The GEOINT Revolution

Multiple technologies are advancing and converging to unleash the power of geospatial intelligence


Five years ago the United States Geospatial Intelligence Foundation (USGIF) and some of our members helped fund an innovative media project called “The Geospatial Revolution.” The video series, by Pennsylvania State University’s public broadcasting affiliate, chronicled how a number of elements were coinciding to create a revolution in geospatial technology and information.

Today, we’re experiencing a similar convergence of technology swirling around this thing we call geospatial intelligence (GEOINT), a term coined by the U.S. government just 12 years ago. GEOINT—not to be confused with simply “geospatial”—is loosely defined as the derivation of information from imagery, geospatial data in all forms, and analytics. As the government defined and began shaping its approach to GEOINT, remote sensing and geospatial information were transforming in commercial areas even faster and with greater implications. Over the past 12 years, the concept of GEOINT expanded beyond the national security sector to play a critical role in the arena of business intelligence. GEOINT-like capabilities enabled location-based services and have transformed myriad areas, including logistics, marketing, agriculture, and data analytics. GEOINT is increasingly recognized as a key differentiator offering a competitive advantage in both the B2B and B2C worlds.

Just as GEOINT has crossed into sectors beyond government and national security, it has also traversed international boundaries. The concept first took hold among the Commonwealth nations, but now GEOINT is a globally accepted phenomenon. Because of this rapid growth, GEOINT professionals are in high demand. Simply put, if you are analyzing imagery, drawing information from it, and applying geospatial context to solve a problem, you are a “GEOINTer.” Earlier this year, more than 21,000 people from 181 countries signed up for the first free massive open online course dedicated to GEOINT led by Penn State—proof the power of GEOINT is spreading around the globe.

The community is at an inflection point, embarked upon a GEOINT Revolution. Revolutions happen when a number of things come together serendipitously to create something new. Merriam-Webster defines revolution as “a sudden, radical, or complete change,” such as “a fundamental change in the way of thinking about or visualizing something: a change of paradigm” or “a changeover in use or preference especially in technology.”

While it is unclear where this revolution is headed, the GEOINT Community must immediately work to discern the end state of this transition and prepare to operate in the new paradigm. The GEOINT Revolution will change the way humans interact with where we are, what we’re doing, and how we understand and characterize activity on Earth.

Each of the following technological components are arguably undergoing smaller revolutions in their own right, and together they create the synergy that is the larger GEOINT Revolution.

1. Precision Location Data

Most of us carry advanced geolocation devices in our pockets. They are nearly ubiquitous and have changed the way we view and interact with location. No one walked into the Verizon or AT&T store and asked for a mobile phone with integral GPS capability. It’s there by law for enhanced 911. By the close of 2015 there will be more than 7 billion mobile cellular subscriptions worldwide—up from 738 million subscriptions in 2000—amounting to a penetration rate of 97 percent. Each one of those devices will have built-in geolocation capabilities. Precision location vastly expands and enriches the potential for applications to collect, aggregate, and make use of high-density information about a single locale and perform time-series analysis of data collected over time. The U.S. isn’t the sole provider of precision location data. The rest of the world, with access to GLONASS, GALILEO, GAGAN, and BeiDou, is making tremendous advancements and adding precise data points with various sensors and systems.

Precision location data extends beyond our mobile devices. For instance, vehicles increasingly monitor their driver’s location, ATMs record transaction locations and history, Internet browsers and search engines build geo-located history of an individual’s online activities, etc.

2. Remotely Sensed Information

The hyper-availability of remotely sensed information—whether from platforms on the ground, in the air, or in space including electro-optical, radar, thermal, or multi- or hyper-spectral—was unimaginable just a handful of years ago. For instance, space-based, high-resolution imaging that was only available to select governments is now available to anyone with a checkbook. Commercial imagery provider DigitalGlobe can now sell images at 30-centimeter resolution and is moving toward 25 centimeters.

Meanwhile, SmallSat start-ups are changing the game with regard to how we approach remote sensing from space. Though high-resolution commercial satellites cost hundreds of millions of dollars to build, one of Planet Labs’ Dove satellites can be produced for $60,000. Launch for a large satellite aboard an Atlas V rocket costs $10,000 per pound, but a ride on a reusable launch vehicle costs as little as $10 per pound. The next few years will be exciting as the optimal mix of larger, more capable satellites and smaller, less expensive satellites emerges.

Today, hobbyists, agriculturalists, disaster relief personnel, and many others are proliferating unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) technology for imaging in their domains. In August, the Federal Aviation Administration made a significant step toward the commercialization of UAVs, approving more than 1,000 applications from companies seeking to operate the systems in U.S. national airspace. The agency predicts there will be more than 30,000 UAVs operating in national airspace by 2020. We are at the precipice of understanding how these vehicles will be deployed and employed.

The GEOINT Revolution is fueled by this next generation of remote sensing, which has made it much more accessible to create robust new sensing networks.

3. Software

Incredibly capable geographic information systems and increasingly powerful software for imagery exploitation and data analytics continue to flourish. Without this elegant software, GEOINT data simply wouldn’t be as accessible, retrievable, and user-friendly. Large companies such as Esri and Hexagon have invested heavily—in close and continuous contact with their massive respective user bases—to create capable software that has unlocked much potential from geospatial information.

Another aspect of the ongoing GEOINT Revolution is the growing adoption of open-source software. GEOINTers of all stripes are increasingly familiar with and able to write or use scripts as part of their creative processes. A search of “geospatial” on GitHub turns up nearly 800 repositories and more than half a million code results. Traditional software engineer roles undoubtedly remain, but analysts whose second language is Python or another program to create “mashups” of information in a geospatial context now perform some of the work. The GEOINT Revolution will continue to transform how we think about and approach software development, integration, and adaptation.

4. Broadband Communications

The spread of broadband communications infrastructure via fiber optics enables the rapid transfer of very large files, while the ordinariness of routers, switches, and increasing bandwidth in space allows broadband to be spread around the world in ways never anticipated. According to the United Nations Broadband Commission, more than 130 countries now have national broadband or information communication plans. As of December 2014, mobile broadband penetration had reached more than 81 percent, and fixed-line broadband subscriptions tallied 358 million according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

5. Processing Power

Processing power was once a primary limiting factor to combing through large imagery and geospatial files. According to The Economist, it may be only a decade before Moore’s Law—the concept of shrinking transistors to double the amount that can fit on a microchip approximately every two years—hits a plateau. In the meantime the smartphones in our pockets have the same processing power of the massive Cray-2 supercomputer built only 30 years ago, and we’re still moving forward. Decoding the human genome, which originally took 10 years, can now be accomplished inside of a week.

Imagine the potential over the next decade, especially with regard to GEOINT-related data and information, as high-power computing becomes more widely available. Human processing remains important as well. Large-scale crowdsourcing efforts, made possible by platforms such as Tomnod, leverage the power of volunteers to train an unprecedented number of human eyes on imagery. Crowdsourced crisis mapping continues to be instrumental to the success of humanitarian relief efforts such as stemming the Ebola outbreak in West Africa or responding to the earthquakes in Nepal.

6. Storage

A 250 MB hard drive circa 1979. Photo Credit: @HistoryInPics

Storage limitations have been greatly minimized by the vast adoption of online server networks. The emergence of the cloud as a distributed way to manage how data and information are stored, processed, and delivered presents a seemingly endless set of options to approach a task. Should you process in situ or in the cloud? How much of your data should you store in the cloud versus on your device?

It took 26 years to develop a 1 GB hard drive but only four years—between 2007 and 2011—for hard drives to quadruple in storage from 1 to 4 TB. A 128 GB flash drive can now be purchased for less than $30, and some predict 20 TB hard drives will be commonplace in the near future.

The rise of the cloud can be largely attributed to the lowering cost of storage. As recently as 1990 it cost $10,000 to store 1 GB of data in the cloud. Today, anyone with an Internet connection has access to 15 GB of free storage via Google Drive and the ability to store 1 TB of video on Dropbox for $100 a year. This increase in local and cloud storage provides infinite possibilities of combinations if you are a developer or analyst looking to solve a problem.

7. Data Analytics

Big Data was initially viewed as a problem, a “data tsunami” that would overwhelm users. The GEOINT Community realized this onslaught of data could be incredibly useful if the proper tools were in place to derive information from it. The emergence of data analytics has made volume, even huge volume, an advantage and a differentiator. Ninety percent of the world’s data was created in the last two years alone. Half a million tweets full of open-source intelligence are generated each day. Dynamic data analytics is required to make use of this information. Data analytics, and now predictive analytics, are bringing about change in many fields, including health care, telecommunications, utilities, banking, and insurance. The GEOINT tradecraft both benefits from and contributes to the leapfrogging advances in data analytics.

8. Mobile

The growing mobile device market, from smartphones to activity trackers and other wearables, is creating a rapidly proliferating sensor web. Nearly half a billion mobile devices and connections were added in 2014, when mobile data traffic equaled 30 times that of the entire Internet in the year 2000. By 2019, mobile data traffic is expected to increase tenfold.

Video uploads from smartphones have added to the boom in open-source intelligence. One hundred hours of video is uploaded to YouTube each minute, and Facebook video views have increased fourfold in the last year to about 4 billion per day.

Building on the ubiquity of mobile devices and precision geo-location information, imaginative ways to leverage location are among the hottest areas of mobile app development. Enabled by mobile devices, location-based intelligence and services are changing the game in terms of consumer marketing, business intelligence, and academic research. Nearly 75 percent of smartphone owners use location-based services. We use location-based apps daily to locate friends, find restaurants and entertainment venues, check public transportation schedules, request ride services, and even to find our way around a building and receive offers from retailers based on our location (see pg. 32). More than $10 billion was spent on U.S. mobile advertising in 2014, with $3.5 billion spent on location-based mobile advertising alone—a number representative of GEOINT’s permeation of business intelligence.

9. Virtual & Augmented Reality

The New York Times has teamed up with Google Cardboard to launch a virtual reality documentary film. Credit: Google

Virtual and augmented reality are entering into everyday tasks in fields ranging from medicine to vehicle maintenance, urban planning, and more. GEOINT data is essential to accurately model real locations in gaming, virtual reality, and augmented reality environments.

It is estimated that by 2018 the virtual reality market will grow more than 200 percent and acquire 25 million users. Analysts predict the augmented reality market will grow to $5.2 billion in 2016, and that by 2017, more than 2.5 billion augmented reality apps will be downloaded to mobile devices.

10. The Internet of Things

Not only are humans becoming sensors via our smartphones and wearable devices, but so are our possessions. The Internet of Things will provide a tremendous live-streaming set of data about our environment. It will facilitate an unprecedented understanding of where we are, what we do, and how we engage with one another and the items that surround us. Imagine your phone telling your garage door, thermostat, and television you’ve arrived home. Without lifting a finger your garage door is open, the AC is on, and the 6 o’clock news is queued up. The number of devices connected to the Internet already far exceeds the number of people on Earth, and conservative estimates project there will be 50 billion connected devices globally by 2020. Some experts posit the number of connected devices could actually reach as high as 250 or 300 billion by that time.

Opportunity and Responsibility

Throw these 10 elements in a pot, stir gently, put it on simmer, and you have the recipe for the GEOINT Revolution. And it’s already happening.

It’s imperative the GEOINT Community start thinking and talking about the GEOINT Revolution today, in the most expansive context possible, so we can shape its direction rather than be dragged along behind it. The revolution demands we explore challenges differently, such as thinking more broadly about GEOINT and remaining open-minded regarding new business methods. The Intelligence Community created and nurtured the idea of GEOINT over the past decade or so, but as GEOINT expands rapidly into almost every sector of the economy we will learn from others who are approaching the discipline with fresh sets of eyes, ideas, and motivations. We must not hold on stubbornly to the GEOINT that was, but rather embrace the GEOINT that is to be.

There’s a tremendous opportunity at hand for the GEOINT Community, and along with that opportunity comes significant responsibility. It’s incumbent on all who identify as GEOINTers to take some time to determine the role he or she will play in the GEOINT Revolution, and then to step up. Rapid change is underway, and although we don’t quite know yet what the outcome will be, USGIF will remain at the forefront of fostering discussions regarding the impact of each of the revolutionary elements described above.

Indeed, the recognition of the capabilities inherent in these new technologies is very exciting, and new processes will be developed, but ultimately it’s people that must have the tools to take advantage of all that technology has to offer. It is our duty to educate, train, and professionally develop the workforce of today, and of the future, to harness the technologies integral to the GEOINT Revolution. The people who are driving the revolution are an entirely different generation than those who launched it.

Consider the implications of the GEOINT Revolution, and appreciate that if we don’t enable professionals in all industries to understand how GEOINT affects their particular field, and if we don’t learn from them reciprocally, we won’t be prepared to operate effectively in a profoundly changed world.

Additional Resources:

International Telecommunication Union ICT 2015 Report
Mind-Blowing Stats About Wearable Technology
Broadband Access Trends in 2015 and Future Predictions
Virtual Reality Revenues Could Reach $21.8 Billion by 2020
Five Ways Big Geospatial Data Is Driving Analytics in the Real World
Why Location Is Important for Analytics
The Internet of Things

Mission: Mobile

U.S. Government looks at smartphones and apps as new GEOINT tools

Cyber-Location Nexus

What closing the gap between the physical and cyber realms means for geospatial intelligence

Striking a Balance

As technology becomes more advanced, GEOINT analysts must move ahead while not losing sight of the basics