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Help The Government Leverage Satellite Data
By AJ Clark, President, Thermopylae Sciences & Technology


Two years ago, when Congress and the White House fired the sequestration shot across the military’s bow, the Department of Defense (DoD) exchanged places with industry. 

Businesses mired in the economic doldrums of 2007-08 were loath to take on risk or spend money to innovate when they were laying off employees, cutting dividends and watching stock prices plummet. 

However, while the economy was being repaired, the U.S. was fighting two wars where the military learned and acquired new uses for data from satellites, from pilotless airplanes, from the ground—from everywhere. With plenty of DoD investment to drive it, Big Data grew bigger—so big that military leaders spoke of swimming in sensors and drowning in data.

Then came sequestration, concurrent with the need to manage and store data that grows with every satellite launch, with every UAV combat air patrol, and with every soldier’s glimpse through new eyewear that generates information. Data that will continue to grow, because even as U.S. involvement in Afghanistan winds down, other military commands around the world stand in line to use technology that will be freed up. Those commands will generate even more data from more places to make them more efficient.

For the government to cope in an era of increased austerity, it can learn from the way industry dealt with its economic plight half a decade ago. In doing so, government will only be going back to when it functioned best: When synergy drew it and industry together to generate the wherewithal to fight a World War.

When industry struggled with the recession, contractors who worked both sides of the government/commercial highway found solutions by adapting them from technology built for the military. Commerce discovered that geospatial data, satellite imagery and other military staples had places in the for-profit realm. They discovered those elements at a time when technology made them easier and cheaper to acquire, creating an explosion of data.

All of that followed a continuum. For example, flight for the military became air transportation, the Internet evolved into use in culture and commerce, and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) developed for bomb guidance, all part of the foundations for cell phones.

With all of those commercial discoveries for data use came the need for more efficient ways to process and store information that was outgrowing capability. Enter the cloud, which offered economy with the capacity to expand in lockstep with data requirements that enabled the commercial sector to embrace the cloud and its efficiencies.

However, government had been less willing to do so. A tug-of-war between accepting risk and protecting information has long been a drag on government-cloud innovation, though that seems to be slowly shifting. One reason for that lack of speed—and it may be our biggest challenge—has been that security policies have not kept up with potential technological advances.

Policies are created and people are trained to comply with those policies. Five years go by, ten years go by, and while technology may have rendered those policies obsolete, they continue to drive critical security decisions. 

In October of 2013, the watershed move by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to award $600 million to Amazon to build a cloud was a step in the correct direction, both for the willingness of government to look to industry for data processing and storage solutions and for the Intelligence Community (IC) to understand that security issues that have hindered cloud-development can be successfully managed.

The award reflects government’s understanding that future solutions may be different than those perceived only three years ago and that sometimes there has to be a front-end investment to realize back-end savings. Similar to purchasing a hybrid automobile to save on fuel, money still has to be spent to obtain the car and in the sale of your old gas-guzzler.

Along with this mindset is a look toward convergence; again adapting the way commerce does things. Convergence layers a process, allowing each of those layers to be baked by companies that do it best, whether it be building a cloud or analyzing imagery or visualizing technology or collecting data.

It allows a company such as Thermopylae Sciences & Technology (TST) to contribute iHarvest technology to be a part of the whole—generating models to help analysts and operators determine what data is worth harvesting and, therefore, worth saving.

For example, rather than collecting all of the data a satellite can gather in a pass, an iHarvest model can determine that 90 percent of imagery consumption is in a certain region, so efforts should be focused on that region and then dialed back on the resolution of data from other areas that can be surveyed. 

In addition, it helps generate a greater return on investment of analysts’ time and capability as well as on processing and storage needs. It also shows how companies such as TST fit into a larger ecosystem that can come through convergence as it addresses one layer more efficiently than anybody else.

In the end, the layers combine for a better overall solution. It’s potentially part of government’s greater acknowledgement for cost-savings without sacrificing capability, an appreciation driven by a future of increased fiscal accountability.

In the commercial sector, demand is driven by capability and price. For example, satellite imagery is used in agriculture to predict the weather and to evaluate crops. That imagery and other pictures help commerce survey sites and transportation patterns, and the use of that imagery and pictures expands daily. GIS systems are increasingly a part of industry’s framework.

All of these capabilities exist and are proliferating, at least in part due to the cost of data being driven down by the technology that was originally developed for the military. Of course, the cloud is also driving down the cost of processing and storing that data.

Government is realizing cost-savings in things such as satellite imagery, which is driven by an increasing number of satellites, streamlining data collection, reducing redundancy, and developing an increased willingness to hang sensors on commercial satellites. Government’s answer to processing and storage for this flood of data from this cloud of satellites could be in another cloud—one developed as a solution by, and for, private industry.

To learn more about Thermopylae Sciences & Technology, please visit http://www.t-sciences.com/ 

About the author
AJ Clark is the President of Thermopylae Sciences & Technology (TST), a leading provider of web-based geospatial capabilities, mobile software framework and applications, situational awareness, and cloud computing solutions for the U.S. military. To learn more about TST, click here.