Down to Earth Data

Young professionals develop GEOINT apps


Web apps like Tomnod Inc.’s Global Insight were meant to draw a crowd. The company builds web apps that take large image sets and host them on the web for many people to view, according to Tomnod CEO Shay Har-Noy, Ph.D.

“We take a crowd-sourcing approach of splitting images up into sections,” Har-Noy said. “Crowd-sourcing basically involves engaging total novices with two eyeballs who help to tag the data.”

Once tagging is completed, back-end reliability algorithms determine consensus locations and the relevant images can be distributed to mobile platforms. In this way, traditional web apps are used to push information out to the mobile environment.

When Har-Noy’s colleagues founded San Diego-based Tomnod in 2010, what appealed to them most was making geospatial information easily accessible to the general public for real-time insight. For example, volunteers used Global Insight to search for a missing plane in Mozambique and to locate the bodies of two friends who went missing while climbing in the Peruvian Andes.

Elevating Insight features an interactive magnifying glass function that allows users to see the detail in GeoEye’s high-resolution satellite imagery.

“Because we’re not working with experts, there’s a huge [responsibility] on us to make the whole application user friendly,” Har-Noy said. “We have found there is tight correlation between the intuitiveness of the app and the quality of information that we receive.”

Similar thinking went into developing GeoEye’s iPad app, Elevating Insight.

“We initially built the app because we the saw the iPad as a great format for interacting with our imagery and data to answer complex questions in a straightforward way,” said Todd Bacastow, GeoEye’s senior manager of strategic market analysis and a member of the USGIF Young Professionals Group. [GeoEye combined with DigitalGlobe as of Feb. 1, 2013. Todd Bacastow will continue his work within the new organization.]

GeoEye provides imagery from company-owned and operated commercial satellites, accompanied by up-to-the-minute geospatial information and analysis about events around the world.

A 2005 graduate of Penn State’s College of Information Sciences and Technology, Bacastow joined GeoEye in 2010.

“Developing the app was a way to test technologies while serving a purpose for sales and marketing,” Bacastow said. “The collecting of imagery and analysis to provide context shows the breadth of GeoEye’s capabilities. At recent tradeshows, the app drew people into our booth and then it was easy for us to start a conversation with them about our services.”

While the app served primarily as a marketing tool, Bacastow hopes users will see its practical applications as well.

For example, the app could be used to make resource allocation decisions related to natural disasters.

“It could help decision-makers answer the question, where do I put my people and equipment to mitigate risk or respond to a situation?” Bacastow said. “Our app models how a first responder could use a mobile device to assess the situation.”

From Bacastow’s standpoint, managing the development of Elevating Insight was a great opportunity to create a truly original app.

“[Developing the app] required someone to take initiative and own it,” Bacastow said.

He advises fellow young professionals to find an opportunity that aligns with their company’s goals and identify a solution: “That’s what allows young professionals to be recognized.”

An associate at BAH since 2008, Spano said initially he “started out all alone on the island of mobile development.” However, as the demand for apps increased, so did the size of his team, which primarily develops apps for the U.S. government and DoD.

“For us, this is bigger than creating a piece of software,” Spano said. “There’s a bigger picture there. Lives are at stake.”

He added that the fast-paced nature of mobile app development will likely appeal to younger GEOINT professionals. “What makes mobile app development so exciting, especially for younger generations, is that mobile apps can be created in two to three months, and then you see the direct results from deployment.”

For apps to be deployed successfully, Spano said, “We can’t lose sight of the fact that humans are using them. They must be aesthetically pleasing and responsive.”

From Spano’s perspective, “Mobile app development is still very much a new field. There’s so much opportunity. Don’t be afraid to be creative and inventive.”

Featured image: Tomnod founders Albert Lin, Luke Barrington, Shay Har-Noy, and Nate Ricklin discuss the future of GEOINT innovation at their office in downtown San Diego. Photo credit: Tomnod

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