3 Ways Open Source is Accelerating Geoint for Defense Missions

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For starters, collaborative tools can bring intelligence, private sector and academic communities into challenges.

National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency Director of Analysis Susan Kalweit recently emphasized the urgent need to leverage existing and emerging technologies in new ways against increasingly complex geopolitical threats. For the military, maintaining a competitive edge in this landscape largely depends on open-source geospatial intelligence, or geoint, to enable continuous knowledge sharing, innovation and improved access for all users across defense organizations. Not to mention speedier decision-making when it comes down to seconds on the battlefield. 

Currently, the Defense Department faces two serious challenges for geospatial intelligence gathering and analysis. One is the barrage of geodata sources like fleet sensors, mobile networks and applications. The other is the lack of standardized collection and organization practices for geodata. According to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, “Current [proprietary] approaches to geospatial analysis are ad hoc and time-intensive, as they require gathering and curating data from a large number of available sources, downloading the data to specific locations, and running it through separate suites of analytics tools.”

That’s why open-source software development has quickly become indispensable to defense missions. With open-source maps and search engines, users can drop layers from unique indices into a single dashboard and filter across them in real time to search for all kinds of location data—from geopoints (like longitude and latitude) to geoshapes (like polygons, circles and lines)—enabling speedier analyses that scale through dynamic visualizations. Now, defense analysts can query geodata faster than ever before, resulting in improved situational awareness, monitoring, tracking and spatial analysis capabilities essential to the missions of our troops.  

Open-source software continues to accelerate geoint in the following three ways.

Leveraging Emerging Tech 

Because of its collaborative and iterative nature, open-source software enables defense organizations to join forces with intelligence, private sector and academic communities to harness continuous innovation combined with the latest technologies. In the geospatial realm, open-source platforms leverage emerging technologies like machine learning and artificial intelligence to auto correlate geodata (ranging from latitude and longitude coordinates to GPS satellite imagery) with corresponding feature attribute data. This data includes timestamps and other non-spatial data that help extract patterns in historical data to be used as predictors of future behaviors.

DARPA, for example, is developing its Geospatial Cloud Analytics program to merge commercial and open-source satellite data into one common cloud-based repository. Southern Command continues to devote its efforts to COGINT—a combination of commercial capabilities and open geoint—in order to harness more actionable insights through machine learning and automated change detection techniques.

Democratizing Data

Without a more user-friendly mapping interface, processing multi-dimensional datasets require high levels of computer science education and specialized experience and training in these suites of analytics tools. As geoint grows increasingly important to evolving mission needs, more users must understand how to interact with geodata. This requires user-friendly mapping tools and interfaces. For example, command and control units need real-time insights on terrain and routes to determine where to send troops, whereas warfighters require location-based and behavioral data to tackle adversarial threats.

Open-source software fills this gap by democratizing geoint with data collaboration platforms on which users can continuously build solutions and add data, allowing for real-time analysis in a natural, intuitive interface, like a mobile device or visual dashboard. That’s because with open source, geodata no longer has to be siloed in a specialized store. By treating spatial data as just another data point, users no longer have to be developers or geospatial analysts with deep coding knowledge just to overlay multiple geospatial layers. Instead, analysts, mission leaders and warfighters alike can focus on the job at hand, rather than how to interact with a data system or run a polygon search. 

Simplifying Visualization

While we may be a while off from realizing the full potential of a scalable open-source geoint platform, defense and intelligence organizations are certainly making large strides. Through its cloud-based GEOWorks platform, the NGA leverages open-source datasets and capabilities to pull bulk geodata from various sources and present them in an easy-to-understand visual. The platform allows users from the intelligence, defense and academic communities, along with the private sector, to have access to unclassified geoint in a collaborative data environment.

In the future, open source will not just be crucial to leveraging geospatial intelligence for missions on the battlefield but in the cyber realm as well, where geospatial capabilities can be applied to virtual environments. Imagine converting IP addresses to geolocations in order to launch cyber warfare or enabling cyber warriors to visualize a gateway or compute cluster being attacked through denial-of-service techniques. 

The question is no longer if open source is necessary for the development of geoint; the question that remains for defense and intelligence organizations is how innovative they can be with these open source tools at their disposal.

Nick Knize is a geospatial technical lead at Elastic.