By Steven R. Thomas, Ball Aerospace; Patricia Hagen, Ph.D., T-REX Innovation Center; Aine O’Connor, Cortex Innovation Community; Blake Mills, LaunchCode; Sekhar Prabhakar, CEdge Software Consultants; Stephen H. Tupper, Missouri University of Science and Technology; Mark Brickhouse, Ph.D., Saint Louis University; Roberta Lenczowski, Roberta E. Lenczowski Consulting; and Steve Wallach, Steven P. Wallach Consulting, LLC

The greater St. Louis region has come to be known for its excellence and robust ecosystem around health care and life sciences. The region has been growing as an innovation hub for other sectors including cybersecurity and information technology. Now there is a focus on making St. Louis a go-to destination for the geospatial industry and a center of excellence for geospatial intelligence (GEOINT) innovation, tradecraft and education. The greater St. Louis region has long hosted a number of companies, organizations, and government agencies that play a pivotal role in advancing the impact of GEOINT. The geospatial work occurring in the greater St. Louis area ranges from national security issues to urban planning decisions and includes a plethora of efforts like geospatial research in biosecurity, monitoring the environment for threats to human health, water supply, and agriculture, promotion of economic development, support to urban safety and distribution-of-services programs, and preparation of earth science education. The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s (NGA) decision to build its $1.75 billion western campus in North St. Louis affords massive potential for economic development by anchoring the development and growth of the commercial geospatial and location-based technology industry within the region. St. Louis must support the growth of a cutting-edge geospatial cluster with tools, resources, and networks to encourage and incentivize innovation and entrepreneurship; attract and retain geospatial and locational expertise and research; and develop long-term strategies to leverage opportunities for sustainable, inclusive economic growth. 

Economic trend experts expect the geospatial industry to grow from an estimated $299.2 Billion in 2017 to $439.2 Billion in 2020, with a rapid growth rate of 13.6%—even faster than a growth rate of 11.5% between 2013 and 2017. Technological advancements and the democratization of geospatial information have accelerated industry growth. The rapid expansion of the industry is being experienced across the world, with double-digit growth in emerging markets such as Asia Pacific, the Middle East, and Africa. However, North America remains the dominant economic engine of geospatial industry growth due to an innovation-centric model. The resulting exponential demand and delivery of geospatial data characterizes the “Big Data” mandate to manage and analyze the volumes of raw and processed data that are now available or can be developed.

Although the defense sector (represented primarily by NGA) is an anchor for the geospatial cluster in the St. Louis region, GEOINT and analysis is a tool for all industries including precision agriculture, oil and gas exploration, high-velocity logistics, marketing and retail, smart cities, the Internet of Things, and autonomous vehicles. The region’s geospatial cluster will make possible the GEOINT center of excellence, supported by three fundamental factors:

  1. A thriving educational eco-system focused on training all aspects of the U.S. Department of Labor’s Geospatial Competency Model (see Figure 1. Below) providing a continuous, highly trained, highly qualified workforce.
  2. A prosperous incubator environment supporting the creation and growth of start-up companies, small businesses, and the research and development (R&D) community.
  3. A robust R&D community that continually tackles complex geospatial issues and strives to provide meaningful innovations that drive progress across the full spectrum of the geospatial industry.

To ensure the advancement of the GEOINT tradecraft in the greater St. Louis region, from which the impact extends to the state and country, a focus on growing and training internal talent pipelines is paramount. In the 2018 State and Future of GEOINT report article titled “Strengthening the St. Louis Workforce,” the authors discuss the challenges presented by the constantly growing need for talent. Rethinking traditional talent curation processes and replacing them with innovative training models breaks down these barriers and produces a stronger geospatial workforce.

  • This article is part of USGIF’s 2019 State & Future of GEOINT Report. Download the PDF to view the report in its entirety. 

Focusing GEOINT Training

Figure 1. U.S. Department of Labor Geospatial Technology Competency Model.

Civilian education systems, public and private, play the role of attracting and winnowing talent into the GI&S sector and transitioning talent into the workforce pipeline. Universities expand that civilian education function in graduate schooling to deepen intellectual bases in study, to explore new potentialities in research, to distill new thought leaders for the science and application of why, where, and when, and to prepare the future academic leaders. Co-operating academic institutions throughout the St. Louis region are striving to integrate all these functions from often-disconnected, competitively pre-existing, and scattered programs. These institutions receive encouraging support from industry and community partners that come together with academia, using guidance from USGIF to form the St. Louis Area Working Group (SLAWG). Much of that guidance can be found within USGIF’s GEOINT Essential Body of Knowledge (EBK), which identifies four competency areas: GIS & Analysis Tools, Remote Sensing & Imagery Analysis, Geospatial Data Management, and Data Visualization. Those areas coincide with the “Industry Sector Technical Competencies” layer of the DOL GTCM in Figure 1. The Geospatial Technology Competency Model framework was developed through a collaborative effort involving the Employment and Training Administration (ETA), the GeoTech Center, and industry experts.

Over the course of 2013-2014 and again in 2017-2018, the GeoTech Center and industry subject matter experts updated the model with guidance from ETA to reflect the knowledge and skills needed by today’s geospatial technology professionals.

Each EBK competency is defined with a group of topic areas and within each of those a set of skills or knowledge points. The EBK framework is based upon capturing each phase of a GEOINT task to ensure accurate reflection of GEOINT most current practices. As an example, one might track the GIS analysis task to some specific degree or certification that requires understanding the geospatial data fusion topic, as provided by some course work—like Data Fusion 101—and which includes as a study area knowledge of metadata standards.  

The SLAWG was essentially established to bring together community, government, industry and academic partners in the region to form a self-reinforcing market of programs, degrees and certifications that “fill in” the educational and training aspects of each block in the competency model. Academic institutions throughout the region are using the EBK to form a common aim point in terms of student learning somewhat akin to the current concept of “a common core.” This relatively simple approach makes a consistent guide for the academic design. In parallel with teaching programs aligned to the EBK, regional institutions are incorporating more of the GTCM—blending the tools with aspects of “Industry-Wide Technical Competencies,” “Management Competencies,” “Workplace,” “Academic” and “Personal” competencies. Increasingly, both improvisers and practitioners are diving more deeply into the human-machine system interfaces, which can profoundly affect the efficacy of the geospatial industry. Institutions through the greater St. Louis region are creating a portfolio of training and education programs for needed competencies. Multiple institutions support a diverse array of pathways, with some foundation criteria, for students to secure the talents and skills to support the GEOINT market throughout the region, state, and nation.

Geospatial education and training programs (some explicitly certified by USGIF) are used by defense, intelligence, and civil federal agencies, like NGA and the U.S. Geological Survey—both in Missouri. These programs are designed for competency in specific job tasks and are dynamically adaptive over time as technology advances and requirements are refined. Companies like Esri and ERDAS, among others, award geospatial certificates for technical competency using their tools and applications. For professional certifications, the American Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing, the GIS Certification Institute, and USGIF have established field-specific eligibility criteria and specialized testing for professionals. All these efforts help standardize expectations for recognized proficiencies.  

Innovative Training Opportunities

Traditional education pathways have proven successful in producing quality GIS talent.  Solidifying the St. Louis region as a GEOINT hub will require embedding some unconventional solutions. One of the nonprofits successfully providing new, non-traditional training in St. Louis is LaunchCode, which began working with NGA at the end of 2017.

LaunchCode provides instruction and courses supporting two types of developer pipelines. LaunchCode’s free, intensive, six-month long “zero-to-developer” courses, LC101 and female-focused CoderGirl, cultivate a diverse, job-ready pool of junior web developers. Graduates typically have unconventional resumes but demonstrate the drive and aptitude that make great GEOINT professionals. LaunchCode’s GIS DevOps course produces a second, more advanced pipeline of individuals equipped specifically with the specialized skills in high-demand by the GEOINT Community. The innovative curriculum, created by LaunchCode in partnership with NGA, Boundless, and Pivotal, blends classroom instruction and mentorship with self-guided, project-based learning. During the 10-week instruction portion of the course, students have the benefit of support and camaraderie while the five weeks spent on their projects provide valuable, real-world experience. The project focuses on using geospatial technology to create geographic and time-based trends (such as Zika virus outbreaks). Applying open-source technology in a hands-on, project-based learning environment not only promotes exploration and critical thinking by nature, it prepares students to excel in the GEOINT field by encouraging them to find the right tool for the problem at hand. Many of the emerging research trends and needs in GEOINT require innovative and cross-disciplinary tools, which proliferate in the open-source world. Students emerge as more flexible and stronger spatial thinkers, and therefore, better prepared to excel in solving real-world GEOINT challenges.

Growing Opportunities for Geospatial Startups

The St. Louis GEOINT community is collaborative and multifaceted. About 25 possible “homes” for startups exist in the metro area, including incubators, accelerators, and co-working spaces. By May 2018, nearly 80 entrepreneur support organizations were providing funding, community support, resource networks, and advice. As the GEOINT Community grows in the St. Louis region, new organizations, programs, and events have created a community of practice around geospatial research and technologies. Two key sites characterize the eagerness of the St. Louis region to support a geospatial center of excellence. Just four miles from Downtown St. Louis, the Cortex Innovation Community is a 200-acre urban innovation district in midtown St. Louis focused on the generation and growth of tech-based businesses and jobs. Cortex is home to 350 jobs and about 4,500 employees. A significant number of companies in Cortex use and/or develop geospatial technologies, including Esri, Boeing, Aerial Insights, Microsoft, and aisle411, among others. Cortex also hosts several innovation centers and activities that support startups and entrepreneurs with space, mentoring, funding, networking opportunities, and other resources. The Cambridge Innovation Center (CIC-St. Louis), for example, continues to expand a community of entrepreneurs by offering low-cost space and memberships for startup companies and corporate project teams. Venture Café, St. Louis’ flagship event, is the Thursday gathering that regularly attracts more than 500 attendees to informally reinforce creativity and entrepreneurship. Accelerators such as Capital Innovators fund cohorts of companies from all over the world. These Cortex-sited initiatives encourage the St. Louis Region cluster concept.

T-REX is a 501(c)3 non-profit innovation center in downtown St. Louis that provides incubator, co-working, meeting, and event space to entrepreneurs; programming to support technology entrepreneurs; and a community and network of support to assist tech-focused startups. T-REX is home to several startup accelerators as well as non-profit funding and support organizations focused on technology entrepreneurship. But the organization offers more than just office space. It is a rare combination of an extraordinarily diverse community, valuable programming, and entrepreneurial culture. T-REX has developed special relationships with NGA and the GEOINT Community, including important R&D initiatives the community can most productively conduct in unclassified spaces. A Memorandum of Agreement between USGIF and T-REX also brings significant activity with NGA and the geospatial industry to the T-REX facility. T-REX’s momentum in advanced information and intelligence technology innovation provides an excellent foundation for the R&D of a geospatial innovation hub. The organization is completing a $10 million capital campaign to renovate its historic downtown facility and is in the process of upgrading space its 160,000 square-foot building. As part of its renovation plan, T-REX will build and outfit a Geospatial Resource and Innovation Center to support the growing geospatial cluster.

Another Dimension to Innovation

Throughout the St. Louis region and across the state, various entities, including but not limited to, large companies, small businesses, NGA and academic institutions are conducting numerous R&D efforts that are pushing the limits of geospatial science. The R&D footprints of Cortex and T-Rex warrant attention for the cluster concept mentioned earlier but notable R&D advances in other locations. As another example, Saint Louis University’s (SLU) sponsors a number of initiatives to grow geospatial research, and innovation, while also educating the future entrepreneurs and workforce. GeoSLU is an internally-funded initiative, recognizing the interdisciplinary scope of remote sensing and GIS, that coordinates and expands the geospatial capabilities across the university in Earth & atmospheric sciences, biology, computer science, civil engineering, epidemiology & biostatistics, aerospace and mechanical engineering, political science, chemistry, and the school for public health and social justice. GeoSLU is also developing the business model for a planned Geospatial Institute at SLU that will coordinate geospatial research efforts across the university, provide data analysis and mapping support, coordinate community outreach and geospatial workforce development, and grow training, degree, and certificate offerings in geospatial and allied domains. SLU is pioneering research on drone technology, remote sensing, open-source indicator and predictive tools, and educational research. The university is coordinating with the St. Louis community to integrate the emerging SLU Geospatial Institute with the growing St. Louis area geospatial enterprise through a new Cooperative Research and Development Agreement with NGA, participation with Arch-to-Park, presence at T-Rex and Cortex, and the GeoSLU Advisory Board of local business leaders. NGA and SLU are co-sponsoring a new geospatial conference in Saint Louis to bring together government, academic, and industry partners who can grow the region’s geospatial enterprise.

Conclusion

The greater St. Louis region and state of Missouri are steadfast in their intent to serve as a center of excellence for the geospatial industry, where leading companies look for geospatial expertise, talent stability, idea stimulation, business magnetism, and information protection. When NGA chose St. Louis for its future state-of-the-art facility, the city, region and state along with numerous companies, academic institutions, and non-profit organizations made a commitment to succeed on many social, educational, economic, environmental, security, and political levels. This success will reap merits globally as the St. Louis region takes its deserved position as an acknowledged center of geospatial excellence.

Headline Image: A Sept. 2017 photo showing an aerial view of the site of the Next NGA West campus in St. Louis, Mo.

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