The Military’s New Challenge: Knowing What They Know by Chris Young

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View Original / HBR

DeM Banter: Welcome to the information or maybe the social age. Geospatial and cultural awareness, obvious in today’s day and age…but so tough to train to and assign forces with said skills. There are still many senior leaders that don’t understand and frankly don’t care about the power of social media. The concept of overlaying social media on traditional intel is a definite art…but not really what the article addresses, more about big data…and what to do with it.

For soldiers in the field, immediate access to — and accurate interpretation of — real-time imagery and intelligence gathered by drones, satellites, or ground-based sensors can be a matter of life and death.

Capitalizing on big data is a high priority for the U.S. military. The rise in unmanned systems and the military’s increasing reliance on intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance technologies have buried today’s soldiers and defense professionals under a mountain of information. Since 9/11 alone, the amount of data captured by drones and other surveillance technology has increased a jaw-dropping 1,600%. And this avalanche of data will only increase, since the number of computing devices the Armed Services have in play is expected to double by 2020.

Rising to this challenge, defense companies have made major strides in image processing and analysis. Companies like our own have deployed technologies and software solutions for troops in Afghanistan that help soldiers quickly make sense of imagery and video feeds captured by unmanned systems flying overhead. And we are working on enhancing such technologies to decrease the lag time between gathering and interpreting data.

But even though advances are being made, the needs of military professionals are evolving as fast, if not faster, than the current pace of technology development can meet them. Keeping up will require defense companies to look beyond their own industry at the technology landscape as a whole.

To address soldiers’ and diplomats’ increasing need to understand both the cultural and geospatial context of their missions, for instance, defense companies need to become more adept at handling non-traditional sources of data like social media. They need to find ways to quickly process this vast amount of information, isolate the most credible pieces of content, and quickly incorporate them with traditional intelligence sources like video, overhead imagery, and maps. Defense contractors haven’t had much experience tying rapid social media-processing tools into their existing systems, but they can draw lessons from other sectors, in which significant technological advancements have been made. A great case in point is social analytics start-up BackType’s real-time streaming and analytics tool.

The defense industry would also do well to learn from the rapid development processes that have made the technology sector so agile operationally. Gone are the days when the Department of Defense was willing and able to routinely purchase high-risk concepts that exist only in PowerPoint presentations. With the slowdown in federal defense spending, government customers are looking for solutions that are mature and ready to be used in the field.

What’s more, with government budgets under pressure, defense companies developing big data applications cannot count on sizeable government incentives. That means they will need to assume greater risk than in the past, not only in seeking to fulfill the military’s current needs but also in strategically investing in the future. For companies like our own, with already established data collection and processing businesses, the market opportunity makes the investment worth it and critical to long-term success.

Defense providers that are able to meet this challenge will not only be successful with their traditional defense customers, they will also find opportunities beyond the Pentagon. The rapid-data-processing and analysis tools defense companies are developing to enable soldiers to quickly receive drone-captured intelligence could, for instance, be applied to the health care and emergency response fields. This technology could allow health professionals across different regions to pick up on trends and more quickly respond to medical epidemics such as West Nile Virus and Swine Flu. Real-time image processing could also be tailored to help disaster response teams save more lives and better identify damage during hurricanes and other episodes of severe weather. The pay-off cannot be understated.

The growing confluence of big data and national defense comes during a period of industry uncertainty and a shift in U.S. defense strategy and thinking. But just as the military is evolving to meet the demands of the 21st century, the defense industry must also adapt. This means being more nimble, more focused on anticipating customers’ needs, and more attuned to developments in other sectors confronting big data. In the future, the government will be equipping soldiers with better and faster tools to prevail on a networked battlefield and, increasingly, across a hostile cyber landscape. These same applications also have the potential to change the way we interact with data on a daily basis. The defense industry has the opportunity and responsibility — not only to its customers, but also to shareholders and employees — to take the lead and address this challenge.

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