A.J. Clark

Geospatial Intelligence

What Defense agencies can do with 'big geospatial data'

NGA image Islamabad

In the era of “big data,” geospatial data is a major contributor to the rapidly growing information stockpile. The United Nations initiative on Global Geospatial Information Management (UN-GGIM) estimates that of the 2.5 quintillion bytes of data generated every day, “a significant amount” is location-aware.

However, besides the fact that there’s just more of it thanks to the proliferation of satellites and smartphones, GIS data is also more detailed, includes more video and more extensive vector data than ever before. Almost overnight, we’ve acquired the ability to collect and catalog detailed spatial information several times a day for literally every inch of the globe.

While too much data can be overwhelming and sometimes even paralyzing to organizations, geospatial intelligence hasn’t had a chance to overwhelm many organizations yet, especially commercial entities, because it’s an emerging source of business intelligence. When companies think about big data, they’re generally thinking about the data they already have. That usually means information on which a business typically relies, such as sales figures and trends, inventory tracking, operations monitoring and customer relationship management. But there is a distinct difference between spatial data and the rest of big data businesses already know. Those of us in the geospatial intelligence community need to join the big data conversation and lead the way in showing its usefulness and analytic value for both private and public entities.

Of course, the federal government and defense agencies are better-versed in geospatial data because they’ve been incorporating it into their decision making for many years. However, there are still geospatial big data opportunities for them, including operating efficiencies, faster data gathering and more detailed and comprehensive visual intelligence.

The influx of commercial content that is now readily available and relatively inexpensive, for instance, could change the way agencies gather and use intelligence. Instead of having to use more expensive proprietary sensors to canvass an area to locate the “bad guys” in hiding, defense and intelligence agencies could start with data from commercial providers to track trends and analyze patterns to do general location. They could then use their specialty resources to pinpoint and detail the specific activity, resulting in more cost-effective and efficient operations. In fact, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency and DigitalGlobe are already doing just that. Digital Globe provides foundational geospatial imagery in massive quantities to the intelligence community at a cost that is affordable and increasingly detailed. This allows for a wide net to be cast and then U.S. government sensors can focus in on the high value areas that the commercial imaging narrows the search down to.

Another place for GIS big data use is in battleground damage assessment. Defense analysts now look at as many images as they can to figure out how effective a strike has been, but often have to wait as long as 48 hours for aerial photographs and testimonials, depending on cloud cover, haze, and other environmental factors. Within the not-too-distant future, analysts will be able to access up to 30 different close-range photos of the target area within a 12-hour period. As a former targeteer trying to gauge if a target was truly damaged or not, I can say that every extra image you have available within a few hours of a strike is incredibly helpful in making an accurate assessment.

The naval mission is another potential benefactor. At any time, the Navy, Border Patrol and others are tracking large swaths of the world’s oceans. And there are always unknown vessels that pop up. GIS big data that can now track every inch of the planet several times a day can be used to follow those vessels—either to connect back to previous images or to follow into ports—making it much more difficult for nefarious unknowns to hide. Novel opportunities for the Navy to enhance its sophisticated systems in support of national security exist through coupling commercial imaging with open-source big data management solutions that are emerging to meet growing use cases in the private sector.

There is also a human capital benefit for federal agencies. By leveraging big data in the geospatial world, the government can program software to generate some answers automatically without the human analysis that was needed in the past. That’s not to say human analysis will disappear, just that it will become more efficient by targeting situations when a human brain is really needed.

For commercial customers who have not been using much GIS data, on the other hand, its addition could transform their analytics and even overall business strategies. What if you were a copper commodities trader or an exploration business? With GIS metadata, you could track the flow of trucks out of every copper mine in the world, analyzing increases and decreases in the flow as well as new operations. (Tracking activity around plants and other facilities also is a regular feature of military operations, and part of the Pentagon’s 25-year plan for unmanned systems.) There are answers to business questions that, when provided at a fast enough velocity, could be worth $100 million a month to some industries.

We’re working with several senior IT managers at different commercial businesses who have said this is game-changer for the way they do business.

But the key to making geospatial big data work, for the commercial or public sectors, is to keep an eye on the end result. It is sometimes too easy to get wrapped up in the numbers and the processes, and we forget about what’s really important. And that is finding actionable answers to real problems. As the ability to leverage geospatial big data from cloud processing and indexing strategies to new nanosatellite data and emerging unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) collecting even more and bigger data, it’s essential to remember that. The end result is visual intelligence analysis that provides national security, creates cost efficiencies and answers complex business problems that build profits.

About the Author

A.J. Clark s the president with Thermopylae Sciences and Technology, a provider of web-enabled geospatial, mobile, and cloud solutions for the federal government.

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