Advancing geomatics tradecraft and education in the public interest

August 2, 2023  - By
Image: stock_colors/E+/Getty Images

Image: stock_colors/E+/Getty Images

Anyone keeping up with my columns may know that I have been highlighting the geodesy crisis and programs that advance the science of geodesy (July 2020, November 2022, December 2022, and March 2023). On June 13-15, I had the privilege of participating in a working group event convened by the Geomatics Emerging Scientist Consortium for Education, Research and Capabilities Enhancement (GEO-ESCON). The GEO-ESCON, established in the summer of 2022, is a multi-university consortium serving the need of the Office of Geomatics of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) for personnel with advanced geomatics expertise, a sustainable pipeline of critical geomatics skillsets, and capabilities enhancement in geomatics and other applied sciences. The 15-member consortium is led by The Ohio State University (OSU), which serves as GEO-ESCON’s managing higher education partner.

GEO-ESCON is part of OSU’s Battelle Center for Science, Engineering and Public Policy in the John Glenn College of Public Affairs. As stated in an OSU press release, OSU was selected for its role with GEO-ESCON because of its longstanding commitment to geodetic education — its collegiate geodetic program is the oldest in the United States and offers undergraduate and graduate degrees in both geodetic engineering and geodetic science.

OSU is home to more than 80 researchers across six colleges who focus on core research and development aspects of geospatial science and technology, including geodesy, remote sensing, photogrammetry, GIS, positioning, navigation, and timing (PNT), computer vision, mobility, smart cities, data analytics, autonomous systems (UAS, UUS and UGV), medical imaging, and precision agriculture.

The GEO-ESCON consortium is designed to create a geographically distributed, multi-disciplinary network of universities to educate the federal geomatics workforce at advanced levels and provide opportunities for applied research and technology development. Higher education institutions are invited to participate in GEO-ESCON based on their capabilities in geomatics. As of July 18, the consortium has 15 members and two additional universities are in the process of becoming members. Click here for all GEO-ESCON member institutions.

GEO-ESCON convened the June Geomatics Challenge Working Group to discuss pressing geomatics challenges and discuss potential solutions. The event facilitated dialogue between representatives from NGA’s Office of Geomatics and academic attendees on geomatics challenges of national priority that could result in actionable proposals to address the challenges. The working group enables representatives of GEO-ESCON member institutions to gain a deeper understanding of NGA’s geomatics priorities, build relationships with NGA leaders, collaborate with colleagues at other institutions, and provide recommendations to GEO-ESCON and the NGA. There were 47 academic participants representing 14 universities.

NGA aims to encourage institutions with varied expertise to propose solutions that achieve greater outcomes through collaborative work. The agency provided six broad categories of geomatics challenges for discussion. See the image below for the categories of interest.

Proposals submitted in response to the June Geomatics Challenges Request for Proposals (RFP) will be eligible for funding consideration and selected activities are expected to be awarded before the fall semester.

The word “tradecraft” in the categories of interest was intriguing. In general, tradecraft refers to the skills, techniques, and practices used by professionals in various fields to carry out their work effectively and discreetly. During World War II, however, the term became associated with spy work and now is mostly used to refer to the techniques and procedures of espionage. NGA is concerned with the dramatic drop in the number of individuals pursuing careers in geodesy — that is, the geodesy crisis in the United States.

Event attendees were asked to prioritize the topic(s) that most interested them, so that they could join a small group on the topic to identify issues, and discuss approaches, solutions, and potential actions for the challenge. Several universities had multiple representatives, so they selected different topics aligned with their individual interest.

The meeting had professional workshop facilitators, technical advisors, NGA subject matter experts (SME), and student recorders. Facilitators encouraged the full participation of all attendees to elicit a range of viewpoints and generate previously unconsidered solutions that could bridge differences in approach — resulting in solutions that were supported by many.

The small groups aligned with a specific challenge utilized the expertise of technical advisors — experts in geomatics or related fields with considerable industry, government, and/or research experience — who supported the development and maturation of proposed Geomatics Challenge solutions. The role of technical advisors was to work with the other leaders in their small group to encourage the full participation of all attendees and mentor the groups toward the generation of novel solutions. I was a technical advisor for the “unified height” topic.

NGA’s SME participated in the working group activities and provided additional context for the individual topics, and other unclassified details related to the Geomatics Challenges.

To capture the discussions at the group meetings, student recorders took detailed notes during the small group discussions. The recorders were graduate students — primarily in geodesy or other STEM fields — and they did an excellent job of capturing the discussion, action items, and potential proposals.

As previously stated, individuals self-selected the topic that interested them but over the course of the three-day meeting individuals were asked to participate in other Geomatics Challenge small groups to provide constructive critiques to produce the best research projects. This was an excellent concept that, in my opinion, helped to improve draft proposals and identify new collaborative projects.

As an example, the need for a unified height system that defines, assesses and correlates all height measurement processes became very evident when individuals participating in the “remote sensing and geophysics” topic engaged with the “unified height” topic members. This joint-topic group meeting helped form new partnerships and formulate new proposals.

The GEO-ESCON and the participating institutions have an ambitious schedule of submitting and awarding the grant proposals before the end of the government’s fiscal year. That said, the participants appeared to be up to the challenge and prepared to make it happen. For obvious reasons, I cannot describe any of the projects discussed, but I will highlight them when they become available for public distribution.

For now, I would like to state that GEO-ESCON is a great program, and it supports the advancement of the science of geodesy and geomatics. I believe that integrated and collaborative organizations are necessary for the successful development of geospatial products and services, and GEO-ESCON is the epitome of this concept. If you believe your institution would benefit from joining this consortium, I encourage you to visit their website to learn more or reach out directly to GEO-ESCON’s team ( Click here to subscribe and stay up to date on GEO-ESCON news.

In conclusion, as in my previous column, I would like to remind everyone that geodesy is the foundation for all geospatial products and services.

About the Author: David B. Zilkoski

David B. Zilkoski has worked in the fields of geodesy and surveying for more than 40 years. He was employed by National Geodetic Survey (NGS) from 1974 to 2009. He served as NGS director from October 2005 to January 2009. During his career with NGS, he conducted applied GPS research to evaluate and develop guidelines for using new technology to generate geospatial products. Based on instrument testing, he developed and verified new specifications and procedures to estimate classically derived, as well as GPS-derived, orthometric heights. Now retired from government service, as a consultant he provides technical guidance on GNSS surveys; computes crustal movement rates using GPS and leveling data; and leads training sessions on guidelines for estimating GPS-derived heights, procedures for performing leveling network adjustments, the use of ArcGIS for analyses of adjustment data and results, and the proper procedures to follow when estimating crustal movement rates using geodetic leveling data. Contact him at