Geospatial intelligence sharing across echelons poses Big Data challenge

Getting various types of geospatial intelligence to end-users quickly and in the correct format remains a complex process.

Systems, technologies, people, concepts of operations, standards, formats and protocols all must all come together to create a standard and sharable geospatial foundation. Yet there's also a massive amount of data being gleaned from geospatial intelligence (GEOINT), which poses a big-data challenge that complicates the efficient and flawless sharing of geospatial intelligence across echelons.

"We have data from satellites, unmanned aerial vehicles, sea- and land-based sensors, social networks and a proliferation of mobile devices generating an avalanche of location-based information," observed Rich Campbell, chief technologist for the federal division of Hopkinton, Mass.-based cloud computing provider EMC. Yet in the field, bandwidth remains scarce and limited. This critical choke point is leading the Defense Department and an array of networking and IT contractors to look for solutions. "Increased bandwidth and better bandwidth management strategies will [ultimately] enable more effective data sharing," Campbell said.

As potential bandwidth enhancements are identified and evaluated, close attention is also being paid to data analytics. Powerful analytical tools are used to transform raw data into actionable intelligence in real time, thereby enabling vital information to be efficiently delivered to end users. "Data analytics provides the ability to refine the data sets needed by mission commanders," Campbell said. "Analysts can refine data into smaller sub sets using data analytics, and mission commanders see only the relevant GEOINT."

Campbell noted that increased virtualization promises more effective information management and sharing. "As the GEOINT community moves toward a more virtualized environment, we're seeing a convergence of the compute, analytics and storage infrastructures and a series of significant benefits ranging from improved analytics across a distributed infrastructure to reduced costs," he said.

Data and Policy

Data management, classification and policy are also widely viewed as roadblocks that are hampering the rapid and efficient sharing of GEOINT across echelons. "For sharing to become easier, our military and defense agencies will need to increase bandwidth, classification and management [efforts] and then adjust policy to accommodate and more effectively prioritize mission commanders' information needs," Campbell said.

While technology advancements can take care of most bandwidth, data management and classification shortcomings, modifying long-established agency policies to enable enhanced GEOINT sharing is primarily a political challenge.

"As a nation, we do not have a coherent and integrated set of laws, policies or directives that provide clear national guidance on the collection, access and use of data across the executive, legislative and judicial branches of our government, whether for our internal use or for our external national security mission," said Joseph Obermeier, vice president of mission analysis business solutions at TASC, a Chantilly, Va., company that provides systems engineering, integration and analytical decision-support services to the intelligence community. "Without these rules, current policy implementation roadblocks prevent the effective sharing of data and are often subject to personal or organizational interpretation." GEOINT sharing implementation interpretations are often made by lawyers, who tend to be risk averse and not technically savvy, Obermeier added.


New standards, covering everything from map formats to image file sizes, are expected to play a major role in improving GEOINT sharing over the next few years. "The intelligence community needs improved standards for the data being ingested," Campbell said. "As data sets become more consistent, and with standards-uniformed search, data analytics can better cross-reference trends and, as a result, deliver improved intelligence."

Open standards, such as Web Mapping Services from the Open Geospatial Consortium, will enable applications, servers and custom-built applications to easily communicate with each other, regardless of vendor origin, said Jon Skiffington, director of product management at LizardTech, a geospatial image compression software developer headquartered in Seattle. "Advanced technology for compression of imagery, like LizardTech's MrSID format and the ISO-standard JPEG 2000 format, ensure that data can be squeezed down to a small size while still retaining very high quality," he notes.

Being able to efficiently share the unstructured data generated by social networks and other systems in a way that unlocks and maximizes its value is another important challenge facing DOD and the intelligence community. "The huge volumes of unstructured GEOINT locked up in PowerPoint, spreadsheets and documents must be made searchable, extractable, and automatically connected to structured data from multiple systems, as well as near-real-time data streams," said Tim Beerman, a senior geospatial software developer in the strategic initiatives division of Intelligent Software Solutions, a Colorado Springs, Colo., company that provides software services to DOD.

Breaking Down Walls

As technology and policy concerns are addressed, DOD and the intelligence community also need to begin tearing down the cultural walls that have been erected over decades by rival agencies and departments. "Organizational resistance can make data sharing difficult," Skiffington noted. But he added that he's now beginning to see a gradual breakdown of GEOINT silos. "There's recognition that the tradecraft philosophies need to change," he said

One of the final pieces in the GEOINT distribution puzzle is making a greater effort to meet users' delivery preferences. "The men and women serving in today’s armed forces have never known a time when they couldn’t access information about their location, download services using a personal computing device, interact with friends in real time, tag and upload images, and comment on information quality from anywhere on the globe," Obermeier said. "The GEOINT community needs to be more attuned to an end user who is very technology savvy and who shares information via a multitude of social networking, collaborative information sharing and community evaluation capabilities," he observed.