This article provided exclusively for GISuser, by AJ Clark, President, Thermopylae Sciences & Technology
A U.S. geospatial contractor, working in Iraq to teach intelligence analysts how to use his technology, was struck by their capacity to learn and adapt. He brought this lesson back to his company.
“We learned there that soldiers are very creative,” he said. “They will make do with what they have, and you have to design your software to be flexible so that when they try to use it to do something you didn’t initially plan for it to do, it will still work.”
The creativity can be the result of an analyst’s frustration with working on a system that in some ways is less capable and sometimes less personally rewarding than the one with which he or she worked instead of doing freshman English homework in high school.
Expectations of challenges delivered by multi-million dollar government GIS/ISR systems can be disillusioning when those expectations aren’t met, as has been shown by other lessons from those who worked in the geospatial business in war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Many of today’s military members cut their geospatial teeth on Minecraft, Call of Duty, Grand Theft Auto and, farther back, World of Warcraft, Halo, Sim City, The Legend of Zelda, and any number of video games that have location-based elements similar to from Google Earth/Maps and Open Street Maps. The analysts are used to realism on a screen with 3-D color customizable images, a time element and rewards for success in online competition.
They also are used to playing those games and having an immersive mapping experience on the same smartphones on which they can order a pizza.
Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines often are disappointed to find the virtual world of the video game looks more realistic than the real world military data depicted on a screen that shows dots on a 2-D or even a 3-D map, even if that screen also shows layers of aerial HD images or video. They say, “If I’m playing a game that costs me $60 and it’s got this dynamic mapping capability, then I should have that capability in my office. If I’m in the military and my life depends on this technology, I should have it to perform my mission.”
But expectations of reality built from a background in playing video games with rich, elegant spatial capabilities can be unrealistic. Those qualities often don’t translate to a multi-billion-dollar government enterprise built from systems that begin and end with security. So in the absence of demonstrated reality, a new generation of users is becoming creative in a quest for it.
The fact that Grand Theft Auto V (GTA V) has sold almost 52 million copies, illustrates the difference in scale between commercial software and military software. More people will buy the video game and it drives the price down, while subsequently increasing the quality and consumer (user) appeal of the product. Keep in mind however, the total cost to develop GTA V was less than one quarter of one percent to develop the F-35. Recent Call of Duty franchise entries cost less than one tenth of one percent. What if 75% of the military used a system that was as elegant and user friendly as the video game Call of Duty? Is that worth a fraction of the cost of just one major weapon system?
While the video game industry flourishes, spurred to greater heights by the efforts of graduates of some of the same geography departments that are providing GIS analysts for the military and the Intelligence Community (IC) writ large, there are efforts to marry government and gaming in the Army, Air Force and with NASA. But those efforts in the IC often run into the status quo, much to the chagrin of some of those who want to change it.
“The whole practice of taking a smartphone and locking it into a silver locker outside the workspace is nuts,” National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency Director Robert Cardillo told a Washington, D.C., GEOINT2015 audience of more than 5,000 military and civilian members of the IC and businesses that supply it with technology and other resources.
The NGA has embarked on a program called “Pathfinder” to learn to answer intelligence questions using only unclassified data and commercially available technology.
“The path (requiring) that I had to leave the building (at Fort Belvoir, Va.) to do Pathfinder is not good,” Cardillo added of the security restrictions of NGA headquarters.
Enterprise Is About Capability
Increasingly, elements of the IC are learning the limits of enterprise systems that are built on capability, rather than user experience. The NGA Director acknowledges some of the solutions his agency is looking at may not be part of an enterprise.
It could be a springboard to the reality and capability that users want to do their jobs better. As it starts to get out of the enterprise pipeline into more easily consumed, everyday spatial awareness, the GIS community will find value in the qualities of more immersive and user friendly spatial experiences that beneft from traditional GIS and bring it in new ways to many more users. Those qualities will generate better reports, in part because they will be produced by analysts and operators who are getting the information they want, in the way they want it.
It’s not easy, though, because several elements come into play in decisions to buy geospatial technology.
“Take a look at the architecture,” said an Army Geospatial Center official. “We often have people say they really don’t understand: ‘I can use my navigation tool on my handheld, Android, iPhone, Blackberry to find a local Starbucks or restaurant or gas station. Why can’t we do that in the Army?’
“We don’t have the millions of servers that are out there giving that really great user experience that the commercial Google Enterprise will give you. You don’t have, necessarily, access to a 4-G network that is going to provide you web services, data and applications that resonate on a machine. So it’s a little bit more complicated when you’re not reaching out to a 4-G network, but rather you’re tethered to a tactical radio that’s got an encryption device on it.”
Finding a Balance
Gamers’ message to the video game industry was heard. Developers reached out to the GIS community for location-based technology to build into games to provide a richer, more rewarding experience.
The message of users to the DoD and IC is similar: learn from the commercial world or we will not be here in the future.
The key to the future here could be finding a balance between user demand and policy and funding, so everybody gets what they need in the end. Decision-makers can’t fixate on one side or the other. They have to listen to both to get a richer, more comprehensive, ultimately more valuable report made up of analysis of data presented the way the analyst wants it and the customer needs it.
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.