Many thanks to Ben Kennedy for the following guest blog post. Ben provides some fascinating background on his geospatial journey, and what he sees as the path to the future.
So there I was, 29 years old and fresh out of the Marine Corps. I had spent the last 11 years in uniform, the last 8 of which as an Imagery Intelligence analyst. Most of my fellow Marines got out and moved to the beltway, chasing contracting jobs in hopes of landing a full time government position in the Intelligence Community. I decided to take the road less traveled, moving to Denver to chase the commercial side. It was 2014 and all I could think was how useful Imagery Analysis could be to a myriad of commercial applications. Instead of battle damage assessments, route studies, and poppy field analysis, I wanted to apply these same techniques using remotely sensed data to provide disaster response analysis, oil and gas pipeline monitoring, and vegetation analysis for agriculture. After all, everything from Triage to Rubber tires came from the military to commercial industry, why couldn’t Imagery and Geospatial? As I sat in my first interview with an oil and gas midstream company, asking them how they surveyed the area for a pipeline construction project and then monitored it after construction I was amazed at the answer:
“Well, we give a guy a backpack and an iPad, and have him walk the 150 miles and survey it, then we fly a helicopter over it and just look at it after construction”.
I confidently told the interviewer how easily this could be done from space. Just take some recent EO Imagery, overlay land use and land owner information from a database, and bam! I could provide the same answer as the guy with a backpack in a fraction of the time. As for the monitoring, just task a satellite from Airbus or DigitalGlobe (now MAXAR) to shoot 4 or 8 band MSI and identify any areas where vegetation was dying. We could use dead vegetation to show where there might be potential gas leaks, and use the same data to look for erosion, encroachment, or any other disturbances whether manmade or natural.
Well I’m here to say that all that sounded EASY. Next I took on the task to prove to him it could be done. It was then that I realized I was no longer in the military: ordering imagery from ANYONE was like pulling teeth, and tasking a satellite was even more difficult. The cost was astronomical (once I finally got it out of a sales guy). I learned quickly that while the methods and tactics I wanted to employ were possible, the cost, bureaucracy, and legal processes in place made it a near impossible task.
Next, I landed a job at a commercial geospatial software company (instead of a commercial non-geospatial company). This put me smack in the middle of the Geospatial 1.0 world. A world where we lived in a self-contained bubble of “geospatial work for geospatial customers”. The last 6 years have been wonderful and I absolutely LOVE what I do. However, I feel like something is missing, I see the possibilities of geospatial techniques and capabilities for companies who don’t know what geospatial is. And by the way, if one more person asks what I do, then responds with “so you work at google maps” I’m going to lose my mind! Why is it so hard to break from that internal bubble and reach that next phase: “Geospatial 2.0”? I see members of the geospatial community post all over LinkedIn, and read magazine articles about the capabilities of Geospatial outside the Geospatial community ( http://interactive.satellitetoday.com/via/august-2020/from-imagery-to-insights-the-commercial-case-for-geospatial-intelligence/ https://techcrunch.com/sponsor/maxar/space-technology-is-enabling-advancement-on-earth-in-ways-we-never-dreamed/ ) Then I read about the challenges of getting data (https://medium.com/@joemorrison/the-commercial-satellite-imagery-business-model-is-broken-6f0e437ec29d) and how hard it is to pull together and provide actionable information to a company.
Is it really that hard?
In the Marine Corps, I worked as a direct Geospatial support to a plethora of “customers”, from Infantry units, Aviation assets, Generals, and even foreign military’s. Every customer had the same question:
“Hey Wizard, just tell me where the bad guys are in 5 minutes or less”
This is the “off ramp” on the geospatial highway to the commercial highway. Commercial companies have many questions, often they are questions they don’t know how to ask: “Tell me where the danger is on my pipelines”, “Tell me what customers come to my business and when”, “Tell me how my crops are doing this season”.
While all of these are critical business questions, geospatial folks have struggled to convey to potential customers the value in providing an answer. A confusing map presented to customers by geospatial folks with some geospatial technical jargon is often, not surprisingly, met with rejection. And here lies our challenge.
I see articles and companies touting the “capabilities” of geospatial for commercial businesses, then read how they approach a problem using a government sales strategy, or with a geospatial web map answer. We as members of the geospatial community can’t expect commercial customers to learn about maps, imagery, panchromatic vs multispectral, resolution, pixel classification, or ANY Geospatial technique. These customers go fast and hard in markets that are fluid and ever-changing. They want answers backed up by data without having to understand the nuances of that data. I’d be willing to bet if you’re reading this you don’t have any idea how the screen you’re reading it on is made, how the glass is actually manufactured, the science and technology behind how the touchscreen works, the process of creating plastics to encase it, none of it (and if you do high five), but you do know that the screen is something you just need, something you have to have to make the 1,000 decisions you’re going to make today. Geospatial data can be that way, hell it is already. The average user thinks that Google Maps is some real-time picture of what they’re looking at, They have no idea how imagery is collected, processed, orthorectified, mosaicked together, and made into a basemaps. That can take weeks or even years, often using old imagery (ask me sometime about emergency managers trying to plan off Google Maps and a bridge that had been removed since the image had been taken. You can guess what they realized when they finally got to the river to cross it)
They don’t understand the “what and why”, but they know the answers they get are VITAL to their everyday life.
As I think back to that interview in 2014, I have to remind myself that as geospatial technology advances, as satellites launch and drones fly, generating a tsunami of new data. Translators are needed. Turning extremely complex science into simple and cost effective answers, that is our future. And that is the promise of Geospatial 2.0
I challenge you to think outside the box, to come up with new ways to tackle problems. Remember however, that the solutions you come up with have to fit back inside the box of commercial understanding, before any of our high and amazing ideas can actually gain traction. So go reach out to someone on your LinkedIn Feed, call a colleague not in the geospatial world, find a connection and just ask “Hey, what is it you do and would you mind if I took a Geospatial look at it”? If we reach outside our comfort zone and just talk to others in AND outside the geospatial community, I’d be willing to bet you’d be surprised. One of my favorite things to tell non-geospatial folks about geospatial is this: we have 2 problems in the geospatial community.
- People think we can do some ridiculous stuff we can’t (go watch the film “Enemy of the State” with Will Smith…. EVERYTHING about the techniques and capabilities they use in that film is pretty much wrong and hurts my soul!).
- We can do some REALLY RIDICULOUS stuff with geospatial that people have no idea about (MSI/HSI analysis, SWIR to see through Smoke, SAR through Clouds, etc).
So go be ridiculous. Find problems. Explore solutions. Then go show that solution to someone non-geospatial who has that problem.
You might be amazed where that leads.
Ben Kennedy is a Denver resident with 14 years of experience in the Geospatial community. Ben Spent 11 years in the United States Marine Corps, 8 of which as an Imagery Analyst supporting Combat and Non-combat operations at multiple levels across the globe. Since 2014 Ben has worked for BAE systems Geospatial eXploitation Products (GXP) group focusing on military and commercial applications of Geospatial Intelligence. Ben’s passion for Geospatial (Imagery Analysis specifically ) has led him down numerous paths, including volunteer work in disaster response and first responder applications trying to help use Geospatial to provide insights and value.