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May 31, 2013
Geocontextualizing Data Enhances Situational Awareness

By George Demmy, chief technology officer, TerraGo (www.terragotech.com), Atlanta.

We live in an era where a continuous stream of information emerges in real time from myriad locations and sources, including online news stories, blogs and social media. The availability of such information on the Web through standard interfaces means we have access to a wealth of content that’s being refreshed at an astounding pace. The challenge is to discover information relevant to our missions or markets, place it in its proper context, distill it into actionable intelligence and deliver it to those who need it wherever they are.

Making Sense of Information

As a result of the availability of such massive quantities of information, it becomes more difficult to filter out the “noise” to find what’s relevant to a specific place, time or topic. In many ways, uncovering the right data from these unstructured collections is like finding the proverbial needle in a haystack. Or, more precisely, it’s like finding one specific needle in a haystack made of needles.

Once a noisy mass of information has been reduced to a more manageable subset, the next major challenge is discovering the most important information, placing it in its proper context, and integrating it with other pieces of information and intelligence to produce a sharable, collaborative and actionable intelligence product. In times of shrinking budgets, resources and personnel, quickly and efficiently creating and delivering such intelligence products is essential for organizations to gain situational awareness and to make smarter decisions.

In many ways, organizations are spending too much time fighting “data overload.” IDC Research estimated that information workers typically spend 17.8 hours per week searching for information. The implications are significant: A 1,000-person organization wastes as much as $5.7 million annually in this search, according to IDC estimates.

Maximizing Solutions

Fortunately, new solutions to the data overload problem exist that allow organizations to reduce the overload by discovering content that is relevant to particular places, topics and times. In addition, such solutions integrate this content with other pieces of information and intelligence into sharable, actionable intelligence products and applications as well as share them with the people who need to act on them. For example, TerraGo’s GeoXray software streamlines the process of discovering, monitoring and analyzing an overwhelming amount of data from a wide variety of sources, including news feeds, blog posts, social media, maps, imagery and more.

Geocontextualizing the content is critical for both sharing and use. Because the content can be associated with place, it can be visualized on Web maps and mashed up with other data and information. When combined with information such as recent satellite images, human geography maps, etc., organizations and individuals can have a much deeper and complete situational awareness.

These types of solutions also deliver workflow acceleration for government and commercial users, which also reduces the need for training staff in areas outside their core competence. As most government organizations face steep budget cuts this year, the most ideal location intelligence solutions support mission requirements while using fewer resources.

Some of the core features such solutions offer are:

  • A geographic knowledge base configurable to mission-specific descriptions of points of interest known as “place signatures.”
  • Geocontextualization of textual documents by comparing content to place signatures.
  • Filtering content by place, topic and time.
  • Integration of maps and imagery served by Open Geospatial Consortium Web Map Services.
  • An open application programming interface to enable integration into solutions built on top of platforms such as BAE Systems’ GXP Xplorer or Esri’s ArcGIS.

Many organizations, such as the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), have looked to a crowd-sourcing approach for capturing information to help with disaster response. Twitter, Facebook and other social media feeds contain essential information that, if placed in proper context, can help FEMA gain real-time situational awareness directly from citizens as disasters unfold.

Similarly, many local and county governments are interested in leveraging similar techniques to gain a “feet on the street” perspective of the current situation on the ground and sharing the information gathered about different entities and organizations. For instance, the observations reported in a series of geocontextualized Twitter tweets can help provide situational awareness that local police departments, firefighters or other first responders need to carry out their assignments quickly and safely. To the extent that they, too, can contribute their observations and experiences back to their supporting organizations, they can add these pieces of intelligence to the organizational body of knowledge.

We live in a world that is changing at an ever-increasing pace. Humanitarian crises resulting from natural disasters and political and social unrest seem to be increasing in scope and scale, driving the need for discovering relevant information, distilling it into actionable intelligence and delivering real-time intelligence to warfighters, first responders and decision makers, wherever they operate. Fortunately, there are new solutions to do just this.

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