Raising the generation of geoint natives

Raising the generation of geoint natives


LBS, crowdsourcing may have been successful in generating interest among common man towards geospatial technology but geography as a subject is losing sheen, at least in the US, feels Keith Masback, President, US Geospatial Intelligence Foundation (USGIF). In a tête-à-tête with GeoIntelligence, he tells us how the foundation is constantly evolving to stay relevant

Keith Masback
Keith Masback
President, US Geospatial
Intelligence Foundation (USGIF)

LBS, crowdsourcing may have been successful in generating interest among common man towards geospatial technology but geography as a subject is losing sheen, at least in the US, feels Keith Masback, President, US Geospatial Intelligence Foundation (USGIF). In a tête-à-tête with GeoIntelligence, he tells us how the foundation is constantly evolving to stay relevant

Q. We are living in an era where technology is maturing quickly. How are you ensuring that the training and tradecraft, which form the core of USGIF’s mission, are catching up with the technology?
Well, indeed technology is changing very rapidly and to a certain extent, it’s really driving us to build our ability to keep up with it. Hence, we are very keen to partner with colleges and universities as well as our member companies and organisations to discover best practices, training opportunities and understand how companies are solving their technological challenges. In turn, we strive to share those best practices across the community. Sometimes, of course, companies have proprietary information and we respect that. But wherever there’s a possibility to share, we would love to share the information for the benefit of everyone; that’s at the heart of the idea of USGIF and our membership.

Q. But our universities aren’t the best places because they take lot of time to change their curriculum. It’s mainly the research institutions or projects which are at the forefront of technology…
I agree that it often takes some time for universities to modify their curriculum. That said, our academic partners are incentivised to make sure that their students are able to find work upon completion of their schooling. As university costs have increased drastically over time in the Unites States, both parents and students want a programme which enables them to quickly join the workforce. I think that’s what makes our GEOINT Certificate programme so attractive. We now have six schools accredited to award the certificate, both at the undergraduate and graduate levels, and many more schools are interested in the programme. The reason is that when students graduate with GEOINT Certificate, they can be employed by a company in our field without any further educational requirements.

Q. You recently mentioned that USGIF will continue to increase the amount of scholarships awarded annually. What sort of student community are you targeting?
We have a very broad view of the idea of geospatial intelligence (geoint). For instance, if you are in one of our programmes, and you are taking some core courses, including a basic GIS course, a basic database management course, and a basic remote sensing course, and you apply this knowledge to study epidemiology (which is inherently place- based) that’s geoint to us. Similarly, if you take these core courses and apply them to study the sub-saharan Africa, we consider that also as geoint. Our scholarships are open to people who are studying in any of these fields where they are taking the power of place and viewing what they are doing through the lens of contributing to the broader understanding and advancement of what we call geospatial intelligence.

Q. The power of place has never been as important as it is now. Your take.
I think the power of place is unique point in time because of the near ubiquitous nature of GPS, the broad availability of geospatial information, and the proliferation of tools like Google Earth and Microsoft Virtual Earth. This allows for unprecedented access and enhanced usability of all this data and information. As we like to say sometimes, we are now raising the first generation of geoint natives; we ourselves are geoint immigrants. Most of our generation learnt on paper maps and compasses, and we learnt to navigate in a different era. So as this information becomes more ubiquitous, more available, more infused into everything we do, it does enhance its power. If you look at the application development world, location based apps represent one of the leading areas for true profitability in app development. So we see this as coming together of an ability to precisely locate oneself on the globe and to do that in the context of highly accurate, routinely refreshed geo-information. Also, now we are empowered as individuals to add layers upon that and customise it to our needs. I think that it allows all of us to interact with this information in our daily lives in a way that we really never could in the past.

Q. Geospatial industry’s origin lies in defence sector. But we are now witnessing a trend where the commercial sector is driving the growth in this industry, for example, LBS. Do you think this trend will help build greater collaboration between the two?
I think growth in location based services (LBS), in location intelligence (LI), is a wonderful thing and it’s a natural extension, just like other technologies which began in the United States at places like NASA, the Department of Defence, and the Intelligence Community, and then migrated out and became more commonly available. This is another very exciting opportunity. I would argue that in many ways the profit motive that’s driving the location-based services, and the idea of location intelligence, is pushing the development of technologies and applications. As a foundation, we are very interested in mixing the streams and creating discussion between the LBS/LI community and defence and intelligence communities to let them learn from one another. That’s again one of the core values of USGIF – to get involved and help create a conversation where these two separate but realted worlds are brought together for their collective benefit and advancement.

Q. We have often seen that forces operating in international territories or under the UN lack continuity in staffing. How do you think, under these circumstances, forces can maintain continuity in socio-cultural knowledge?
Institutionalising the idea of terrain is important. And understanding that there are things like history, culture, language and ethnicity, etc., related to that physical terrain is vitally important for the success of any mission. I am really hopeful that with ten years of war, certainly from the US perspective, we have raised a new generation of warriors who understand that counterinsurgency is about people and that they are the critical terrain. Having in-depth understanding about an area in which the forces operate or will operate, whether for humanitarian purposes, disaster relief, combat operations or peacekeeping operations, is essential; and that this depth of understanding is going to be demanded by policymakers, leaders, and commanders at all levels. Talking about the US, after over ten years at war, there has been steady advancement in understanding how rotating units in and out of the theatre of operations can cause lack of continuity which adds risk to the mission. Over time in Iraq and Afghanistan, US and coalition forces devised procedures for analysts of departing units to exchange information with the units scheduled to relieve them. They were also providing that information in support of their home station training and preparation. Over time, they also developed tactics, techniques, and procedures to share the databases of their C2 and intelligence systems, to ensure continuity of situational awareness. Obviously, the UN has the same set of problems, and I would argue that it is magnified because in its case, it might be Indian forces leaving and French forces coming in. So, there’s a language barrier, a cultural barrier, and a technological barrier which together result in a significant operational barrier between the forces that are all wearing blue helmets.

Q. How is crowdsourcing supplementing the geoint community or forces which are dealing with the combat and disaster situations?
Crowdsourcing is a critically important phenomenon. And to those of us in the business, we know that it has really been going on for a long time. Talking about geoint, I think, people have always sought an authoritative source of information. So they were conditioned to seek a logo or a stamp at the bottom of a map from a source they recognised and trusted. The fact that the product came from an authoritative source provided assurance that the information was adequate for safety of navigation, targeting and other missions. Even if there had been any other source providing more data about an area, people wouldn’t necessarily have trusted it.

However, I think, the postearthquake operations in Haiti was a turning point. I would argue that the authoritative map in that situation was perhaps not the one that was produced by any government or formal international organisation but rather the one produced through Ushahidi platform. The updates they were getting dynamically from the field, the text messages coming from the affected areas, the ability to be able to update the crowdsourced map and provide information about the gathering of people, and their updated status in terms of water, food and medical needs made a real difference. I think that’s the first time when everyone began to believe that this was more than just a passing interest, and that crowdbased information in our domain would be an important way of doing business in future. Again, when it comes to things like safety of navigation, there will always be the absolute need for an authoritative source, but I think there’s now room for a hybrid approach. It is an ability to blend crowdsourced information with the authoritative information, especially in electronic presentation, where we can use different colours or different sorts of articulation in one display. We now have a unique opportunity to take this emerging crowdsourced information, merge it with authoritative information, and have a new way of viewing geoint data and information.

Q. While many in defence circles are vouching for cloud, others are of the view that it may not be a safe bet. Your take.
People often talk about cloud in their casual conversation and they also talk about their nervousness about the cloud. Mind you, most of these people benefit from cloud implementations daily at home, whether with Amazon, iTunes, gmail and the like. So then, they GEOINTELLIGENCE May – jun 2012 26 have actually been a cloud user for many years, and they still don’t necessarily understand it. Even in the defence and intelligence community, where there is a healthy skepticism of the idea of the cloud, I think it’s the same way. I would argue that we have been using a pseudo-cloud approach for some time in the defence and intelligence communities. But now as we talk about scaling this capability to deal with the idea of big data and putting massive amounts of data and information in the cloud, there’s a general belief in the defence and intelligence community that there will only be security in the development of multiple private, secure clouds.

This is a source of great debate because if you are creating private clouds, it is going to be somewhat antithetical to the very idea of sharing and openness, which we know is the key for us being successful. This debate is playing out right now in our community. I think the tension between the desire to keep our data and information safe, while also being open to share, is a healthy one and it is at the very core of the discussions surrounding IT consolidation and cloud implementation.

Q. Can you tell us about your partnership with NGA? What is in stock for USGIF in future?
I think our partnership with NGA has always been superb and under the current leadership of Director Tish Long, it continues to thrive. In parallel with maintaining our relationship with NGA, we are looking continually to broaden our set of partnerships. As NGA selfactualises in its role with regard to the broader NSG (National System for Geospatial Intelligence) and the ASG (Allied System for Geospatial Intelligence), USGIF must also continue to expand our reach. We must recognise the opportunity for broader partnerships across the entire community and make sure that we have both bilateral relationships with members where it suits their needs and where we can assist them in moving forward, and an overarching partnership with the larger notion of the NSG and ASG to support that approach holistically. I really think that maturation, growth and expansion are the most important evolution that’s underway right now.

Q. The US has recently set up a cyber command. What’s the sort of engagement you have with them?
Some of us have coined the term cyber-location nexus. We see the tremendous importance of the physical layer in the cyber equation. I often run into people who suggest that cyber exists irrespective of physical boundaries. So, I challenge them to decribe that to me. They might respond by laying out a scenario where someone sitting in tribal area of Pakistan can access a server in South America to carry out an attack on a website that’s hosted in the US. And I would say, wow, that’s fascinating; you just described the entire scenario using location. Data and information exist in real servers in real buildings, and travel in real fiber running through real dirt and under real oceans, and can be sent through real routers on spacecraft back down to real earth terminals, and so forth. So, there is recognition among those who really understand this that location is a critically important layer of the cyber operating environment. USGIF is trying to provide some thought leadership to work with the government, industry and academia to foster the discussion about how we can maximise our ability to understand and characterise this cyber-location nexus.

Q. How has the perception of the government, industry and academia towards geoint changed over the years and how is USGIF envisaging its role in future to continue to stay relevant?
One of the things that we do really worry about is the ability to turn out students who are going to have the right background and depth of knowledge to put them on a productive path into the geoint profession. At present, we are working very closely on a collaborative effort with a number of peer organisations and with NGA to create a professional GEOINT certification programme. The idea is to have several levels of certified geoint professionals. At level one, you might have people with basic training of some sort whether it’s from a university, a military school, a corporate training programme or from the NGA College. After some defined set of experiences and further training, these professionals might then be able to apply for certification at level two, and so on.

I think it’s a tremendous opportunity and a logical next step in the professionalisation of the discipline. If you look at the history of people in the medical field or an engineering field, a very important milestone in their ability to come together as a profession was to have these professional certifications. That is going to be the most important thing that we will do over the next few years. By establishing clear standards and articulating the path forward for geoint professionals to gain the education, training and experience to meet those standards, we will be able to significantly advance the geoint tradecraft.

Another concern of ours is that we see geography programmes at US universities closing. There are a number of ongoing efforts to revitalise science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education in the United States, but bizarrely, geography has been left out. So, even though we are developing this wonderful technology, we are not training and educating people about how to further develop it and, more importantly, apply it. That’s something that USGIF will continue to work to address with our members and myriad partner organisations.