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Former NGA Head Aims To Grow St. Louis Geospatial 'Ecosystem' In New Role

Robert Cardillo poses for photo taken at St. Louis University
Corinne Ruff | St. Louis Public Radio
Robert Cardillo, who stepped down as the director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency earlier this year, is taking on a new role at St. Louis University bringing together the NGA, researchers and others.

Robert Cardillo has spent much of the past 25 years in St. Louis, though he’s never lived here.

The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency is what first brought him to the city, where more than 3,000 NGA employees work on a campus south of downtown. But it’s the budding geospatial industry that’s kept him involved on a broader level after stepping down from the agency earlier this year. 

Cardillo served as director of the intelligence agency for the last four years. His most notable move in that position came in 2016, when he decided to placethe new NGA West headquarters in north St. Louis.

It might be the magnet for geospatial growth in St. Louis, but Cardillo says the technology is growing rapidly across industries — including agriculture, health care and urban development. 

“Geospatial is quite literally and figuratively everywhere,” he said. “Where you are, where you’re going, how you’re moving from one point to another. Where you live and your quality of life — is all tied back to location.”

That’s why he said he chose to join St. Louis University in May as a distinguished geospatial fellow in its research institute. His work there will focus on bringing the NGA together with corporations, civic leaders and academic researchers to propel the geospatial industry.

“I was looking for a way to help that ecosystem grow,” Cardillo said. “And we, in the geospatial market, whether it’s industry or government, need new talent.” 

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.

Corinne Ruff: Your new job is to help envision not only the geospatial strategy for the NGA, but for the region at large in St. Louis. Why is geospatial set up to grow in St. Louis?

Robert Cardillo: Now with entities like Cortex, the innovation center, and T-Rex standing up with Geosaurus, with large entrepreneurs like Enterprise car-rental company and Andy Taylor literally investing and taking that locational data that can be rather disparate and elevating it into that geospatial ecosystem so we can make better decisions and understand our planet.

Whether you're looking at it from an environmental perspective, or urban development or national security — geospatial brings all of those issues together.

Ruff: Do you think about St. Louis as a geospatial ecosystem, and is the NGA’s new western headquarters here just one step toward building that up?

Cardillo: When I landed on north St. Louis as the designated site, it was premised upon a bet that the federal government would make in an area that at the time, three years ago and even today, doesn’t have the ecosystem around it. I was confident about that when I made that decision — on the return on that investment; I’m more confident today. 

The reason I’m so optimistic is because what I’ve seen. I’ve seen civic leaders, I’ve seen industrial leads. I just left the mayor’s office again, and it is a palpable, tangible reality that’s coming to the fore.

Ruff: The new NGA headquarters will break ground later this year, and a lot of people in this city view this as a real positive push for development in a part of the city that has been underdeveloped for a long time. But what about those residents in that area that feel they might be outpriced, or overlooked?

Cardillo: Look, I have similar concerns. 

So we did a geocache program last year with an elementary school, it was a geospatial trivia game. The winning team came to visit us at 2nd Street, and these are fifth graders. And I remember meeting Zion. I told Zion about the new campus, and I said, “Well, it'll be at the corner of Jefferson and Cass.” And he said, “Oh, I live just down the street. Will you have bike racks?” And I said, “For you, Zion, we’re putting bike racks in, because I want you to be able to ride your bike down the street.” 

To your question though, Zion’s family has to be able to afford to live down the street. So we absolutely want to move into the neighborhood, not move the neighborhood out. To be clear, there’s little NGA can do about that, other than to encourage that conversation.

Ruff: National intelligence is only one piece of geospatial. Here in St. Louis, we’re seeing people use this technology to, for instance, find where to plot their urban farms or how to reduce poaching of animals. How broad do you view the uses for this technology?

Cardillo: As we become more connected, and we are, the world gets a little more transparent. Now I realize this is a double-edged proposition. Transparency can be a good thing if you want to make sure food gets to the right part of a struggling population. 

Also in America we value privacy. So transparency has that other edge of, 'What do you mean they can see me?' or sense this and what not. I think the upside, the benefits of what I call radical transparency, far outweigh the potential misuse.

Ruff: Is there a future where you see me and other residents in St. Louis using geospatial location technology to inform ourselves about the world we live in?

Cardillo: Yes, you might use an app on your phone: Google Maps, Waze, Apple Maps. What you’re using is a global positioning system, which by the way is a government network of satellites that point down at the Earth to make sure that devices we hold in our hands can, if you accept it, help make better decisions — driving directions. 

But I think it’s bigger than that. If we can see the world, we can change the world.

Follow Corinne on Twitter:@corinnesusan

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org

Corinne is the economic development reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.