of the future. More is not always better. Capabilities, automation, and other advancements must find a way to leverage the best of the information available to derive actionable information and answers in near real time. This shift will be extremely challenging both to the government and private industry. It challenges the very core of how data has been gathered and analytic intelligence has been derived. It will shake the very foundations and challenge the community as a whole to re-think the way we do business! Those Agencies and companies that can look forward and develop the capabilities needed to meet this challenge will lead the enablement of this transformation.
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