Consensus Creative

Whoever assumes data analysis to be dry and dull has never met this group. Whether reading maps, normalizing data, or filling in the blanks of AI and ML, these GEOINT professionals find joy and intellectual stimulation in every workday.


It seems reasonable to assume that anyone who lived through a “Golden Age” probably didn’t realize it at the time. After all, it’s typically only after an era has passed that history affords the vantage point from which to assign it a certain theme. With that historical perspective in mind, the participants of Wednesday’s “GEOINT’s Golden Age of Creativity” session took the very unique (and ironic) opportunity to vet the validity of their panel’s featured topic.

If, like Vasit Sagan, associate professor and faculty director at Saint Louis University’s Geospatial Institute, you consider the GEOINT space to be still in its infancy, it’s probably fair to deduce that yes, the decades immediately preceding and following 2021 may come to represent GEOINT’s most creative time. Consider all the unknowns, uncertainties, and trials and errors yet to be explored—and all the brain power it will take to explore them. “We are still working on creating training data sets to build trustworthy artificial intelligence (AI); we are still working on the quality of data sets; and we are still grappling with questions of ethics,” Sagan said.

“I don’t know if we’re in the Golden Age of Creativity, but I definitely think we are in a Golden Age of Creativity,” said Sean Hannan, industry and innovation lead for NGA’s Analytic Technology and Tradecraft Group. Hannan finds data analysis to be the most creative part of his job—particularly the analyzing, packaging, and contextualizing of raw data. “There’s so much data out there, so much information,” he said. “Being able to put it into context in a way that compels someone to understand what you’re trying to tell them? That’s it for me.”

Sagan concurred. “I double-down on the importance of context. Data should be data. But when I use that data against different contexts, that’s where curiosity comes into play—and curiosity is what drives creativity.”

Jeff Dawley, Esri’s director of intelligence business management, chose the GEOINT field after a childhood spent daydreaming over maps. “What I think is so interesting about maps is they are the only paradigm that shows where you’ve been, where you are, and where you’re going—all on the same machine,” he said.

That imaginative foundation set the scene for a more sophisticated application of maps: problem solving. Dawley found that, too, to be incredibly creative. “I love taking the geographic approach, looking at things from a spatial perspective and trying to solve the problem from there,” he said. “That’s where I think people in this field can be more creative than anyone else; because they think about things differently.”

Today Dawley finds creativity to be an absolute must when he’s negotiating for change in the workplace. Whether addressing a chronic problem or selling a new idea, he finds his only chance for success comes from a creative approach. “I’d suggest two things to anyone trying to be creative, both of them psychological,” Dawley said. “One is change management — understanding what the problem is; what needs to happen; what can be done in a better way; and who you have to influence.”

“The other component,” Dawley continued, “is emotional intelligence. How do you connect with people; what’s their love language; if you’re going to your boss, what are their interests?”

Playing the occasional role of devil’s advocate, panel moderator Carmen Medina, owner of MedinAnalytics, asked the group whether they found any technology to be a creativity killer. (She offered up her personal distaste for Power Point as a prime example.)

Alas, not even the dreaded slide presentation could quell this group’s imagination. “There are some limitations, of course,” Hannan said. “We have license issues with trying to put certain tools on our workstations; we have restrictions around the data we can access and share. But being able to navigate around all of that is in itself a creative challenge. There’s an art to it.”

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