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Susan Smith
Susan Smith
Susan Smith has worked as an editor and writer in the technology industry for over 16 years. As an editor she has been responsible for the launch of a number of technology trade publications, both in print and online. Currently, Susan is the Editor of GISCafe and AECCafe, as well as those sites’ … More »

GEOINT 2016 Symposium Special Report

May 18th, 2016 by Susan Smith

Monday’s keynotes at the GEOINT Symposium 2016 held this week in Orlando, Fla. began with an engaging view of global connectivity from global strategist and author Parag Khanna, author of Connectography, Mapping the Future of Global Civilization. His belief is that the world is at the beginning of the “connectivity revolution.” He asked the audience to consider how they might change the way maps are constructed in order to emphasize today’s global connectivity.


Khanna has advised the U.S. National Intelligence Council’s Global Trends 2030 program, and says the lines that connect us are already becoming battlefields because they are so lucrative.

On the other hand, he suggests that “connectivity” may prevent more wars than start them.

According to Khanna, our newest form of infrastructure – communications – represents a huge shift in how people today should think about borders, allies and rivals. What’s different is that large amounts of infrastructure are built across borders now. Traditionally we have thought of the world as organized primarily into divisions between states.

Khanna pointed out that the world is expected to spend two to four times as much on infrastructure each year as it does on all the military budgets in the world combined.

Connectivity shapes the relationships between states and borders by changing the way states relate to each other and “augments political geography with functional geography,” said Khanna. Basically what it means is that through connectivity, countries that would otherwise not be friendly may be less likely to declare wars because they have other interests such as bandwidth and trade routes they value in maintaining the health of their networks. Clearly, connectivity is shaping relationships between states now.


“We now trade with our rivals, we have financial inspiration, we invest a lot in each other, then we have supply chain dispersal, we make things in our rivals’ geography,” Khanna pointed out. “There’s always been a sense among decision makers that there is a lot more at stake now than 100 years ago, and more restraint among leaders. We should worry about escalation and do more to keep escalation from boiling over. One way is through connectivity.”

Director of the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency (NGA) Robert Cardillo used the iconic 75-year-old Mount Rushmore National Memorial (dedicated in South Dakota) as a vehicle for bringing forth a framework for elements necessary in the intelligence work of the country: value, partners, profession and people.

The first being George Washington, a surveyor, mapmaker and spymaster. Washington recognized the need for value. GEOINT Services replaces the transactional and outdated mindset. “We will be all in the cloud by 2017,” said Cardillo. He also encouraged the “gamifying” of platforms, to encourage customer relationships by integrating innovative customer service interfaces, offering trial accounts and API keys.

At the forefront of discussions throughout the Symposium was the topic of where commercial technologies fit into the whole geo-intelligence arena. Granted, the government cannot produce all the technologies that the commercial sector can produce, nor do they have the flexibility to create that those vendors have or the ability to produce them in a timely fashion.

For Thomas Jefferson, mapping was an intelligence activity. He commissioned the Lewis and Clark expedition and created the country’s first cipher system to transmit coded information in advance of the Louisiana Purchase. The NGA is reaching out with technology development and developing new professional certification and standards to create community.

“It is critical that we transition to an object based intelligence environment, OBP imports important information from the frame of an image to produce more useful intelligence,” said Cardillo.

CIBORG was created to purchase GEOINT commercial data and will be operational by early 2017 to help with big data analysis.

President Theodore Roosevelt represents partners. Roosevelt put an end to the Japanese war, he was the first to put the U.S. on the global stage. He radically transformed the New York Police Department, and as police commissioner he walked a beat late at night and early in the morning. “NGA can only be great when we invest with our partners,” said Cardillo. “We are indebted to international partners, and want to replicate with other international partners.”

Cardillo said the NGA has doubled their In-Q-Tel investment to upwards of $10 million, and worked with USGIF to integrate their GEOINT Solutions Marketplace (GSM).

Abraham Lincoln, surveyor, was all about people. Today the NGA is in competition for the brightest minds and best skills. Risk-taking is exactly where creative juices come from, according to Marcel Lettre, undersecretary of defense for intelligence.

The NGA collaborates with new partners across the government sector and academia. It has established its GEOINT Professional Certification Program for the Defense Intelligence Enterprise, awarding over 6,000 certifications since 2013. NGA and USGIF share reciprocity with the USGIS Universal GEOINT Certification Program, making the NGA and USGIF certifications equivalent.

One of the ways in which the NGA is making this happen is to partner with Silicon Valley and have a base there for exploring research and development of new applicable technologies. “We are well aware that Silicon Valley is not the only cool place doing things” said Cardillo. “But we will go where the technology exists so we can learn.”

Dr. Peter Highnam, director of research at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) is part of the reorganization of the NGA Research. The result of a reorganization initiated early this year by NGA Director Robert Cardillo, NGA Research replaces the agency’s former InnoVision Directorate and will diverge from its predecessor in at least one major respect: Rather than focusing inward, NGA Research will focus outward, concentrating on the activation of external research in seven distinct focus areas: radar, automation, geophysics, spectral, environment and culture, geospatial cyber, and geophysics.

Along with three special projects shared by Highnam—the In-Q-Tel Interface Center; the GEOINT Pathfinder 2 project; and the creation this summer of a permanent NGA office in Silicon Valley, to be known as NGA Outpost Valley—NGA Research will work toward delivering technological capabilities to warfighters, policymakers, and first responders.

“The advantage of working in an ‘ARPA’ is you don’t have a mission of your own except to do R&D; you exist to find something out, to make something happen, and to transition it into practice,” concluded Highnam, a veteran of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA).

“We at NGA are on the other end of that—I don’t care where it comes from. I shouldn’t care where it comes from,” he said. “If it will give us a war-winning capability … I should be interested in it and we should take advantage of it.”

In keeping with the keynoters’ interest in what the commercial sector can offer the government, a panel discussion on Tuesday entitled, “How Does the Remote Sensing Revolution Enable GEOINT?” answered many questions and posed many more questions on the topic.

Panelist Walter Scott, DigitalGlobe’s founder and CTO, said they must discard ¾ of the imagery collected in the short wave infrared (SWIR) spectral band because the government restrictions don’t allow its sale to commercial customers. This type of restrictions harkens back to the day when regulating commercial capabilities were the sole province of governments.

Deputy assistant secretary of defense for space policy said that commercial space industry regulations were designed to minimize national security risks rather than reaping the benefits of the technology.

Panelist Lisa Porter, executive vice president and director of In-Q-Tel funded CosmiQ Works, said that by  not approving the sale of this imagery to commercial customers, other countries can forge ahead with technical innovation and industry leadership. “Adversaries have taken note of our capabilities and we’ve optimized for efficiency and resiliency. We need capabilities of commercial remote sensing.”

Robbie Schingler, co-founder and chief strategy officer of Planet Labs, creator of small sats,said  “The commercial remote sensing market is a $1.6 billion market with the U.S. driving it. Europe and Asia are behind that.

“Trends include having enough data, as without that algorithms are useless. Lately we are seeing more high quality data that enables you to take advantage of cloud computing, machine learning (machines look at pictures), and leverage the power of large crowds (critical for learning).”

The government needs access to innovation; Silicon Valley is one example of that. It’s not just about risk around that, once you identify new ways of solving problems, you still have stuff that continues to work. The government doesn’t have a corrective mechanism for disruptive technologies. Where government falls down is when it is trying to assess corporate risk when they go to assess services. Business models are so different.

Over past decades one conversation was, is the commercial remote sensing industry overly dependent on government? Today commercial remote sensing non-government revenue is substantial. Yes, the government is still the largest customer of DigitalGlobe, but the rest of their business is very viable and continuing to grow.

The U.S. government decided there could be an emergence of the commercial geospatial industry. With new sensors, decreased barrier of entry into space, we’re on the next chapter, not fully commercial yet, we don’t have derived information feeds. The U.S. government is the most strategic customer for a U.S. company because they are regulated by the U.S. government.

“Our approach (PlanetLabs) was to go to the commercial sector: energy, oil and gas, agriculture, etc. and  build our business case on that, and then we went to venture capital, and as a result,  we’ve been able to price and position a monitoring product. Now we can look at the government as a customer, and use the government as a solid second customer. We look at not having one customer be too dominant so we can continue to innovate. We can evolve so we aren’t a contractor, we are actually licensing and selling a commercial service.”

“Go commercially first and you’ll be around for the long term. The government is a tantalizing customer, their mission requirements are different, more stringent. What we hope to see is opportunities that are distinct from the U.S. mission. We have to be careful not to drive the commercial sector toward sprouting ten legs. You can’t force existing companies to a model that will ultimately drive them out of business.”

Well crafted policy encourages investment and shapes the strategic environment as well.

Director of National Intelligence (DNI) General Clapper said in the Q&A remarks to his keynote address,  “We have to be conservative of commercial companies and how much we will impose restrictions on their data. We have to be careful on how much dependence we place on it when we are riding on someone else’s business model. I don’t believe commercial companies should be made commercially dependent upon the government. In all these issues there’s a balance. Have we taken the best advantage of them? Probably not.”

The Exhibit Hall clearly reflected a panoply of commercial technologies designed to be very useful for governments. The efforts to mine Silicon Valley will undoubtedly reap some more valuable discoveries in technologies that can fit the criteria.

Yet for some of the vendors, the tables have turned. As one exhibitor said, “What remains to be seen is whether the products we develop for the government which are a smaller niche, will provide as much ROI for us as those we develop for our commercial sector.” Also a factor is the ubiquity of cell phones among warfighters. A free app apparently can easily be downloaded and used without needing to be requisitioned for and can provide immediate access to maps, photos and other critical information.

With all that said, government approval of technologies still holds a certain undeniable cache. Providing specific products for the government can become an indirect value-add in selling to commercial customers — even if they don’t use those particular products themselves.

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Categories: 3D Cities, analytics, citizen science, cloud network analytics, crowd source, data, drones, emergency response, Esri, field GIS, geocoding, GEOINT, geospatial, GIS, GPS, handhelds, indoor location technology, iPhone, lidar, mobile, NASA, National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, National Map, NGA, Open Source, OpenGeo, photogrammetry, remote sensing, satellite imagery, sensors, small sats, smartphones, spatial data, UAV, UAVs, USGS

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