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Joseph Fontanella

Geospatial Center Drills Down On GIS For The Army


Joseph Fontanella, Army Geospatial Center director and Army Geospatial Information Officer.

Army Geospatial Center Director Joseph Fontanella is responsible for providing geospatial expertise across multiple customer communities and technical disciplines ranging from operations, intelligence and acquisition to research and development, and modeling and simulation. The center he oversees does this by providing topographic, geodetic and geospatial information to the Army and the larger Department of Defense. The center employs both forward-deployed and reach-back elements. As the Army’s Geospatial Information Officer, Fontanella is responsible for collecting and validating geospatial requirements, formulating policy, setting priorities and securing resources in the support of the Army Geospatial Enterprise.

C4ISRNET: What is the mission of the Army Geospatial Center [AGC]?

Fontanella: Our job is to provide timely, accurate [geospatial intelligence] products and services within the framework of functional areas that support the Army Geospatial Enterprise: warfighter support, systems acquisition and program management, enterprise development and acquisition support. We also provide support in ways the national agency can’t, and we have our own collection capability. We’re a source of geospatial expertise to the Defense Department, FBI and others. We also set standards and enforce compliance, but the overriding goal is to enhance the ability of the commander to map his or her battle space.

C4ISRNET: How close are we to a common operating environment?

Fontanella: We’re coordinating with NGA [National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency] and supporting studies that optimize technology investments as they relate to common overlays, formats and ways of depicting 3-D data. We’re trying to build a ground war fighter geospatial data model. The endgame is to ensure that soldiers have the most timely and reliable information that we can bring to them, in a format that’s useful to them. If you look at how GIS [geographic information systems] technology has become more user-friendly over the years — we can take some of the credit for that because we have some ability to shape industry behavior. We’ve been pushing for open standards, and for the elimination of stovepiped systems with proprietary formats. The goal, of course, is to become platform agnostic systemwide.

C4ISRNET: Describe changes in the way geospatial data is accessed.

Fontanella: The challenge has always been how do you move bulk data into devices with limited capacity, and what we’re seeing is a shift from stand-alone applications to more open access to Web services. The goal is something that already exists on the civil side, like using an Android or an iPhone to navigate to a retail store. The data is pulled into the phone through an application that lives there, but the bulk of the data resides in the cloud. Ultimately the application and the data will have to reside on the device.

C4ISRNET: Tell us about AGC’s work in the discipline of human geography.

Fontanella: [Our] research and development is focused on human social and cultural dynamics, and how they influence what’s going to happen in a given area. In Afghanistan, we’re looking at models for predictive analysis, and in many cases the map tells a story that clarifies what’s going on in a specific area when you monitor activities in places over time. We are seeing an explosion of data. Operational graphics, map-layer data, feature data, thematic data. The challenge is standardizing on common formats and data standards.

C4ISRNET: Describe recent mapping initiatives in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Fontanella: The Army has discovered that in a counterinsurgency environment in built-up areas, the standard 1:50,000 map scale is inefficient for combat operations. So we went to Afghanistan and Iraq and collected high-resolution, 3-D data to produce geospatial products with an accuracy of one meter. This was at a time when NGA was working in the 30-meter range. We mapped roughly two-thirds of Afghanistan and most of the built-up areas and [main supply roads] in Iraq. High-res 3-D LIDAR [light detection and ranging] data is absolutely essential to urban operations. There’s a worldwide need for this type of data that’s not being met. If you want to build nations and bring services to people, or build any kind of representative democracy, you have to know where and how people live. It all begins with a map.