SOA puts intelligence on the map

New systems integration technologies put power behind geospatial intelligence.

When the Defense Department sent 24 Apache helicopters to the Balkans as part of Operation Allied Force in April 1999, it didn’t count on the helicopters getting bogged down by knee-deep Albanian mud and miserable weather.

Better geospatial intelligence might have helped avert that mess. More than maps, geospatial intelligence is comprehensive analysis of the places where the military will operate. It’s the slope of the terrain, soil conditions and vegetation – just about any landscape feature.

Geospatial intelligence also includes data about the weather and local population. It encompasses everything that’s relevant to military operations in a specific location, said Robert Burkhardt, who became the Army’s first geospatial information officer in January.

Geospatial intelligence also includes the human terrain, which is the sociocultural information about the people who live in an area, their traditions and mores. A commander should know the factors that drive people to react in good ways and bad, Burkhardt said. It’s one thing to have that information in a text document and another to have it visually accessible on a map, where commanders can fuse that data with other layers to produce a comprehensive plan of action.

Geospatial thinkers say there’s nothing new about the importance of geospatial intelligence. Warfighters have always needed maps and data. But developments in the past few years have raised the profile of the geospatial community, its members say.

For example, digitization arrived with a vengeance. Even a few years ago, mobile tactical operation centers depended on acetate drawings stretched out on wool blankets. Now geospatial intelligence is more digitized, but challenges accompany that evolution.

“Before, we had computers, we had processes, we had procedures, we had reporting techniques that worked as an analog system,” Burkhardt said. Information technology threw a monkey wrench into that system, and in the process of making something new, it produced incompatible data. “We’re not able to share spatial and temporal data between organizations effectively.”

The problem can be as basic as one unit replacing another. The Army wants no lag time in getting replacement technology ready for warfighters in the field. A new unit is supposed to pick up where the old one left off. But those devices might collect information in different ways. They might even put geospatial information in presentation slides or a spreadsheet.

“When they do their transfer of authority to one another, it’s pretty ineffective,” Burkhardt said. “We’ve acknowledged that in the Army and said that’s a problem, and we need to do better.”

A newer development making that problem more urgent has been the emergence of asymmetric threats, such as improvised explosive devices, suicide bombers and similar terrorist and guerrilla tactics that U.S. forces face. “There are exponentially more things to track,” Burkhardt said.

Marine Corps geospatial experts concur. “When you’re trying to be all over the place at once, the demand for that type of information increases dramatically,” said Maj. Dawn Alonso, the Marine Corps headquarters’ highest-ranking geospatial officer responsible for overseeing imagery and geospatial intelligence within the plans and policy branch. Marines might have made do with a simple map in the past, but as communication assets have become more prevalent, attitudes have changed and demand for information has risen, Alonso added. The Marines are developing a geospatial concept of operations targeted for completion within the next year.

“We’ve got to figure out what that new business will be,” she said. Right now, finding sources of geospatial information on DOD’s secret-level intranet is hit-or-miss, she added. “There’s so many databases and repositories. It’s not well-organized, and I guess [that] would be putting it mildly.”

If a tree falls in the forest, SOA knows about it
Military officials recognize that geo-intelligence is a critical information systems infrastructure, said Bill Harp, defense marketing manager at ESRI, a geospatial information systems provider. Managing data as part of a geospatial representation goes straight to how humans think, he added.

“It’s natural for us to think spatially,” Harp said. “Geospatial intelligence is intuitive in a way statistical tables aren’t.”

The government’s adoption of service-oriented architecture has been a major recent development in speeding the distribution of geospatial intelligence, he said. SOA seeks to create a plug-and-play software environment of loosely coupled IT services, such as ones that check the weather or validate users. It replaces tightly integrated software applications that sequester data and attempt to do everything from assigning passwords to darning socks by exposing data and standardizing application programming interfaces.

“This means that if you produce information, my system should be able to consume it and use it,” Harp said. And the moment new data is available, the whole community of verified users should get access to it, he added.

Without SOA, “you’re pretty much doomed to failure,” Burkhardt said.

The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency is DOD’s lead supplier of geospatial intelligence. NGA, which bills itself as a combat support agency, recognizes the need for better distribution of geospatial intelligence. It started implementing SOA in mid-2006, said Gregory Black, assistant chief information officer for applications at NGA.

A Web service can distribute about 60 percent of what Black characterizes as foundation information – data about geographic features, elevation and imagery, he said. NGA also is testing a Universal Description, Discovery and Integration registry and envisions taking it enterprisewide in about a year. Today’s Web services aren’t easily browsed through and discovered or easily usable in a way that a centralized UDDI registry would make them. Someone who wants to use an NGA Web service must first know that it exists, then request interface details, while NGA evaluates whether there’s enough server capacity to support a new user. A UDDI registry will automate that process. “With a UDDI in place, the Web service is essentially self-describing,” Black said. It will support 300 services when it reaches full implementation, he added.

As for the standards that make Web services possible, NGA adopted in 2006 specifications designed by the Open Geospatial Consortium, a nonprofit group of companies, government agencies and universities dedicated to making technology-neutral geospatial application interfaces. Many vendors no longer resist making their products compatible, said Carl Reed, OGC’s chief technology officer.

“Once users started asking for that, then software vendors said it was time to definitely implement a good version of this,” Reed said. Most military decisions, especially in the field, are based on geography and time, he added.

However, the existing Web standards aren’t perfect. During this year’s annual joint systems baseline assessment at Joint Forces Command’s Joint Systems Integration Command, it became apparent that the Web services standards needed tweaking, said Chris Kannan, an NGA military support officer serving as a member of NGA’s JFCOM support team. During the assessment, producers and consumers of geospatial intelligence, such as the Army and Marine Corps, along with NGA, were able to share information via Web services, but the standards “sometimes needed a little more rigor put into them,” he said. Optional features within the existing standards, such as the ability to display road attributes, weren’t universally available. NGA is working on a draft implementations profile to address that, Kannan added.

Like any SOA project – especially one that crosses internal organizational boundaries – NGA’s implementation faces governance challenges. For example, who pays for adding server capacity should a particular service become extraordinarily popular: the users who consume the service or the host who provides it? “There’s still a lot of work to be done in that area,” Black said.

Many miles to go
Technology is never enough to impose interoperability or ensure even distribution of intelligence. “It’s a multifaceted problem,” said Otis Leake, an NGA staff officer and team chief of production for NGA’s JFCOM support team. In spring 2007, a joint warfighter interoperable geospatial intelligence concept of operations took effect. It established processes to improve geospatial intelligence and delineated responsibilities of geospatial intelligence cells within joint task forces, which should act as a bridge between NGA and warfighters.

Cells ensure that geospatial intelligence flows to where it’s needed, Leake said. “The community recognizes that we need a standardized way to manage information flow of geospatial intelligence, and this is the first good step,” he added. Obstructions to better information sharing that still need to be addressed – and might take some time to remove – include the heavy infrastructure demands of existing systems and still-low levels of bandwidth in the field.

And the problem with existing systems isn’t just unshared data, said Roger Mann, geospatial research and development director at Lockheed Martin. Many applications that could include geospatial data lack the ability to collect it because they were built before geospatial information systems became prominent. There are technical workarounds, but “ultimately what you want to do is migrate to applications and schemas that have spatial fields and that are abiding by the standards,” he said. Many older applications had long, expensive development cycles, so a fell-swoop replacement is unlikely.

However, increasing government reliance on commercially developed products should ease future technology replacements, private-sector sources say. “Application development these days is a matter of getting the correct modules,” Harp said. “Using component-based, commercial off-the-shelf technology has significantly improved the speed at which commercial applications can be built.” As a result, rather than doing major upgrades or changes to systems, a new development can be incorporated into the existing technology environment every four or six months, he added.

Indeed, flexibility has spread to the point where defense and intelligence analysts use Google Earth, Mann said. “You can’t use Google Earth to get a precision point to drop a weapon, but you can use Google Earth to see the picture of that terrain and that environment and to have a dialogue about best ingress and egress routes,” he added.

As for the second problem, bandwidth, military sources were quick to emphasize its severity. “These are large files that we’re trying to push around the battlespace,” the Marine Corps’ Alonso said. File-compacting technology has diminished the problem somewhat but not enough, she added.

The bandwidth problem might never disappear. “We will never have enough pipes,” Burkhardt said. Not even wireless broadband military efforts, such as the Warfighter Information Network-Tactical or Joint Tactical Radio System programs, will change that, he added.

To add to the complexity, deployed soldiers need to download full copies of databases rather than depend on searching other databases, no matter how easily the data in those other databases can be located.

“In [NGA-adopted] OGC standards, you’re basically saying that the data stays wherever it’s created,” Burkhardt said. But users with spotty bandwidth can’t afford to have a search request fail, so they need local storage capacity with the ability to synchronize changes to the data from their peers and commanders, he said. “It’s a very different problem than what OGC has established standards for,” he added.

The Army likes the concept of distributed databases, whereby local units assume responsibility for maintaining an official database within their area of responsibility, Burkhardt said. Users need to synchronize databases only when changes are made rather than transmitting huge blocks of data, he added. “All you’re doing is giving them changes. You’re not giving them masses of data across the transport layer.”

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