Keith Masback: “You are where you are because someone extended you a hand along the way”

Keith Masback
Keith Masback

Keith Masback is:

  • CEO, United States Geospatial Intelligence Foundation
  • Member of the Department of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Advisory Committee on Commercial Remote Sensing
  • Member of the Department of Interior’s National Geospatial Advisory Committee
  • Councilor of the American Geographical Society
  • On Twitter: @geointer

 Keith was interviewed for GeoHipster by Bill Dollins.

Q: Thank you for agreeing to talk with GeoHipster. Let’s start by discussing your background. Please tell us about your educational background and your overall experience in the geospatial field.

A: I have a BA in Political Science from Gettysburg College, and that liberal arts education gave me an appreciation for the integrated nature of physical geography, political geography, and human geography. I was first thrust into the world of imagery and geospatial when I was selected to command a unit at Fort Bragg, NC supporting XVIII Airborne Corps responsible for ingesting, analyzing, and transmitting imagery and electronic intelligence from “national assets” down to tactical forces. It was a remarkably sharp learning curve, especially the technical pieces of how the national imagery and signals intelligence systems worked, and the broad range of skills my soldiers needed to know to succeed at their missions. The XVIII Corps topographic engineers depended on us for source material, and I successfully fought a bureaucratic battle for them to be co-located with us, inside our classified facility. So, as far back in 1994, I had religion regarding the powerful synergy between imagery and geospatial information. I’ve carried that on through successive positions on the Army Staff, at NIMA, and later NGA.

Q: Please explain the role of the United States Geospatial Intelligence Foundation (USGIF). Why was it formed? What are some of its significant accomplishments? What benefits does it hope to achieve for the geospatial intelligence (GEOINT) community and the wider geospatial community?

A: USGIF was created in January 2004, shortly after NIMA was morphed into NGA. The USGIF founders very deliberately determined that they would create a 501(c)(3) educational nonprofit foundation, as opposed to a trade association. So, from its inception, the Foundation was focused on supporting GEOINT education, training, and tradecraft. By sitting at the intersection of industry, government, the military, and academia, USGIF was, and remains, uniquely positioned to support the development of the (then-new) discipline. We have remained steadfastly focused on our tagline: Build the Community | Advance the Tradecraft | Accelerate Innovation. We’ve doubled the size of our corporate and institutional membership over the last 8 years to just about 250. We recently launched an individual membership program and are on pace to welcome our 1,000th member in early 2016. After next year’s scholarship cycle, we will have awarded over $1M to students studying in the field. We have accredited 12 (soon to be 15) colleges and universities to grant GEOINT Certificates, and over 500 students have earned them to date. We are working on individual professional certification, under a cooperative research and development agreement with NGA, and in coordination with a number of organizational and corporate partners. Our volunteer-led working groups coalesce around ideas to encourage discourse, debate, and discovery. Finally, we maintain our place as the convening authority for GEOINT and related discussions by producing a number of events and programs, large and small, including the largest gathering of GEOINT professionals in the world, our annual GEOINT Symposium, which last year drew about 5,500 total attendees and 300 exhibits. We see a bright future, where GEOINT has transcended its national security roots, expanding beyond governments to multiple industry sectors. This will only increase the demand for educated, trained, and certified GEOINT professionals, and USGIF is poised to lead the way to meet that demand.

Q: Please describe a typical workday for the CEO of the USGIF.

A: I’m sort of hesitant to answer this question because I think I have one of the best jobs in our field, and I don’t want to inadvertently encourage anyone to try to unseat me. On any given day, I can be found lecturing on a campus and meeting the faculty and students in one of our accredited programs; meeting with senior national security leadership; “petting” a satellite in a factory; trying out new open source software; hosting one of our events or programs; having lunch with an executive from one of our member companies; engaged in a discussion with one of our working groups, or hanging out with the USGIF team at our offices by Dulles Airport. I subscribe to ‘management by walking around.’ I find it’s a great way to get to know our team, understand their individual concerns, and to feel the pulse of the organization. And, of course, to procrastinate.

Q: I’ll ask a question that we typically save for the end of an interview: What does the term “geohipster” mean to you?

A: The term conveys to me the idea of people who creatively challenge the status quo and who speak truth to power. They don’t conform to traditional norms, and uniquely express themselves across myriad mediums. Geohipsters are open to taking personal and collective risk in pursuit of progress, and have a sense of community. They take pride in their skills — their tradecraft — and have a passion for learning and growing. Importantly, I am convicted that this status has nothing to do with age, and while the proportion of younger geohipsters to older is likely skewed towards the former, geohipsters are comprised of people of all shapes, colors, and vintages. Finally, there does seem to be some correlation between geohipsters and alcohol.

Q: Based upon your answer to the previous question, what aspects of the geospatial intelligence field do you think are more “geohipster” than people outside of the field would expect?

A: I know that there are change agents at all levels of the traditional GEOINT Community, inside of the national security arena, spanning from the Intelligence Community, to the Department of Defense, to the Department of Homeland Security. We exist in sort of an underground network, operating both inside and outside of the bureaucracy to get things done. We establish and maintain relationships, identify new additions to the herd, and groom and mentor the geohipsters who are coming along with and behind us. I do a lot of mentoring, both because I feel a responsibility to  ‘pay it forward’, and because I always emerge from mentoring sessions smarter and more informed. So, in a more direct response to your question, I’d urge geohipsters to resist the temptation to wholesale write off the suits, the seniors, the leaders and managers who seem totally invested in the way things are / have always been. Working among them, often in hiding for their own bureaucratic survival, are people who think differently, who are patiently effecting change, and who are challenging The System. Find them, join them, and be part of creating the future.

Q: You have held senior leadership positions at both NGA and USGIF for over the past ten years. From this vantage point, how has the GEOINT community evolved over the past decade?

A: I think that GEOINT, as one of the intelligence disciplines and now well beyond, has grown up. A few folks gathered to create the idea in 2003. As the shotgun marriage that was the National Imagery & Mapping Agency transmogrified into the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, it was important to think differently about the future, and the change in names represented a very deliberate inflection point. I believe that the fabric that is the GEOINT Community has been woven slowly over the past 12 years, but that the pace of change and the impact of outside forces have accelerated dramatically over the last 24-30 months. For the most part, the most significant innovation taking place in the GEOINT field is in local hotbeds of creativity around the globe. GEOINT, forged in the cleanrooms of the defense and intelligence sectors, has escaped its confines and spread virally. The challenge now for government, industry, and academia is to keep up. Geohipsters will play a critically important role as the glueware to pull all of this together, mashing up traditional approaches with new ones, and blazing new trails.

Q: What are the greatest opportunities you see for GEOINT of the next five to ten years? What significant challenges do you foresee?

A:  I recently penned an article for our official magazine, Trajectory, titled The GEOINT Revolution. (Shameless plug:   In that article I’ve identified ten technologies which I believe are coming together to create a unique synergy that is taking the idea of GEOINT, born in the national security context, and propelling it into the B2B, B2G and consumer space. I think this represents both an incredible opportunity and a huge challenge. How are we going to best share all that we’ve learned in our decade-plus of experience, and in turn, how will we learn from the thousands of bright minds working GEOINT for commercial enterprises and humanitarian relief, and their unbridled, unconstrained engagement with these technologies and data. In my article, I posit that the greatest challenge to the traditional national security GEOINT Community is going to be recruiting, educating, training, and retaining an appropriately skilled workforce to take advantage of the revolution which is underway.

Q: As we wrap up 2015, what could GEOINT be doing better and how is the USGIF helping to bring it about?

A: First, I think we ought to pay attention to this GEOINT Revolution that’s underway. Whether or not you agree with all the details in my recent piece, I think we can all agree that there is massive change taking place, and we can either throw ourselves into helping to guide it productively, or we can be dragged along behind it. Additionally, I think there is an old guard who believe that GEOINT is inherently a national security activity. They aren’t comfortable with the viral spread of GEOINT to almost every sector of the economy, nor are they comfortable with the idea that these ‘newbies’ are neither constrained by the approaches we’ve developed, nor burdened with the restrictions that accompany the national security approach to GEOINT. USGIF has a mandate to address all of this, to be at the forefront of integrating all of these discussions, and to ensure that both our academic certification and our professional credentialing efforts are reflective of this new reality.

Q: You mentioned that there will soon be 15 colleges and universities accredited to grant GEOINT certificates. What is the breakdown of those institutions between four-year schools and community colleges? How do community colleges figure into the USGIF educational outreach strategy?

A: At the moment, all of those schools are (at least) four-year schools. The bulk of the GEOINT Certificate programs are at the graduate level, with two notable exceptions being West Point and the Air Force Academy. We are very excited to have done some initial work with Northern Virginia Community College and the NSF-funded GeoTech Center run out of Jefferson Community and Technical College in Kentucky to embark upon a community college program. I’m confident that we’ll ultimately develop a meaningful credential based on the community college model.

Q: The impacts of sequestration on the intelligence community have been well-documented. What unexpected or surprising positives, if any, have you seen in the GEOINT community as a result of sequestration? Assuming sequestration comes to an end, how do you see these positives informing GEOINT going forward?

A: Going back to the roots of sequestration, the original intent was to have it be so gruesome and objectionable that it would force the polarized Congress to come to some sort of compromise to avoid it. When that didn’t work, and it hit, and the world didn’t cease to exist, it suddenly became acceptable. But it’s incredibly insidious by its very nature. I was on the Army Staff during the late 1990s as we sought to realize a peace dividend at the end of the Cold War. We were able to rationally plan a massive drawdown, strategically managing people and equipment and bases/camps/stations. It wasn’t perfect, but there was discretion allowed for how each service would walk itself back. Sequestration, especially initially, allowed for no such discretion, forcing salami-sliced cuts across every program. Imagine if I told you to cut your household budget by 10% — but that you couldn’t do it by simply getting rid of cable TV, or buying fewer groceries – rather that you had to cut 10% off your mortgage, your car payment, your cable bill, your groceries, your power bill, etc. It would be ridiculous, but that’s what sequestration forced on our government — and the national security GEOINT Community. As for positives, I’m sure that some fat was trimmed and some efficiencies were realized. Sequestration is a nonsensical way to do business, and the myriad negative impacts will be felt for years to come.

Q: It’s been interesting to see open-source projects such as Hootenanny released from the traditionally-cloistered world of GEOINT. Does this signal a culture shift and, if so, how much more can we expect to see?

A: I absolutely love the efforts of NGA to open up and to lead the way for transparency in the Intelligence Community. Edward Snowden, while a traitor who sold out our country and did unspeakable damage to the collective safety of the American people and our allies, did force a long-needed, difficult conversation regarding balancing privacy and security. I believe that NGA is on an unwavering path to opening up to the maximum extent practicable, creating trust and confidence in the American people, and delivering more value to a broader set of users. This is important for the privacy/security issue, but also because it signals that NGA recognizes the tremendous shift that’s underway, and appreciates that it has to be ‘all in’ if it wants to continue to be viable. I see leaders across academia, government, and industry who recognize what’s happening and who fully support the culture shift required to maintain relevance.

Q: In the wake of 9/11, security concerns caused a significant contraction in the availability of government-produced geospatial data sets that had previously been freely available. In recent years, that trend has been reversing with the push for open data across government. For example, the State of Maryland has legislated all of its data open by default. What role does the USGIF play in this issue and what do you see as a “happy medium” that accounts for appropriate security while also ensuring open government and public access to data?

A: I think this goes to the larger idea of the new global transparency. The hyper-availability of remote sensing and the ability to crowdsource massive open geospatial datasets has changed the game forever. Should sensitive critical infrastructure information (and other select datasets) remain protected? I think that’s a matter of common sense, but I think that this new transparency demands that geospatial data be open by definition, and protected by exception. There were kneejerk reactions on multiple fronts after 9/11, and this is just one example. Additionally, governments won’t necessarily be the producers or owners of the authoritative data. The GEOINT Revolution incentivizes business of all types to integrate imagery and geospatial data, and to conduct analytics with it in order to gain a competitive advantage. Multinational corporations are better positioned financially in many cases to invest in creating these data than most governments. USGIF’s role is to be the convening authority for discussions around this topic. Our Geospatial and Remote Sensing Law and Policy Working Group, for instance, is trying to sort out frameworks for dealing with this new technology, data, and information.

Q: The GEOINT field is known for its heavy reliance on single-source, highly curated data sets (often termed “authoritative”). How are crowd-sourced data sets being leveraged and do you see their role increasing?

A: I discovered this very early on during my first gig at the (then) National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA, now NGA). I referred to it as the “sanctity of the seal.” This reverence for exacting quality control of highly curated data was a source of great pride. If the NIMA seal was on a product, you could — and often had to — bet your life on it. And, to be sure, when it was produced, based off the data that was available, it was superbly accurate. The lag time for that production was sometimes measured in decades due to the standing requirement for NIMA to cover (almost) the entire globe. As a former Army Infantryman, I would challenge the mappers. I’d ask about the ability, in the digital age, to have a special ops team enter a notation into the (rapidly aging) authoritative database that a certain bridge in Afghanistan was no longer intact. The digital pedigree could be noted for all the other users, allowing them to make their own call about the veracity of that entry. For instance, rather snobbishly, I might be more inclined to believe the notation of that special operations unit, over say, a water purification unit. So, moving from the sanctity of the seal — still very much alive, especially in the world of aero and maritime safety of navigation — to a world in which crowd-sourced data are integrated into the larger whole is no small cultural shift. It is happening, and it will be more accepted as time passes. However, we must remember the differing nature of how these data are used. If your crowd-sourced map gets you and your wife to the wrong end of the block for a holiday party, you shrug your shoulders and adjust. If a vertical obstruction is improperly noted, a military aircraft is destroyed and its crew perishes. If a Marine unit evacuating an embassy has improper routing to an extraction point, they and their Department of State colleagues perish. I’m not suggesting that crowd-sourced data and information doesn’t have an important place in national security GEOINT, just that the stakes are a little bit higher, and we’ve got to figure out how to raise the confidence level to meet a very high bar.

Q: Somewhere, a geospatial analyst is going about her daily tasks as part of her job in a municipal or state government. For what tools does she have GEOINT to thank?

A: First of all, she’s probably incorporating overhead imagery, from space and/or from aircraft in her work. The technology on those spacecraft and aircraft and those sensors can trace back their heritage to national security efforts. She’s probably used Google Earth at some point, and it was created with the investment of Intelligence Community monies in a company called Keyhole, prior to its acquisition by Google in about 2004. Further, the digital elevation model in Google Earth is built on Shuttle Radar Topography Mission (SRTM) data, collected in 2000 during an 11-day mission by the Endeavour shuttle. That mission was supported by investments from NASA, NGA, the Army, and some international partners. The subsequent processing, storage, and distribution of the data were managed by NGA, working with NASA. Regardless of what GIS package she is using, it has almost assuredly benefitted from engagement with the GEOINT community over time. Finally, increasingly, her education and/or training may be have been related to GEOINT-based curricula, and this will continue to increase in the future. From my perspective, she’s a GEOINTer, whether she knows it or not!

Q: What do you do for fun when you are not at work?

A: My wife and I have five children, ranging in age from 13 to 22. Parenting is a large part of what I do when I’m not at work, and (most of the time) it’s a blast. I was listening to a radio show on a late night drive many years ago, and a guest said that you could identify what was important in your life by identifying a succinct epitaph for yourself. Without a pause, I knew that I would want it to be: “He was a great father.”  In addition to that, I am a certified soccer referee and love the game of soccer, having played myself, and having coached all of my children over time. I used to really enjoy relaxing and watching NFL football on Sundays (and Mondays…and Thursdays…), but then my sons got me into fantasy football, and now Sundays during the NFL season are stress-filled days of watching every game at once on NFL Red Zone, eyes darting from my phone to the screen, leaving me utterly exhausted every Sunday evening.

Q: Which teams in each kind of football do you root for?

A: We only had one TV initially when I was growing up in New York, and my father was a diehard Mets fan (having been a baseball Giants fan, he was obliged to despise the Yankees). His baseball commitment interfered with shows I wanted to watch. So, he felt if I became a baseball fan, I wouldn’t feel as aggrieved. Being fair-minded, he named all the baseball teams. I thought Pirates sounded cool, so I chose them. I extended this to the Steelers. As it turns out, the decade of the 70’s wasn’t a terrible time to be rooting for the Pirates and Steelers: Two World Series wins and four Super Bowl wins. They’ve been my teams ever since. As for the “real” football, I am a NY Red Bulls fan and a Borussia Dortmund fan. For the record, and geo-related, I think it’s important to note that it is my position that the Red Bulls, Giants, and Jets all play in New Jersey (where I now reside), and thus New York’s only NFL team is the Bills, and their soccer team is the newly born NYCFC.

Q: What recent books would you recommend for the budding geospatial professional?

A: As a political science guy, I think it’s really important that budding geospatial professionals fully embrace human geography and political geography as totally integral to what they do. I simply can’t fathom someone working in our business who has no appreciation for those particular layers. I would also think that almost by definition, up-and-coming geohipsters would be motivated to understand the global context for their work. Another theme that I stress to junior professionals is the importance of networking. A couple of books that immediately come to mind:

Your Network is Your Net Worth” by Porter Gale

Prisoners of Geography” by Tim Marshall

Connectography” by Parag Khanna (Spring of 2016)

USGIF’s “Human Geography” Monograph Edited by Murdock, Tomes, & Tucker (Shameless plug #2)

The Phenomenology of Intelligence-focused Remote Sensing” Edited by Evans, Lange & Schmitz (Shameless plug #3; proceeds fund a USGIF remote sensing scholarship)

Q: Which Ghostbuster are you, and why?

A: Many years (and pounds) ago, I was often told I resembled Harold Ramis who of course played Dr. Egon Spengler. However, my rather sarcastic bent puts me more in the Dr. Peter Venkman category. I’ve had many Venkman moments in my career. Memorably, I was responsible for the global tasking of our imaging “spy satellites” as an NGA senior, so I represented the user community as we worked through critical decisions regarding spacecraft anomalies with engineers from the National Reconnaissance Office (which is responsible for buying, launching, and flying the systems). Early on in my tenure in this position, I had neither a full appreciation for the gravity of these situations, nor any clue about the technical aspects of spacecraft or sensor engineering. So, when it came time to make a decision, and it was my turn to speak, to break up the tension in the room, I’d pull from old movie lines and say things like “just make sure not to cross the streams…it would be bad” or “maybe it’s a stuck Fetzer valve.” No one laughed, so I sort of stopped saying that stuff out loud.

Q: Do you have any parting thoughts for our readers?

A: As I often like to say, the hallmark of my middling career to date is the credo that it’s better to be lucky than good. If you find yourself as an educated, trained, practicing geohipster in 2015, you’ve hit the jackpot. It’s game on, the GEOINT Revolution is underway, and you skated to where the puck was going to be. Pounce now, while the window of opportunity is wide open and your skills are in huge demand. Finally, pay it forward. You are where you are because someone extended you a hand along the way — a teacher, a colleague, a mentor, a boss. It’s your obligation to do so for others.






2 responses to “Keith Masback: “You are where you are because someone extended you a hand along the way””

  1. […] As I often like to say, the hallmark of my middling career to date is the credo that it’s better to be lucky than good. If you find yourself as an educated, trained, practicing geohipster in 2015, you’ve hit the jackpot. It’s game on, the GEOINT Revolution is underway, and you skated to where the puck was going to be. Pounce now, while the window of opportunity is wide open and your skills are in huge demand. Finally, pay it forward. You are where you are because someone extended you a hand along the way — a teacher, a colleague, a mentor, a boss. It’s your obligation to do so for others.  […]