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Ruocco MarcoThe objective of this column is to observe world events surfacing on the daily news, focusing the attention on geotechnology and on the way it affects the functioning of world systems. The area of analysis is the intersection between technology, news, business and the digital world, where geospatial issues are more current and better measurable in their importance. Each article will present a selection of events and threads, providing background information and analysis. The opportunity is to approach the geospatial industry from a more general and public perspective, and to reconnect it with the big picture of the ongoing discussion.

Geotechnology in the News

World events take place in a specific geographical context and often are articulated around precise geospatial issues. Last summer, a geointelligence model and its stated narrative was underlying the positions of western diplomacy in considering the Syrian conflict. As chemical weapons were used, the attribution of responsibility became a matter of defining a complex geospatial scenario that could support the decision making.

At the same time, in a digital world in fast evolution, technology is enabling increased spatial information exchange, introducing novel situations often brought to the attention of the media. For example, geolocation privacy in smartphone use has become an issue as big companies like Apple and Google collect vast amounts of data about the spatial behavior of millions of users through the normal functioning of their online systems.     

In a business context, strategy, decision making and operations face daily risks and exploit opportunities dependent upon geographical variables and their technological controls. In a recently observed case, as mobile opens up Internet access in developing countries, the availability of more current weather and price information changes the way farmers interact with local markets for selling their produce.  

Opening more to the general context is also justified by considering that insights coming from better established fields (economics, IT, general science, etc.) are rather common in news and commentaries, but geospatial matters are rarely supported by in-depth explanation. Our community has the opportunity to take part in the general debate by sharing expertise otherwise locked within industry walls. For example, in 2012, after the release of iOS6 and the faulty Apple Maps application, the irritated user community looked for information about the underlying causes, but the insight commonly available on the Web was only partial and originating from non-experts. The same lack of coverage was felt last September when the new OS release did not bring any clarification on the Maps database issue.

The intersection of technology with the news also comprises events not strictly expressing a geospatial component, but nonetheless resulting of crucial relevance for the industry. For example, the shifting trends of the computing business has a strongly influence on the future of our tools, making it a good candidate for this observation.

Geointelligence to Explain the Syrian Conflict

In the Syrian crisis, the attribution of responsibilities in the use of chemical weapons against the civilian population has been at the center of the international diplomatic debate. At a certain point last summer, the political position of the US, shared with other western countries, was based upon a single piece of geospatial analysis (see Figure 1).

The intelligence that underpinned the initial US intention to proceed with a military strike was based on several elements: 1) a logistic model of the movements of the victims reaching nearby hospitals, that inductively defined the areas interested by the attack; 2) an (Israeli) satellite image singling out suspect rocket launcher activity on the side of Assad’s regime; 3) intercepted calls and communications in the area related to the preparation of chemical weapons and the dynamics of their release; 4) a scenario of battlefield that linked the specific situation to recurring patterns of attack indicating a general trend in the events.

The document prepared by US officials for public circulation linked the individual elements into an extrapolated battle narrative that, in the end, predicted Assad’s responsibility.  The conclusions of the analysis were refused by Russia that viewed the proposed analysis not sufficient as proof, because it was considered lacking direct references to agents, places and specific situation. The proposed narrative tried to define a clear-cut scenario, but it was the ground truth of the individual elements, and not their sophisticated interconnection, to be considered by some in the international community a weak point.

Geointelligence defines the strength of contemporary diplomatic cards, and it is not surprising that among the current research guidelines at NGA (National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency) a major theme are the methods of analysis combining tightly-knit models, imagery and other data elements in articulated explanatory narratives. The approach aims at exposing the cause-effect processes underlying geospatial scenarios beyond the simple depiction of events. Disparate data sources are placed in a common context with an interlinking model to converge to a complete explanation of the dynamics of a specific scenario.

The case of chemical weapons use seems to indicate that a more accountable narrative would have required better contextualized data, and not a more complex model, calling for an improvement of data sources to better support the proposed narrative.

map of Damascus attack precise

Figure 1: US geospatial model of chemical attack near Damascus (Source: White House)


UN weapon inspectors were able to obtain the exact bearing of the rockets carrying chemicals, and it was suggested by some (including the New York Times) that they aligned to a source area under the control of the Assad regime, contributing to the proposed narrative with further approximations. The matter overall remained controversial, although in the end international diplomacy agreed on the destruction of the Syrian arsenals of chemical weapons, opening further problematic scenarios of intervention.

Contextual Data for Control

The need to construct an articulated narrative out of a geospatial scenario was also an objective of Hemisphere, a US government project aimed at solving cases of drug trafficking by tracking the metadata of AT&T telephone conversations. It has recently emerged that the project used Oculus GeoTime software to link mobile conversations to a geospatial context, allowing inspectors to link movements and calls of drug dealers communicating with mobile phones in a common framework presentable in court.

The understanding of the cause-effect relationships connected to criminal activity required to analyze data placed in a detailed context. As in the Syrian case, the task of capturing the causal relationships of events imposes novel requirements for data and model quality.

The current public contrast on privacy issues related to technology and government control seems to be evolving from a matter of legality of data access towards questioning the use of predictive models applied to personal networks interacting with specific geospatial scenarios. For example, NSA has reportedly collected huge volumes of Internet data and metadata but probably spatial information related to the context of communication is making models more effective, bringing controlling ability to the next level.          

In the new Apple’s Iphone 5S, a well-advertised M7 chip is dedicated to collecting contextual data about the motion of the device with minimal energy costs, opening the way to indoor navigation applications. The component was presented with a marketing emphasis that reflected Apple’s awareness for the rising importance of spatial context in commercial applications. The supported data flow forms the basis of context-aware applications that in the end are also an instrument for more precise marketing, once the data are collected and organized in a controllable system.      

The understanding of the geographical context seem to lie at the core of many current geospatial issue emerging in the news, as the ongoing phase of data collection opens new opportunities as well as challenges. Emergent geotechnologies enable the transition to a control-oriented geographical understanding, applied to scenarios as diverse as war zones, criminal investigations and commercial markets. The process of innovation appears driven in part by strategies using geotechnology as a method to explain what happens in the shared areas where world systems and people operate.

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