Your behavior appears to be a little unusual. Please verify that you are not a bot.

GeoHuntsville 2017: Huntsville and NGA partner to advance the tradecraft

March 8, 2017  - By

Last year, Huntsville, Alabama, was the site of the National Geospatial-intelligence Agency’s (NGA’s) first HackAThon — just one outreach event to take advantage of talent and skills outside the agency that could enrich the efforts of NGA.

The HackAThon was an initiative of both previous NGA Director Letitia Long and current Director Robert Cardillo. It was so successful that NGA had four other HackAThons in major cities, including New York, Boston and San Francisco, with a repeat this year in Huntsville.

The weekend HackAThon led up to the GeoHuntsville Summit, a geospatial conference that has been an annual event for more than 10 years. The conference was opened by long-time geospatial professional and advocate Chris Johnson and Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle, who both have had supportive connections with NGA. The mayor highlighted the fact that for its size, Huntsville was somewhat unique in that it had a higher per capita population of Ph.D.s and engineers than any other city in the U.S. That same wealth of talent extends into geospatial, with more than 70 geospatial firms in the area.

New GeoHuntsville Director


GeoHuntsville Executive Director Jorge Garcia

GeoHuntsville Executive Director Jorge Garcia

Chris then introduced Jorge Garcia, who is taking over as the GeoHuntsville Executive Director. Jorge retired from the FBI, where he served as assistant director, Directorate of Intelligence. His 16-year military career includes combat tours in Iraq, which preceded 21 years with the FBI, and later intelligence work in Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Jorge highlighted the goals of GeoHuntsville that were his marching orders, including the advancement of geospatial tools to prevent and/or mitigate natural and manmade threats to the region while fostering research, development and education of the geospatial tradecraft.

Presentation Highlights


Ken Graham, Director, Platform Services Division, National Geospatial Intelligence Agency (NGA)

As a sponsor of the event, and active part of GeoHuntsville, there was heavy participation by NGA staff, including NGA recruiters eyeing the 15,000-plus geospatial talent located in Huntsville. Ken discussed the success of the HackAThons and other outreach efforts developed by NGA’s Enterprise Innovation Office. Its focus on unclassified open source tools is changing the culture away from “that’s the way we always did it” to completely out-of-the-box thinking including “Shark Tank”-like evaluations of tools developed outside the agency, without the very slow and expensive procurement methods that took years to place new innovations into the hand of NGA users.

Ken explained that rather than NGA developing exact descriptions and specification of what the agency wanted, it instead describes a problem or need. The NGA then leaves it up to the creativity of outside developers to think of new approaches and solutions to the problem.

Most of the solutions can be created in unclassified environments and then tested by NGA staff using real agency data. In many cases, this negates the need for outside developers to have TS/SCI clearances, which are expensive and time consuming to obtain. The NGA goal, which sounds very ambitious, is to be able to get new tools into the hands of users less than 24 hours after a problem is identified!

Dan Koch, Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL)

Koch demonstrated a system developed by ORNL that integrates various GIS tools in one easy-to-use environment called the Incident Management Preparedness Coordination Tool Kit, or IMPACT for short. This system was initially designed for EOD use during potential bombing events, but the system also proved useful to a broad audience of first responders.

The system can be used with web services, but also can operate in a disconnected environment, since much of the needed data resides locally. IMPACT includes traditional GIS tools and external data access augmented with bomb-blast patterns, crowd evacuation animations, plume models, contagion spread simulations, active shooter view-sheds, antenna placements and patterns and real-time live data feeds.

The afternoon breakout sessions included a detailed demonstration of IMPACT. You can see a demonstration of IMPACT in this youtube video. Some of the attendees mentioned that the system would be even nicer if it used the new CESIUM WebGL virtual globe to show 3D data.

Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT)

J.D. D’Arville of the ALDOT explained ALDOT’s use of off-the-shelf UAVs (DJI Phantom 3s and  4s) with eMotion software and senseFly S.O.D.A. cameras to capture very high-quality aerial imagery in multiple spectrums (see the senseFly video.} The imagery was then assembled into metric 3D models using Pix4D that permitted them to monitor contractor work. One early success was discovering poor “cut and fill” procedures by a contractor.

John Russell of ALDOT then explained survey data collection using what I believe is very disruptive technology —AeroPoints, developed by Propeller Aero. AeroPoints is a very accurate automated system that uses UAVs with innovative ground control pads to capture 2-cm-accurate aerial imagery. See a video of it in operation here.

Mike Botts, OpenSensorHub

Botts presented the latest examples of work he and his colleagues have done to advance the practical use of remote sensors. He pointed out a key advantage of working with GeoHuntsville, in that both developers and end users had the ability to learn from each other.

One example he cited was showing the display of live UAV video on a static map to a participating local fire chief. Since the video was related to the geography but not accurately geo-referenced, the fire chief said that it wouldn’t be useful. He explained that trying to figure out exactly what he was looking at and from which direction would be too time-consuming and potentially confusing. Botts and his staff took the problem in hand and developed a simple way to place the video footprint in the exact location and orientation that was spatially correct. This had been done before with high-end military systems, but never so simply and effectively.


There were also several presentations by UAV users and the UAV users’ group that addressed both hardware and software. However, the UAV topics that still dominate the discussions are the administrative and legal issues that still cloud the use of the technology.

These were only the highlights of the conference. Although lasting one day, this was an information-rich conference worth attending.

This article is tagged with , , , and posted in GeoIntelligence Insider, Opinions

About the Author: Art Kalinski

A career Naval Officer, Art Kalinski established the Navy’s first geographic information system (GIS) in the mid-1980s. Completing a post-graduate degree in GIS at the University of North Carolina, he was the Atlanta Regional Commission GIS Manager from 1993 to 2007. He pioneered the use of oblique imagery for public safety and participated in numerous disaster-response actions including GIS/imagery support of the National Guard during Hurricane Katrina; the Urban Area Security Initiative; a NIMS-based field exercise in Atlanta; and a fully manned hardware-equipped joint disaster response exercise in New York City. Kalinski retired early from ARC to join Pictometry International to direct military projects using oblique imagery, which led to him joining SPGlobal Inc. He has written articles for numerous geospatial publications, and authors a monthly column for the GeoIntelligence Insider e-newsletter aimed at federal GIS users.