montgomery-kevinDr. Kevin Montgomery was working at NASA when he had his “A-ha” moment. During a trip to Hawaii, he visited a remote valley on the island of Kauai, accessible only by helicopter. As he stood in the wild of that pristine valley, home to a range of exotic species and endangered plants, gazing up at a 1,000 year-old temple, he had a realization: “We don’t have the right to let something that old die.”

When Montgomery returned to his job at NASA, he couldn’t stop pestering his colleague about the technology they were working on together. What was it for? What was the purpose of all this? Eventually, he convinced him to take the same helicopter ride he had. “Now he’s a big environmentalist,” he smiles.

Eventually, Montgomery moved to Stanford, where he is now the Senior Research Engineer at the Center for Innovation and Global Health. That visit, though, has stayed with him, driving him to oversee the construction of the world’s most advanced data visualization portal, Collaborate.org, which he unveiled Wednesday morning in Laguna Beach at the Seattle-based Future in Review conference. (Disclosure: Future in Review CEO Mark Anderson is the author’s father.)

With 2.2 million layers of data, Collaborate.org allows users to see geographically located real-time visual information of all kinds: All major RSS feeds, all inbound and outbound air traffic in the U.S., college degrees by nation, real time Tweets as they’re sent, live television, NASA satellite inputs, satellite imagery, aerial photography, economic factors around the world, tracking of air and water quality. The list goes on. Two point two million times. It’s the mission control Captain Planet never had.

Or, as Montgomery puts it, “geospatial analytics for quantitative strategic situational awareness.” Features like internal document sharing, video conferencing, task lists and calendars are just add-ons.

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The Collaborate.org view of the world. Photo: Collaborate.org.

So far, Collaborate.org has grown organically, demand for its modeling capabilities driven by government contracts. NASA, the NSF, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Defense and several environmental groups —among others — have all signed on for projects. When I met with Montgomery, he and his team were fresh off a teleconference with a collection of top U.S. officials in infectious disease. Another group of government officials is using Collaborate.org to model global futures.

“A bunch of very smart people within the government is looking at what the future holds, where the world is headed and how to have positive outcomes,” Montgomery says.

Fittingly, the state of Hawaii is also using Collaborate for their Exemplary State Initiative, which monitors environmental and conservation efforts, and provides early identification of flash floods and other natural disasters.

“Students [in Hawaii] are using portals in the classroom and then going out and using sensors to test water quality with university researchers,” Montgomery explains.

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A Collaborate.org view of live data about Oahu. Photo: Collaborate.org.

Those sensors are in fact what drives a significant portion of Collaborate’s baseline data. Before Montgomery started working on Collaborate, he founded a sensor company called Intelesense in 2005. The sensors Intelesense deployed were nothing new. What was new, however, was how they were networked: Rather than requiring individual transmitters and backend systems for understanding the data, Intelesense sensors shared an infrastructure. That and, as Montgomery says, they actually made it out of the lab to measure things like water quality, temperature, and chemical makeup of materials.

But the Intelesense team soon realized that sensors only get you so far. “Not only did people need sensor information from around the world, they needed to collaborate,” Montgomery says.

That’s when they teamed up with NASA’s World Wind project, an open-source Google Earth designed to facilitate innovation around data visualization. As NASA Project Lead Patrick Hogan explained at Future in Review this morning, “The government, in its capacity, should be facilitating innovation.”

The result  bolstered by a wide range of other contributors and collaborators — is Collaborate.org. Traditionalists will be confused by its business model. It is neither a public nor a private company, but a co-op of partners who have come together to make the platform function.

This is reflective of its architects. Montgomery and Hogan are visually quite a pair: On-stage in Laguna Beach, Hogan’s shock of white hair contrasts with Montgomery’s strawberry blond, but both share a boyish charm that rests largely on their earnest smiles and unusual optimism.

“My key motivators are innovation, altruism and a sense of success,” Montgomery says.

So far, Collaborate has not yet been thrown wide open (Users are currently invite-only, though the system was released to Future in Review attendees Wednesday), but Montgomery says it will be in the coming months. And users will be invited — expected even — to contribute data and share information, though they will also be able to control how open it is to others.

The impending openness of such a powerful tool raises questions about public safety and malicious intent; a topic Montgomery and his team have spent hours and hours debating. In the end, though, they haven’t let it affect their commitment to openness, opting to study the user moderation and social regulation tactics of sites like Reddit, Pinterest and Evernote.

“The crowd is the jury and ultimately, you guys are the judge,” Montgomery explains. “Ultimately, people will report abuse and we will be able to look at if it’s real or not.”

Montgomery’s idealism is both Collaborate’s biggest advantage and its biggest weakness: There is nothing to stop users from exploitating these massive data visualizations for nefarious purposes. Montgomery isn’t deluding himself about that.

“What we’re trying to do is really bleeding edge,” he says, “and sometimes we get cut with that.”

Still, he believes that, as a human species, our drive to survive will overcome our propensity for damage. “In the future, our challenges will be greater, but our resources ever fewer.”

Those challenges, as Montgomery sees them, are huge: Global pandemics and climate change top the list.

“In the future are worlds we don’t wish to live in,” he says gravely. “We need to be smart about our actions today to drive us toward worlds that are great for all of us.”

Collaborate.org is his way of enabling us to be smart, to be strategic. “I think that we can do these things, but only if we all work together.”

“You need to collaborate not just within your own organization, but increasingly across organizations with other people and you need to do that irrespective of geography.”

Berit Anderson is Associate Editor at Crosscut, where this post was originally published. You can find her on Twitter @Berit_Anderson or reach her at berit.anderson@crosscut.com.

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