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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 coursesimage 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.

More Infor­ma­tion

NATO — Map­ping Appli­ca­tions


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