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Thursday, Jun 21, 2018
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For Tampa satellite firm, business is looking down

From the eighth floor of a Tampa office building with a stunning view of Derek Jeter’s sprawling manse jutting out onto Old Hillsborough Bay, a company that owns five satellites — and is about to launch a sixth — helps predict the future.

Officials at DigitalGlobe can’t tell you how many runs the Yankee shortstop will drive in this year. But among its many clients and projects, the company uses its satellites and geospatial intelligence to help George Clooney stave off slaughter in the Sudan and track elephant poachers in Africa, predict the presence of sinkholes in Pasco County and provide support to U.S. Special Operations Command at MacDill Air Force Base.

Because of all that, DigitalGlobe, which gained international fame with technology allowing users around the world to help search for a missing airliner, has been able to do what is increasingly difficult for defense contractors these days: increase business and, as a result, staff.

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The Tampa office dates to 2006, when it was a company called SPADAC. That was purchased by GeoEye, which was purchased by DigitalGlobe, a Longmont, Colorado-headquartered provider of “commercial high-resolution earth observation and advanced geospatial solutions,” according to its website.

“The company started in Tampa with two people,” says Alex Dunmire, a retired Navy intelligence officer who now serves as DigitalGlobe’s senior director of analytical services. “I was No. 2. Now we’re up to about 55.”

That includes a couple dozen people working on classified contracts at several commands at MacDill, Dunmire says.

The buildup, says Dunmire, has come even though the Pentagon is slashing defense spending. DigitalGlobe is not immune to the cuts.

Last year, the company lost a contract it had with U.S. Central Command, also headquartered at MacDill, and with it 16 employees, Dunmire says.

To keep that from happening, DigitalGlobe is diversifying, says Dunmire, increasing its work with commercial clients and nongovernmental organizations.

The walls in the company’s office at 601 Bayshore Blvd. are adorned with items you won’t find in many other places.

There are satellite pictures of the world’s tallest building, in Dubai, and of a lagoon in Bora Bora — taken, of course, by the company’s birds. And there are charts and maps like one titled “The Ethnic Groups of Indonesia,” offering a wealth of information about regional culture, religion and language.

In a big room called “the bullpen,” a dozen or so social and geospatial scientists, archaeologists, anthropologists and what Dunmire says are “lots of other smart people” sit at desks, culling information from maps, academic references, news websites and many other sources to determine where people are in a given area and what they are doing. They may drill as deep as who is speaking what dialect of which language in the Sahel region of Africa. Or look at which buildings on a satellite image of Central America appear to be out of place (which ultimately led to the discovery of the compound of a drug kingpin).

A mix of old military types like Dunmire, midcareerists and people fresh out of college, they are developing different sets of “datapoints” that will either be combined with satellite imagery or confirmed by it using the company-designed Signature Analyst software, Dunmire says. The goal is to provide predictive analysis, says Dunmire, helping clients — be it Socom, nongovernmental organizations or even a county government — figure out the best way to apply scarce resources.

To explain to a novice how it all works, Dunmire borrows a reporter’s notebook and draws out his version of a map of Hillsborough County.

“Here is a weird example,” he says. “Say you come to me and ask, ‘Alex, where is a good place to put a Starbucks in the county?’ What our process does, it allows you, with methodology refined over the years, to find out what’s important to know to figure out where a successful Starbucks should be.”

He starts drawing stars on the paper.

“These are the successful Starbucks,” he says. “Then we take all different kinds of geospatial data — roads, demographics, ethnicity, language, stoplights, property values, even things like accident reports — anything that you can find.”

By examining the data at successful Starbucks sites, Dunmire says, DigitalGlobe can help predict other areas that would be successful.

That, in essence, is how it translated to tracking elephants in the Democratic Republic of Congo and a terrorist group in the Sudans.

Teaming up with George Clooney’s Enough Project, DigitalGlobe analysts in Tampa are helping rangers 7,400 miles away at the Garamba National Park track poachers who are killing elephants for their tusks.

The Enough Project is a private group battling crimes against humanity.

The DigitalGlobe analysts were given locations and dates relating to elephant remains, data from tracking collars placed on elephants collected from 2011 to last year, ranger patrol routes and Lord’s Resistance Army camp locations.

Plugging in all the numbers and looking at the satellite images, the analysts were able to narrow a patrol area to about 2 percent of the 4,600-square-mile park, according to DigitalGlobe.

“Instead of looking at the whole area, there are specific areas you can drill down to,” Dunmire says. That allows the rangers to focus their limited resources.

The same process is in play with Clooney’s Satellite Sentinel project to halt the slaying of civilians in South Sudan, Dunmire says.

“So when a village is attacked, we work with Satellite Sentinel and Enough Project to show where the attacks came from, what routes were taken, who was behind it,” Dunmire says.

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Those working with Clooney say DigitalGlobe’s assistance has been pivotal in Sudan.

“DigitalGlobe has been an essential partner with the Enough Project in the Satellite Sentinel Project,” says Mark Quarterman, director of research and programs at the Enough Project. “It has supplied satellite imagery and expert analysis that complemented Enough’s knowledge of the conflict in Sudan and information from contacts in the areas suffering from the fighting. Together, we have provided direct evidence of attacks on civilians by Sudanese government forces and their allies, bearing witness to potential war crimes and crimes against humanity.”

Quarterman says the elephant project is relatively new. It is too early to gauge its success and whether it can close a bloody loop that’s seen a terrorist group raise money by killing elephants, he says.

“DigitalGlobe has “applied technological tools at its disposal to assist park rangers to anticipate the movements of elephants and poachers to prevent the killing of elephants,” he says. “Considerable numbers of the elephants poached in Garamba are done so by armed groups such as the Lord’s Resistance Army, which use the funds from selling ivory to finance their ongoing attacks on civilians.”

On Aug. 13, DigitalGlobe is scheduled to launch its sixth satellite, World View 3, from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

What Dunmire likes to call the “new bird” will also be the company’s most advanced, providing the highest-resolution images. Just in time for the launch, the company last week received some good news from the Commerce Department.

Its application to sell commercial customers higher-resolutions images was approved.

Even the Director of National Intelligence thinks that’s a boon for business.

During a question-and-answer session after a 24-minute speech at the Tampa Convention Center this year, DNI boss James Clapper raised the hopes of companies such as DigitalGlobe that have their own satellites and sell imagery.

The intelligence community reached a consensus “on allowing higher resolution for commercial providers, and we’ve submitted our recommendation to the White House,” Clapper told a packed ballroom on the opening day of the GEOINT 2013* symposium.

“As far as I am concerned,” Clapper told the audience, the approval granted by Commerce just a few months later “certainly bodes well for the industry.”

In layman’s terms, Steven Ward, DigitalGlobe’s senior geospatial scientist, said the images the company will now be able to sell will be sharp enough to compete with those taken from an airplane at less cost.

How much sharper will the new, higher-resolution images be? “It will be a clearer image,” he says. “It’s like taking a picture with an iPhone versus taking a picture with a nice digital camera with a little better zoom.”

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Dunmire can’t say much about the contract with Socom, other than that DigitalGlobe works with the command’s directorate of intelligence doing “predictive geospatial analysis.”

For him, working at MacDill Air Force Base as the project manager is deeply personal.

On Sept. 11, 2001, he was starting a new job in Washington at the Defense Intelligence Agency.

“I was over in DIA headquarters when the first plane hit the World Trade Center,” says Dunmire, who recalls driving by the Pentagon and seeing the world’s largest office building on fire.

The next day, Dunmire, like so many others, began pulling 18-hour days there. About a week later, a list was released of the Navy personnel killed in the Pentagon when the plane hit.

On the list was a good friend, Lt. Cmdr. Otis “Vince” Tolbert, who had been a leader at U.S. Central Command’s Joint Intelligence Center’s collection management division at MacDill during the mid-1990s.

In August 2009, Centcom’s new joint intelligence center was opened. The four-story, 270,000-square-foot building was named for Tolbert and is known by most people as “The Vince.”

It is a building Dunmire sees almost daily.

“When I see The Vince, I think about Vince. And that is what motivates me to support our efforts,” Dunmire says. “He was a great guy.”


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Twitter: @haltman

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