The image is a classic one: a group of soldiers or Marines, gathered around the windswept hood of a Humvee, smoothing out a folded terrain map with a compass in one hand and a grease pencil in the other. The challenge for today’s geospatial-intelligence (geoint) community is to transform that image from a map and compass to a laptop and network connection. As an industry community, we must bring to the table innovative concepts and technologies to help bridge the “last tactical mile” – giving our front-line troops ready access to the data they need to make quick, confident decisions.
In short, we need to walk a mile in combat boots, and ensure that our focus is on the user. Front-line users need systems that are intuitive, user-friendly and require little training. If a new technology takes too long to learn or to use, it will quickly be abandoned in favor of a reliable old stand-by. So as we design and roll-out new systems, we need to balance capability with usability. Sometimes the newest bell or whistle can be impressive in the lab, but if it takes a trained expert to use, those results won’t translate to operational success on the battlefield or a disaster site.
Improving the Interface
A great way to improve user-friendliness is to adopt front-end applications and concepts that are already popular and well-known. Commercial tools like Google Earth are sitting on millions of home and office computers, and a new generation of users is already familiar with its operations. Today’s portable GPS units have a simplified interface that virtually anyone can pick up and learn to use. ESRI is working with Adobe to create Portable Document Format, or PDF, documents with embedded maps and geographic information, making the files much more portable and streamlined. Many of those same approaches – a clean and simple interface, intuitive menus and options, and even voice interaction – can be useful to front-line geoint users.
The key is to adopt a front-end that is already familiar, and back it up with an integrated enterprise that feeds the right data in the right format to those users – and do it all on demand. The back-end systems can and will be incredibly complex, so long as the front-end stays tailored to the user.
Filtering the Right Data
Another challenge is striking a balance between giving those users the data they need without overwhelming them with information that is not tied to their mission. That extra data not only clouds their picture of operations, it wastes precious bandwidth and network capacity.
Systems need to adapt to users, not the other way around. Personalized preferences are a highly effective way to shape technology to users’ needs. A soldier can tell his mapping engine which geographic areas he is most interested in, or refine his mission focus around certain people, events or times. Or an emergency responder can tell her system to focus on critical infrastructure or other points of interest. The network then responds by sending only the data those users say they care about – the same way a football fan can sign up for text messages with news about his favorite team.
By implementing targeted alerts and other proactive “push” technologies, we can make sure that new information gets in front of the right people at the right time. That also helps users sift through the available data. When they get an alert, they know it is about something that is relevant to their mission, and they can prioritize accordingly.
New tools can not realize their full potential if they are just one-way streets. We cannot just deliver data, we need to provide front-line users with a powerful two-way collaboration network. Systems need to help troops and responders connect the dots with each other, with leaders and with subject matter experts.
Web 2.0 tools – blogs, wikis, instant messaging and social networking – hold significant promise for helping to create this collaborative community. Most people might not see blogs as a mission application, but they offer a fast, simple way to upload and share data with a large community of interested users. Wikis operate in much the same way, providing an ever-evolving source of information that large user groups can continuously improve, update and expand. There are few other tools that allow so many experts to collaborate simultaneously on a single topic, all sharing their own knowledge and learning from others.
An additional advantage of Web 2.0 tools is their ease of use. Today’s young troops and responders have grown up using these technologies – the speed and productivity they can achieve with the right collaboration network will astound you. These innovative commercial tools match up surprisingly well with mission-oriented systems. At Lockheed Martin, we have successfully integrated a number of Web 2.0 applications into geospatial systems that are in use around the world today.
Empowering the Front Lines
Every once in a while the technology cycle offers a unique opportunity to do something truly revolutionary. With the intersection of improved interface design, better collaboration tools and high-speed mobile networks, the time is right for the geospatial community to bridge that last tactical mile.
Our goal should be an empowered user community, one that effortlessly integrates geoint into their everyday operations and moves forward with speed, precision and confidence. To achieve that goal, we must maintain a disciplined focus on the end user, and be ready to embrace innovative new concepts and technologies that will unlock the full potential of geospatial intelligence for a new world of front-line users.
Jim Kohlhaas is vice president of Spatial Solutions at Lockheed Martin.