For the past 10 years, the geospatial sector has experienced what many believe was bubble-like growth. While consumer applications have raised the profile and overall awareness of geospatial prowess, the benefactors that supported this growth were principally defense and intelligence agencies. This phenomenal growth was largely propelled by funding from the U.S. federal government in support of our military engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq. Recently, this growth trend has been abating, with major imagery-based programs potentially being cut, and troop drawdowns in Afghanistan and Iraq only exacerbating the situation.
While many industry players are scrambling to make up for lost revenue and are dealing with the anxiety of a new business reality, I believe this is a time of great change for the geospatial sector – which encourages all players in this space to address the geospatial needs of other industries with a more focused approach. I would even say that the defense cuts will provide the spark that will ignite innovation in other industry and market sectors.
Now that the times have changed, we will see companies revolutionizing their approach or running the risk of reducing or even shutting down their business. And, the result will be a complete paradigm shift in the way geospatial solutions are developed, delivered and used.
Before looking toward the future, it’s important to understand the recent past, and the events that have catapulted geospatial into the position it is in today. A significant portion of the growth in geospatial technologies has taken place over the past 10-12 years in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, increasing defense and intelligence requirements.
Shortly after the horrific 9/11 attacks, U.S. President George Bush passed legislation to strengthen our national security, which was also reinforced with immediate military action in Afghanistan. Two years later the U.S. followed up with military involvement in Iraq. Both military engagements required new innovations that relied on geospatial intelligence for fighting a mostly invisible enemy.
GEOINT Drives Geospatial
During this time period we also saw the National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA) change its name to National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) and become a very powerful force in providing imagery solutions for the warfighter. In addition, the NGA relied heavily on solutions from industry providers – from commercial imagery to solutions for speeding up access to actionable data on the battlefield.
As General James Clapper, the current Director of National Intelligence (DNI), who is also known as the “Father of Geospatial Intelligence (GEOINT)” once said: GEOINT is the foundation upon which all other intelligence is built. This claim is certainly true and propelled us into an era of major growth for geospatial data providers, software companies, and system integrators supporting national defense.
In addition, over the past five years, we have also seen major growth in consumer geospatial applications – from Foursquare to the use of Google Earth by a growing user base, many of whom are now geospatially aware and interested. During the height of geospatial application integration, it seemed that all things geospatial were destined to address needs for the military, the average consumer – and all entities between. It seemed that geospatial technology was truly the foundation for, essentially, everything.
Fast-forward to the changing economic conditions in late 2008 and early 2009. The defense sector continued to be a foundation for growth and contracts for many players. In 2010, the NGA announced that it awarded its EnhancedView contract – for an unprecedented $7 billion – to both GeoEye and DigitalGlobe. As you can imagine, news of this contract was considered a boon for all industry players who provided geospatial solutions to the military.
Two years later, it is safe to say that the times have changed. The government is dealing with tremendous budget cuts and the EnhancedView contract itself is now in question. The combination of the proposed budget cuts and the withdrawals from both Afghanistan and Iraq mean that we are entering into a new – albeit, most likely, more challenging -- era of GEOINT.
Is it Time to Transform?
The most viable industries are known for reinventing themselves during changing circumstances, embracing challenges as opportunities. For an industry defined by the changing Earth, this truly seems to be the geospatial industry’s defining moment. Rather than relying on bigger contracts from the government to propel our businesses, it is up to the key players in our industry to look at other vertical market requirements and understand these workflows through configurable solutions that meet broader needs. This requires a new approach, with innovation as the guiding force for making geospatial solutions the true panacea.
Just as the U.S. auto industry reinvented itself after a dark period in 2009, the geospatial sector now has a pivotal opportunity. The auto industry relied on government intervention to bring the change it needed. The geospatial sector has to rely on its own tenacity, creativity and drive in order to propel growth –these were the key ingredients that empowered us to collectively address the changing needs of the GEOINT community following 9/11. I believe defense and intelligence will continue to be a large part of business, but we must truly address the needs of other industries as well – not merely with commercial out-of-the-box products, but with solutions that offer workflow optimization.
The reality is that geospatial solutions will always fill a need. Whether it is for emergency management in the wake of natural disasters or for major businesses wanting to better track, analyze and anticipate changing requirements for their field assets - geospatial solutions are the foundation for informative decision making, providing comprehensive data.
For some businesses in the U.S., the defense and intelligence demands are changing, and may in some ways be decreasing. I believe this is part of the overall geospatial lifecycle, where different users’ requirements ebb and flow. While in some areas demand may be decreasing, across other industries, geospatial demand has gained momentum. With this, we have the opportunity to creatively meet this need in a new and exciting way – ultimately creating a different geospatial renaissance.
The brightest minds will come up with impressive, integrated technologies, capturing the crux of the challenges encountered by businesses supporting agriculture, transportation, oil and gas, mining, real estate, natural resources, utilities, communication, public safety and more. New vertical markets will emerge, changing the face of our customer personas. I believe geospatial solutions will continue to be the foundation for, well, everything.