Innovation That Matters

Geospatial intelligence is helping to better map and understand the physical and human world. | Photo source Pixabay

Tech Explained: Geospatial Intelligence

Tech Explained

You may not realise it, but geospatial intelligence is being used all around us for a wide variety of applications

The concept of geospatial intelligence (GEOINT) – using knowledge about the physical world to make military and civilian decisions – has been around as long as humans. 

However, with recent advances in automated cartography, computer-assisted mapping and spatial statistical analysis, GEOINT has become an important component of such disparate areas as telecommunications, transportation, public health and real estate. So, what is GEOINT and how is it being used today?

The origins of GEOINT

The modern era of GEOINT began in around 1995, when President Clinton invited the warring factions in Bosnia to Dayton, Ohio, to negotiate an end to the conflict. In order to assist the diplomats, different technical agencies worked together to digitally map what was happening in the disputed areas in real-time. 

Using automated cartography, computer-assisted map tailoring and spatial statistical analysis, the team produced maps which mirrored the negotiations. These maps proved crucial in persuading all sides to reach a compromise. 

The agencies involved were later combined to create the National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA), which was reorganized in 2003 into the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA). The NGA, in turn, created a non-profit educational foundation to promote the idea of GEOINT and established public-private partnerships to develop GEOINT technology.

Today, we are in the middle of a GEOINT revolution. This is being led by improvements in remote sensing, precision geolocation data, affordable cloud storage and advanced analytics and visualisation technologies. 

What is GEOINT?

GEOINT involves the use of geographical information to make decisions. This geographical information could consist of images of different locations, and information about those locations (geospatial information) and about how people use different locations. This information is gathered from sources such as satellites, crowdsourcing via smartphones, video surveillance cameras, remote sensors and even newspapers and eyewitness reports.

The information gathered could include anything from the physical location of mountains, bridges and buildings, to the type of crops being grown and congestion on individual roads and streets. 

This type of information is gathered every day for many purposes, but what makes GEOINT unique is the way the information is combined. This information is analysed and used to help security officials, policymakers, humanitarian organisations, businesses and others to make decisions and direct resources.

Uses of GEOINT data

One important trend in geospatial intelligence is the shift in the creation and ownership of data. New data sources like OpenStreetMap and geotagged social media pictures are being used for important intelligence-gathering. 

However, the wide availability and open nature of these platforms have also led to an increase in the use of GEOINT outside of the military. For example, after Hurricane Maria in 2017, crowdsourced data on damage to Puerto Rico’s infrastructure helped rescue and recovery teams to mark danger zones and prioritise assistance. 

Data is also helping GEOINT to fight global hunger. Descartes Labs and DARPA (Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency) are developing a project that would create a database of information to help alleviate food scarcity. 

The project will use sensors, satellite images and other sources of information to pinpoint areas where food shortages are likely to occur. Aid can then be directed to those areas before the shortage become extreme.

The NGA recently used GEOINT to help medical personnel direct their response to an Ebola outbreak in Liberia. Information on travel times and routes to places where outbreaks had occurred were made available on the Internet. Medical teams could then use this information to quickly reach those who needed help.

GEOINT data can also be used in urban planning and transportation. Studying traffic flow and the way that people travel around a city can help officials to better locate public transportation and design roads.

The future of GEOINT

One GEOINT trend is to combine geographic information from different sources. For example, a GEOINT approach to an ongoing event such as a political protest may combine location data from satellites, drones, social media, news sources, and reports from observers on the ground. 

Crowdsourcing is also set to play a larger role in GEOINT, particularly in enriching data. Examples of this include crowdsourced traffic information provided through apps such as Waze, or the U.S. Geological Survey’s “Did you feel it?” program, which creates earthquake intensity maps from user responses. Workout-tracking app Stava combines maps with location reports from users to help them find cycling and running routes. 

Human geography applications will also be enriched through GEOINT. This includes mapping the movement of people, ideas and technologies as they move from place to place. This information could inform the development of new technology, and help businesses to decide where to invest their resources.

One project, by MapD, tracked geo-tagged tweets around the world, mapping them and colour-coding them by language. Users could then search for keywords and hashtags or just float the cursor across countries to see what is trending. 

Just from these examples, we can see that in addition to its obvious use in military logistics, GEOINT is becoming increasingly important, both commercially and for civilian uses. For example, self-driving vehicles will rely on GEOINT to detect where lanes and roads are located. 

There are also important privacy implications for GEOINT. For example, around 80 to 90 per cent of new data is now geotagged, allowing individuals to be followed almost everywhere they go. These and other considerations, seem to be taking a backseat in comparison to the advantages of GEOINT, for now.