The geospatial community has long supported the idea that open data leads to the development of applications and new technologies. The prevailing theory goes something like this; if people have access to open geospatial data then they will use it to develop applications. That seems logical and is certainly one of the goals many of us are working towards. But does open data necessarily mean that development takes place, and how much of the current development is attributable to military research and development?
Most of the current satellites circulating in space that provide high resolution imagery today owe their existence to military needs and requirements. That trend has expanded over the years as these agencies have indicated greater interest in developing applications based upon commercially available satellite imagery. These contracts are large and one might readily argue that those satellites would not be built or operating if a military connection were not established.
erdas is supporting WorldView– 1 as recently announced at GEOINT, for example. ESRI manufactures a product called ArcGIS Military Analayst, the European Union develops many satellites for military purposes, BAE Systems Socet Set extends from Defense applications, NATO develops geospatial courses, image compression serves to meet military speed needs, OGC has a Military Testbed, a Canadian company’s software guides military navigation and the Ordnance Survey UK owes it’s very beginning to the military. I even learned about photogrammetry from a set of some of the first photogrammetry teaching manuals of the Royal Canadian Air Force given to me by my father — which I still have.
The above list could go on and on. Even Google has been approached for intelligence purposes. In the case of the European Union, military applications arise within individual governments, and in some countries the Department of Defense is responsible for national geodesy, cartography and geospatial development.
Many of the thousands of company’s developing products and services oriented to this market do not necessarily speak about the work openly. Yet, their work is significant, innovative, needed and often at the cutting edges of geospatial development. It has long been indicated that many developments find their birth within the military and defense communities, then filter down to become more widely available to the public and individual consumers.
In practice this is an effective model, I think. It applies the rigid classification of requirements directly on specific questions, funding them in many cases and get results — well usually. It is wholly wrong to think that many of these developments do not support wider society and can even be found in health, transport, agriculture and marine applications to name a few.
Sometimes one gets that the sense that tossing data out the window into the streets results in wide numbers of people picking it up and developing new applications from one end of the world to the other. Some do to be sure, but many simply take that data and mash it up into representations. That is fine of course, but does not go to the point of developing innovative new applications and solutions. Instead, it goes to the point of displaying accessible information for greater understanding and improved communication, for what already exists.
The military and defense model is particularly attractive because it scales and can be adapted to purposes related to emergency services, environmental events like disasters and health dangers.
At the present time the planet is experiencing a rapid shift toward environmental needs, largely supported by the awareness that a rapidly changing climate can lead toward emergencies and huge economic costs. It is noteworthy that organisations like NATO and the EU approach social stability as a precursor to conflict and war. What will happen when and if the people of the Maldives cannot find a place to live or enough food, due to rising seas? What will happen when a line running from South Carolina to California becomes desert, will tempers flare? As England sinks under rising oceans, will people move or build higher houses? Where will their food come from?
I’m not convinced that free geodata alone is the answer. Note the recent publication notice at the Association for Geographic Information UK entitled ‘AGI Foresight Study 2015′ this week — it clearly states that the UK geomarket is growing and expanding. That, at a time when we are being told that OS is strangling geospatial business and preventing growth in the market. So which is it?
I would venture that military related spending that connects to geospatial data is far more than what many people assume is the extent of spending in the geospatial marketplace — in the order of ten’s of billions worldwide.
While private industry is the engine to creating wealth. I am not convinced that simply tossing data into the open market space is truly creating the innovation we should be attributing to downstream military and defense related developments in research etc.
And, the role of military and defense agencies has changed. While it has been traditionally understood as the warfighter in the field, but that is not the only role that these agencies fulfill today. Their mission is wider, involves not only military but social stability, environment and even infrastructure.
The twist and turn we need to understand is how to make that military and defense mission meet all its goals while enabling those geospatial innovations for even more applications and uses that benefit society.
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Jeff Thurston is editor for V1 Magazine and V1 Energy Magazine for Europe, Middle East and Africa and is based in Berlin.