I spent June 24th at the 2015 GEOINT Symposium. Despite having worked in the field and related areas for years, this was my first time attending this event and I was only able to attend for one day. It was a bit of a whirlwind and my impressions were somewhat superficial. I got to catch up with many old friends and meet some people that I had been wanting to meet.
There’s the old adage that, when building a house, the lot gets cleared and in a very short time, there are walls and a roof. After that, nothing much seems to be happening. In reality, the plumbing and the wiring and all of the internals that make the building useful are being installed. There is progress, but it is less dramatic. That is the feeling I came away with from the GEOINT symposium.
The first thing I needed to do was perform a mental reset. In the past few years, I have primarily attended GIS conferences. Despite the fact that GEOINT stands for “geospatial intelligence,” GIS is a component, not the central piece. I started out looking at the GIS offerings and found them to be incrementally better than what we were working with in the heady days of the mid-2000s, but not markedly so. The advancements in GIS did not mirror, in my opinion the advancements that had taken place in the wider marketplace. That may be about to change with the presence of Mapbox, but I feel that I could have taken the GIS capabilities I saw on display this week and put them in the middle of 2006 and they would not have been surprising or out of place.
This is where the mental reset needed to occur. I wasn’t at a GIS conference. I was at a conference related to a discipline that made use of GIS. GIS was the walls, the very visible manifestation that something was being built; the real progress was to be seen in the plumbing. Early on, at the outset of the what became GEOINT and what became DHS and related organizations, GIS was free-standing workstations with desktop software. It was e-mailed shapefile attachments. It was difficult and slow; and it needed to get easier and faster. In a surprisingly short amount of time, given the state of GIS technology and the time, GIS and some rudimentary analytics and real-time visualization had moved to the web. There have been incremental improvements since, but looking for progress through the lens of GIS will leave one underwhelmed. One needs to check out the plumbing.
The “plumbing” can take a couple of forms. With regard to technology, mini-satellites, drones, UAS’s, sensors and related technologies have increased the volume of available data tremendously. Data used to be in short supply, but it is now readily available to analysts and “data scientists.” Big data (I apologize for the buzzword, but it is useful shorthand) analytics is enabling automated tools to make some sense of these data streams before humans need to get involved. Eventually, after a lot of work and a couple of generations, analytical products end up displayed in GIS tools that would look very familiar to an analyst working a decade ago. Some of those GIS tools handle 3D data, imagery, and data fusion better now, but the improvements are incremental.
The “plumbing” can also take the form of organizational change, and this is important. Some of the key organizations in the GEOINT space are dedicating serious effort to reviewing how they acquire technology and talent; and also how they interact with industry and other agencies. One of the main justifications for the creation of DHS, for example, was to reduce or eliminate the bureaucratic headwinds to inter-agency coordination that were factors prior to its existence. Progress can be seen here in developments such as NGA’s first public forays into open-source. They are tentative, but these steps are an indication of a recognition that the world is doing business differently and that there is a need to engage with the community in a manner that resembles the community’s terms. I can’t overstate how much of a shift that is. To be sure, I heard plenty of talks that could have been replayed from 2006 working group meetings, but there was a strong undertone of community engagement.
Back to my house analogy: eventually, internal construction is done and the finishing touches are put on. Siding and brick go up, appliances are delivered, landscaping is done, and the construction site transforms into a place where one can effectively live. That’s probably the arc we are on with regard to GIS in the GEOINT community. More resources probably need to be dedicated to the plumbing (data acquisition and processing) and the wiring (network throughput and security) before we’ll see any meaningful advances in the appliances that are GIS tools. That’s okay. We tend to love our GIS so much that we can lose sight of the fact that it’s often not the most important thing in the room.