U.S. Budget Battle Has Far-Reaching Consequences for Geospatial Industry


By Kevin D. Pomfret, executive director, Centre for Spatial Law and Policy (www.spatiallaw.com), Richmond, Va.

 

The defense industry has known since last year that the Department of Defense would need to make cutbacks. With deficits and debt becoming increasing concerns among voters, companies understood that the country’s fiscal position couldn’t sustain current levels of military spending. It was hoped, however, that the cuts would spare programs that save lives, create American jobs and develop strategic prowess in important technological fields.

Unfortunately, one such innovative program, EnhancedView, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) contract to increase commercial satellite imaging capacity, is being threatened with a significant decrease in funding. The contract’s foundation is a public-private partnership between NGA and two U.S. commercial satellite imagery providers, DigitalGlobe and GeoEye.

The contract is cost-fixed for a 10-year period to allow for
adequate long-term planning from the government and companies. High-resolution commercial satellite imagery supplements the government’s own satellite architecture, which gives the system redundancy, resiliency and a greater capacity to collect map-accurate images over any location on the planet.

 

EnhancedView’s Evolution

In 2009, the director of national intelligence and the secretary of defense recommended, and President Obama approved, a policy that called for a 2+2 satellite architecture of commercial and classified imagery. With this policy in place, NGA issued a request for proposal for this additional satellite imagery capacity and the industry responded. At the end of the procurement process, GeoEye and DigitalGlobe were awarded 10-year EnhancedView contracts. With the promise of the government’s financial backing, the companies began to invest heavily in their next-generation imagery capabilities.

These outlays were large—more than $1 billion—and required significant long-term planning from both companies. Proposed EnhancedView program cuts will dramatically affect the commercial remote sensing industry and significantly depress the contour of its relationship with the U.S. government.

 

A Domino Effect Creates Many Losers

A wide range of U.S. government agencies would be losers under the proposed cuts. Although the EnhancedView program is under the Department of Defense budget, the imagery itself is available to all agencies. Commercial imagery provides extensive area coverage crucial to security crisis or natural disaster response; thus, reduced availability of commercial imagery would hinder mission planning and mapping for the next unexpected operation. For example, the U.S. government used commercial satellite imagery to assist first responders in Haiti, because, unlike classified government satellites, the imagery was unclassified and could be easily shared.

Moreover, almost every modern military operation involves close cooperation with allies and coalition partners. Commercial satellite imagery is being used increasingly by the Department of State and in the media as a tool to build support for U.S. actions and to refute claims in regions of the world where media access is restricted, like in Syria or the Sudan. 

As for long-term consequences, the cutbacks could have a significant impact on the broader geospatial industry. This includes vendors that supply the software and hardware, as well as current and future commercial customers that could face higher prices and a reduced availability of current imagery.

It would be a mistake to impose such hits on an industry that is increasingly a source of technological innovation. For example, a recent report from Deloitte ranked “geospatial visualization” as the seventh most important technology trend in 2012.

To quote from the report, geospatial visualization “marries the broad insights available through visualization with specific types of analysis that can be performed on location-related data.” Moreover, “[n]ew tools and access to data are now allowing the power of location to be unleashed across many more business areas and to a much broader base of users” than in the past.
DigitalGlobe and GeoEye will play an important role in this trend, as current and more accurate imagery and maps make for better visualization, which results in better analysis.

In addition, it would be short-sighted in this period of economic uncertainty to impose cuts that would result in a negative impact on a nascent industry with the potential to drive job growth. The U.S. Department of Labor Employment and Training Administration, which is responsible for federal job training, stated in March 2010 that the geospatial technology sector will expand during the next decade.

Although not all of these jobs are spurred solely by GeoEye or DigitalGlobe, the imagery products and services these companies provide are an important component of that job creation. Similarly, although not all of the 466,000 jobs that were estimated to have been created by the so-called “App Economy” since 2007 are directly tied to the geospatial community, many of these apps are based on maps and location.

Geospatial technology is giving us an opportunity to interact with the physical world in a way that we are only now beginning to comprehend. A generation of children has grown up with the ability to manipulate timely, high-quality imagery on their computers and phones. Let’s not cut commercial imagery before they get the opportunity to explore what can be accomplished with it next.