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GeoQ team creating new tracks in geospatial support

 June 22, 2015

 Angela French

Personnel across the agency recently have begun to explore ways to leverage traditional imagery and non-traditional data sources to provide faster, more robust support to NGA’s partners.

A few geospatial pioneers, however, have been delivering alternative solutions to customary NGA services for more than a year and a half.

Take Raymond Bauer, the lead for GeoQ , an open source tool developed as a solution for collating disparate geo-data to support worldwide disaster relief and recovery efforts into one workflow.

To date, GeoQ has supported over 15 missions, including baseline maps, damage assessment and impact for the tornadoes that hit Van, Texas in late May; the 2015 Typhoon Maysak in the Philippines; and the recent earthquake in Nepal.

GeoQ allows anyone with a web browser and an understanding of geospatial tools like Google Earth and ESRI ARC products to support a project. Contributors focus on information within the image as well as outside the frame to rapidly assess impacts and changes of disasters over large geographical areas to produce detailed features from traditional and non-traditional data sources quickly. 

This critical information, which can be accessed via desktop and mobile devices, provides first responders and others a single operational picture and the ability to add context from the affected area within the first hours of an event.

GeoQ has gained the attention not only of first responders and international news outlets , but of federal, state and local leaders as well. On May 28, NGA Director Robert Cardillo highlighted GeoQ as an example of NGA’s readiness and innovative approach to supporting disaster response when he briefed President Barack Obama and other leaders in Miami, Florida.

As for Bauer, he considers GeoQ as an example of how NGA can better support its mission partners.

“This type of immediate response and real-time assessment is the way NGA – along with our local, tribal, state and federal partners – need to work crises events going forward,” said Bauer. “GeoQ is the culmination of years of testing and constructing a workflow model that provides the ability to crowd source work, and enables real-time awareness, gamification and on-demand business analytics – all built for the cloud.”

GeoQ uses a crowd-sourcing model, allowing analysts to add information to the operational picture in real-time. Contributors also can see who else is working on the project within their web browser, increasing situational awareness and information sharing. GeoQ’s built-in business analytics provide disaster managers like FEMA the self-service ability to track response timelines, gaps in coverage and manpower requirements. The tool also incorporates non-traditional sources like social media to develop a richer and more accurate operational picture.

GeoQ uses open source application program interfaces, or APIs, and is fully compliant with Open Geospatial Consortium  standards. OGC, an international organization that supports the development and promotion of interoperable solutions, is a long-standing partner of NGA’s.

Bauer notes that because GeoQ web-browser based, new partners and private citizens have the ability to contribute to an important mission.

“We need to change the unclassified collaboration model and help enable the democratization of GEOINT,” said Bauer. “The tools that we have created over the past two years are all available via GitHub on the web.”

NGA partnered with FEMA, the White House Innovation Fellows Program, GeoHuntsville, academia and others to create GeoQ in the aftermath of the 2012 Hurricane Sandy. As the FEMA after action report  documented, “Sandy revealed notable challenges in how FEMA coordinates with its federal partners...integrates with the whole community, and prepares and deploys its workforce.”

Bauer, who has a diverse background in imagery analysis, GIS, program management, acquisition and IT, argues that GeoQ is the type of tool many analysts have wanted for years.

Serving as the technical lead for the IWG R3 project, Bauer had the opportunity to work alongside the imagery experts in the Analysis Directorate. He lead a three-person team of agile programmers to work crisis issues and respond with agile programming while the event was happening.

“We ate, drank and slept the mission while supporting A,” stated Bauer. “When R3 was responding to a crisis event, the team was available 24x7. On several occasions we pushed new code into ops on the weekend during the event. When we lost power and comms at home during Sandy, we relocated to a coffee shop to continue our work.”

While he supported A, Bauer evaluated the types of applications and capabilities analysts want and need for other missions. He realized many IT engineers and programs of record were developing intricate, complex tools to solve the “100 percent solution.” Unfortunately, many analysts didn’t want or need them or by the time they were deployed to operations because their utility was overcome by events.

Keeping this in mind, Bauer developed 15 principles, which he applied to the GeoQ design. Central to these guidelines are ensuring the tool is user-focused and makes their job easier, faster and more accurate.

Like other GitHub ventures, NGA’s servers do not host the tool. Rather, it is available through the World Wide Web, and any organization or user can obtain the code and host the application or modify it as needed. This helps transcend many of the legal and policy issues that DoD and IC agencies must follow, according to Bauer.

Bauer believes this offers enormous potential for non-governmental organizations, academia and industry, and even other federal agencies with limited budgets.

Because GeoQ can be applied to many different kinds of events anywhere in the world, Bauer asserts that far-reaching international organizations could leverage NGA’s open source code and lessons learned to improve their respective services.

Bauer presented this idea at the 2015 Humanitarian Open Street Team (HOT) Map Summit  in May 2015. Held in Washington, DC, the event was attended by representatives from around the world seeking to make open geographic data more available to improve those living in disaster-prone areas.

At the summit, Bauer reached out to traditional and potential NGA customers like the Peace Corps and Doctors Without Borders to describe GeoQ’s integrated benefits with Open Street Maps.

Bauer asserts GeoQ and similar tools brokered by the appropriate sponsor and connected at the data layer will be able to support these prospective partners in ways the IC and DoD have not in the past.

Bauer is engaging all levels of government, industry, academia, foreign partners and others through understanding, ideas, insight and lessons learned.

“Anyone who wants to participate in GeoQ is invited to join us on GitHub to develop code that better meets mission needs or pull our code independently and anonymously as you wish,” welcomed Bauer.

More information on GeoQ is available on the GeoQ webpage .