Thank You, Keith Masback

If you’re lucky, you’ll meet people throughout your career who provide the necessary influence, whether they realize it or not, that you need at the time. One such person for me in recent years has been Keith Masback, who recently concluded a 10-year run as the CEO of the United States Geospatial Intelligence Foundation (USGIF).

Geospatial intelligence, or GEOINT in Beltway jargon, is most closely associated with the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), where the term was coined in the post-9/11 timeframe. The USGIF was formed shortly thereafter as the non-profit educational and outreach arm of the GEOINT community.

The concept of “GEOINT” finally put a concrete label on a community that had existed for some time, balkanized across a number of federal organizations, including the predecessors of NGA. The community began to gel rapidly and the USGIF began holding its annual GEOINT Symposium.

During those days, I worked in the infrastructure protection community and interacted with NGA and others doing GEOINT regularly. Despite that, I didn’t attend a GEOINT Symposium until 2015. The reasons for that are varied, but they boiled down to a growing dissatisfaction with the community and the work I was doing starting around 2007, though I wasn’t able to articulate it at the time. The details of that are probably best saved for a future post.

I didn’t know Keith Masback when he became CEO of USGIF, but I noticed when he appeared on Twitter under handle @geointer. That someone from that highly-cloistered community was getting on social media and flying his flag caught my attention. On Twitter, he evangelized the activities of USGIF and its members, always positively.

In 2015, I still had yet to meet Keith in person (we had missed linking up at the GEOINT Symposium), but I felt I knew him well enough to ask him to do an interview for GeoHipster, to which he readily agreed. Keith’s background was something of a departure from that of typical interviewees for GeoHipster at the time, but I felt his perspective was important. I tried not to throw softballs at him, and he didn’t shy away from hard answers (this was the time of sequestration). His answer to a¬†question about how GEOINT helps a hypothetical analyst in a municipality was the most concrete representation I had heard of his expansive view of GEOINT and its benefits.

Shortly after, I finally met Keith for lunch. His excitement for what he was doing continued then and really stuck with me. He saw the tools, techniques, knowledge, and resources of the GEOINT world as broadly applicable outside of its traditional national security roots and the activities of the USGIF, such as certification programs and scholarships, were helping to create a tide to lift all ships.

He gave me a lot to think about. I did not tell him, but I was deeply disaffected with my work by that point. Though I loved the company I was working with, the specific project I was supporting was going nowhere and it had colored my view of the government services industry in general. I knew I needed to make a change, though it took a couple more years to do so.

At its core, GEOINT is simply GIS. Because of the resources directed toward it, many very advanced technologies are developed in the GEOINT community and spill over into the geospatial industry in general. Keith provided a few examples in the GeoHipster interview and the trend continues unabated.

GEOINT is rightfully linked with national security efforts. The organizations from which the concept grew participate in the larger national security world, which conjures a specific set of mental images for most people. But national security exists in a larger societal continuum. The spill-over effect that Keith described means that it is possible for the tools, techniques, and knowledge base of the GEOINT community to be applied across that entire societal continuum to improve living conditions around the world in such a way that reduces the need for conflict.

I will admit that’s perhaps an overly optimistic view of things, but I would rather aim for that than many of the alternatives.

I have Keith Masback and his work at the USGIF to thank for shaking me out of my funk and expanding my thinking. For that, I am thankful and I am looking forward to his next act.