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Why Government Should Care about Google's Skybox Acquisition

Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP

A.J. Clark is CEO of Thermopylae Sciences and Technology. 

Google's recently announced acquisition of Skybox sparked a wave of media coverage and punditry, but much of the focus has been on "why" Google would want to buy the satellite imaging company. The tech industry says it’s a space land grab ahead of Facebook. The finance industry claims it's a commodity advantage play. The consumer watchdogs say it's a privacy issue.

While the purchase may be a bit of all those things, I think the more important question for government agencies and commercial companies who use satellite imagery is "how." How will this move business forward? We should be looking at the added value for business intelligence. Getting an image once a year is one thing, but getting an analytical image several times a day is game changing. Imagine the value in being able to look at energy shipments, traffic patterns, weather changes, vegetation growth, ocean habitats and military activity delivered several times a day.

Frequency is the first key, and the Skybox acquisition opens that door. Images are projected to be delivered twice a day by 2016, when the company will have six satellites in the air. By 2018, Skybox will have 24 satellites in the sky, delivering visuals three times a day from around the globe. What becomes possible are things like daily visual crop reports from around the world, competitive retail intelligence that looks at customer activity around a store several times a day and traffic patterns in a metropolitan area organized by hours.

The second part of the equation is analytics. Real-time visual data is extremely valuable in solving real-world problems. However, taken alone, visual data is just like any other data; it's interesting, but just another set of pictures or figures. Using custom software, we can combine visual data with other data to figure out crop yields, determine retail-staffing needs or enable precision infrastructure planning.

This acquisition also opens the door to significant cost savings for federal agencies and the private sector. Satellite imagery is no longer a classified commodity that requires the enormous expense of a government agency launching a satellite. At first glance, that may not sound like a positive step for government groups involved in the older classified imaging world, but it is. The benefits are better access to new imagery, higher collection rates, and the use of Google's map platforms and cloud to slash costs. Costs could decrease as much as 100 times the current rate. That means even the "little guy” -- smaller businesses, government agencies and budding defense contractors -- can afford to adopt visual data and analytics.

In the financial world, everyone purchases and reads The Wall Street Journal because they need that information. What Google is doing with its imagery and mapping is building out the same kind of repository of visual business information many now realize as a necessity to do business.

Another point to note is that Google's Skybox acquisition shows the commitment of the private sector to geospatial intelligence and doing business in this visually enabled way going forward. Skybox adds a more global aerial view that complements Google's purchase of ImageAmerica, a mostly U.S. aerial collection company. Overall, the $2 billion global commercial satellite imagery industry is booming, expected to grow by 14 percent through 2019.

We are at a tipping point with imagery analytics. It's analogous to the transition from the era of giant government and IBM corporate computers where only a few people had access to that computing power to the move to personal computers in the living room where almost everyone has access.

There will be a learning curve, for sure. But now is the time to take a look at what imagery and analytics are available, what's going to be available soon and how can it be applied to any-sized private or government business. The possibilities are limited only by imagination. Don't forget, though, it's called "first-mover advantage" for a reason.

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// November 23
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