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December 2, 2011
GEOINT: A System-of-Systems Approach

By Michael Hales, technical executive,
International Group, Office of International Affairs and Policy, National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), Bethesda, Md
.

 

Imagine an architecture where 87 countries and 61 organizations pulled their Earth-observing resources and satellites together to share data and expertise to support decision making.

Imagine if these partners worked together to develop a common infrastructure, accessible through a Web-based portal that allowed them to collectively access, search and utilize the data using Web-based tools.

Imagine if they agreed to specific standards so they could increase data interoperability on current and future missions.

Imagine if the stakeholders adopted open data policies.

Lastly, what if they worked together to build a global network of satellite-based dissemination systems designed to distribute satellite and airborne data to users in near-real time?

Does an undertaking like this seem possible? Although this level of transparency would present challenges in the intelligence community, there’s something appealing about leveraging existing and planned space platforms on this scale. It would provide trusted users rapid access to the best Earth-observation data the world has to offer.

 

GEOSS Makes It Possible

Today, U.S. civil agencies like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NASA and U.S. Geological Survey are working with international partners and organizations through a new intergovernmental body, the Group on Earth Observations (GEO). Together they’re building the first Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS).

GEOSS is proactively linking together existing and planned Earth-observing systems to achieve specific societal benefits, such as reducing the loss of life and property from natural disasters, improving management of energy and water resources, and supporting sustainable agriculture, among other benefits.

To become a GEO member, participating nations must demonstrate commitment at the ministerial or cabinet levels of their government. Non-space-faring countries that have yet to launch satellites contribute to GEOSS by providing in-situ data (observations made from Earth’s surface) and other Earth-observation knowledge or content.

GEOSS construction is taking place over a 10-year period from 2005 to 2015, allowing nations to make informed decisions about their own requirements and contributions. GEOSS even supports the coordination of new Earth-observing systems among members where collection gaps currently exist or are expected.

 

Lessons to Be Learned

So what does GEOSS have to do with geospatial intelligence (GEOINT)? Why is it important to NGA?

GEOSS isn’t the result of an academic exercise; it was born of and shaped by a self-evident need for data among nations whose Earth-observation budgets continued to shrink even as the challenges they faced continued to grow. GEOSS exists because nations realized they were better off sharing information along with the burden of collecting it, rather than simply keeping their data to themselves. GEOSS works because stakeholders share its governance, and no single country owns the process. These lessons shouldn’t be lost on NGA.

In fact, the GEOSS model may shed light on future geospatial cooperation
efforts as other nations continue to expand their GEOINT capabilities in ways that address mutual geospatial needs. For example, Canada is developing C-band radar systems optimized for northern hemisphere ocean surveillance. Germany is developing a truly global digital elevation model from a single sensor at High-Resolution Terrain Information 3, something that never has been done before. Soon to be space-faring nations like Spain and Turkey will operate their own satellites in the years to come.

These capabilities and more are on the way. In a new data-rich world, perhaps NGA needs to rethink the way it has thought about its own data and systems. Perhaps this is one of the reasons the new National Space Policy encourages agencies to “… augment U.S. capabilities by leveraging existing and planned space capabilities of allies and space partners.”

GEOSS partners know that gaining  access to other nations’ data is no easy task. Still, many GEOSS stakeholders feel that agreeing to share data is really only the tip of the iceberg, and implementing collective decisions about standards, formats and building infrastructure that supports interoperability is more comparable to the part of the iceberg that remains hidden underwater. To make matters more challenging, one can’t tell the shape of the bottom part of the iceberg by simply looking at the top part. In other words, some data may be easier to integrate and disseminate than others. Depending on the format, standards, data policies and existing architecture, a seemingly simple data set can be surprisingly more difficult to work with than a more complex data set. It all depends.

That’s why GEOSS stakeholders were smart to maintain strong leadership, require senior participation, share the governance burden among nations and agree to a 10-year vision implemented through two- to three-year work plans. Indeed, these lessons also shouldn’t be lost on NGA.     

 

Editor’s Note: Thanks to the NGA Pathfinder staff for their assistance with this column.

 

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