March 19, 2003

Iraq's renewal: U.S. using tools that could have been free

- by Tina Gasperson -
The U.S. State Department has a plan for the renewal of post-Hussein Iraq, called the "Future of Iraq" project. In fact, they're already making deals with technology companies for tools to help in that renewal. But one of the geographical imaging tools they picked up from an outside vendor has a free counterpart created by the U.S. Army. It's called GRASS.The government is consulting with a group of "independent" Iraqis and certain political groups to draw up plans for what will take place after Saddam Hussein, the president of Iraq, is removed from power. They're looking after utilities, justice, the economy, media, defense, education, and more, including infrastructure, and oil/energy.

These "working groups" have been meeting over the last six to eight months in closed proceedings to determine the best course of action.

Yesterday, a company called Space Imaging announced that the State Dept. had selected the company's "GeoBook" geographic information system (GIS) for use by the working groups as they study the land of Iraq and try to decide where new infrastructure like pipelines, bridges, and roads would need to be built or existing services may need to be repaired.

The GeoBook software runs on Windows as a proprietary product. It has already been used successfully for urban planning and engineering, and Space Imaging was able to "respond quickly" to the government's need for the product. The software uses high-resolution photographic images of the earth, taken by satellites, and allows users to overlay grids of infrastructure using existing data which can then be edited and manipulated.

Yet, the government's own GIS software, under continuous development since 1982, when the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers' Construction Engineering Research Laboratory set out to find GIS software that could help the corps conduct environmental research and land management in the wake of the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, was passed over - or simply overlooked - by the State Dept.

Back in the early 80's, there wasn't much in the way of functional GIS software, so a guy named Bill Goran of the Construction Research Engineering Laboratory (CERL) decided to hire some programmers and make his own GIS system, which became GRASS.

GRASS is still going strong today, with a worldwide development team and bustling activity on the mailing list. The software is ported to Microsoft Windows, and it is available at no cost.

The one disadvantage that GRASS may have to GeoBook is that Space Imaging owns its own satellite called IKONOS. They launched it in 1999 and since then it has been cranking out proprietary images by the thousands.

Even so, it's not too hard to get access to low resolution satellite images, but the really good stuff isn't usually free. Yet, the United States government is likely to have the ability to use imagery from its own satellites.

Part of the answer to the question raised by this information may be that the Future of Iraq project is composed almost entirely of civilians - civilians who have need of unclassified tools with which to develop suggestions and prototypes. Space Imaging is specific: the GeoBook software is completely unclassified, for civilian use only.

Yet, while some of the imagery produced by satellites originating from the National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA) is classified, much is not. Fairly high resolution images are available for immediate download (up to 51 megabytes) or to order for a fee.

But recently, it looks like NIMA is backing away from producing its own satellite images to some extent, and instead beginning to rely on... Space Imaging and its commercial satellite.

In any case, the government could have conceivably put together a completely free, unclassified solution for its State Dept. working groups to use in developing a renewal plan for Iraq. Whether it just didn't or whether Space Imaging's recent contract with the Pentagon (why?) had something to do with it, or there was some other pressing need to use an outside vendor, remains a mystery.

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