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June 30th, 2015
Is the geospatial-intelligence sector at the heart of the geospatial revolution?

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At last week’s GEOINT Symposium, organized by the U.S. Geospatial Intelligence Foundation, the keynotes and many of the sessions continued to express the theme that we are experiencing a geospatial revolution. The parallels between the geopolitical disruption in the world, the fuel for the geospatial intelligence mission, and the technological revolution, which is being spurred by convergence of technologies, was not lost on many. It’s a geospatial revolution being spurred by an actual revolution.

The gains in intelligence gathering that have taken place over the past decade of conflict are now entering mainstream, and yet the geospatial intelligence community credit the advancements of the private sector for the bulk of innovation. The convergence of the cloud, Big Data analytics and an explosion of data from unmanned platforms and smallsats are where the market is headed, said many speakers.

Power Shift

According to Director Cardillo of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), there is a change from old power where we were closed and hoarded intelligence to the new power of sharing and transparency where the speed of the decision is the key advantage. With this shift in power in mind, it’s  now more important to frame discordant data and make “coherence out of chaos” than it is to build dossiers.

The power shift is toward insight and expertise that happens quickly through integration across the enterprise, rather than slow and thoughtful insight based on months or years of observation. The need to be nimble and flexible, and to share rather than hoard, is the new mantra. This transformation is coming about because the power of the crowd has been duly demonstrated, and the need to be open and transparent has taken hold. It’s a sea change to hear the geospatial intelligence community speak to a Web-first strategy and the need to share intelligence.

Extreme Expansion

The fact that NGA are speaking to a new need for openness and accessibility, and following this path with actions, does point to a revolution. They have established a presence on GitHub ( and shared several open source projects with the community, realizing the benefit of defining a problem set and reaching out to talented developers to help them advance the tools.

They were also quick to share intelligence and expand community outreach for recent crises — most notably the Ebola outbreak and the Nepalese earthquake — acting quickly and sharing the wealth of their data in order to have a quicker impact. The barriers to this information have broken down, with the lawyers barely keeping up with the transition. The collaborative has won out over the closed, and it’s a significant shift.

Unchecked Acceleration

One of the more exciting quotes of last week’s events came when director Cardillo mentioned the accelerating growth of smallsats, stating:

“One of the most challenging things affecting our people in the near future is the smallsat revolution. Some are uncomfortable with this seemingly uncontrolled movement of more and more sensors into space. And while I recognize that there are two sides to the world’s growing transparency, I am energized and enthused about this development.”

To be both energized and enthused speaks to ongoing democratization of intelligence and an optimistic view that more transparency will lead to an intelligence advantage and diffused aggression. It’s hard to argue with that world view coming from the man that delivered the daily intelligence briefing to the president, and who holds a deep institutional knowledge of the agency he now heads.

To hear the Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert O. Work state that they will be doubling down on geospatial intelligence, knowing more and more quickly, speaks to the value and technological progress that we’re seeing with today’s geospatial toolset.

Future Forward

It can be argued that many of today’s geospatial advancements have come about thanks to the geospatial-intelligence community’s embrace of open standards and insistence on a digital workflow. We’ve come a long way within a decade — from warehouses of flat maps to dynamic and regular updates on all of our devices. We do have those within the geospatial intelligence community to thank for many of these advancements, and they continue to lead the charge with calls for rapid decision making.

In particular, it’s hard to imagine the future we foresee without the automated and autonomous data collection from drones. Many of the men and women who have served owe their safety and health to these forward-deployed data collectors, and now we’re reaping this literal trial under fire development for all manner of commercial applications.

Aggression is all around us, and yet the talk about aiding insight is less about crushing the opposition and more about exposing bad actors and doing so in a collaborative way. Geospatial intelligence has advanced beyond a “might is right” advantage, and it has the potential to show the way where insight becomes a peaceful advantage.

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