Sunday, November 06, 2011

DigitalGlobe FirstWatch

I'm a self-admitted geospatial junky. I've always had a thing for maps, aerial photos, and satellite imagery and feel that anyone practicing humanitarian safety and security should have a basic grasp of common geospatial tools such as GPS, Google Earth and ArcGIS (as well as old-fashioned paper maps and a compass).

One of the big players in the commercial geospatial business is DigitalGlobe. The US-based company has a number of its own high-resolution imaging satellites in orbit; if you've ever used Google Earth, you've seen some of their satellite imagery.

DigitalGlobe has long worked with the humanitarian community, providing digital images for relief and emergency work through its FirstLook service. A couple of weeks ago the company added a new service to its product portfolio called FirstWatch.

FirstWatch provides rapid analysis and reporting. When a natural or man-made disaster occurs, DigitalGlobe begins collecting new imagery from the affected region. The company's analysts then review the images, and within hours after the event occurs, produce reports that give an initial and accurate sense of the disaster's magnitude. Evidence of structural damage, infrastructure failures, changes to the topography, flood water depth and other potentially life-threatening elements are identified. This information allows organizations and agencies to quickly assess the situation and formulate response strategies and plans.

I can't emphasize enough the importance of good analysis. You can have the most up-to-date, real-time imagery available, but if you don't know how to fully interpret what you see, its value is greatly diminished. Imagery analysis is both an art and a science, and following a large-scale, critical event, you want a trained analyst examining the data and telling you what it means so you can make good decisions. It's nice to see DigitalGlobe offering this capability, as this skill set is typically not found within NGOs.

Most humanitarian organizations are averse to using the term "intelligence" because of perceived connotations with government spying. Semantic sensitivity aside, if you start using satellite imagery you'll undoubtedly run across the acronym GEOINT. That stands for "geospatial intelligence," which is a hot buzzword in government and corporate circles these days.



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