As Commander of the Commissioned Corps’ Ebola Response in West Africa, Rear Adm. Scott Giberson used satellite imagery and geospatial information in Liberia to track the spread of the disease, plan transportation routes for health care personnel, and understand weather patterns.
But it wasn’t until well after the mission, said Giberson, director of the Division of Corps Personnel and Readiness for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), that he recognized he was using GEOINT.
“I looked up the definition on the web,” Giberson told his GEOINT 2015 audience in a discussion titled, “GEOINT and Epidemiology: The Role of Geospatial Intelligence in Health Crisis Analysis and Mission.” “And I realized a lot of the decisions I made during the Ebola response were in fact using imagery and the GEOINT we get from our partners.”
Giberson, whose team deployed to Liberia in October 2014 as the only U.S. government entity that provided direct patient care, used GEOINT daily to gather and assess data.
Giberson’s introduction preceded a panel discussion that began with a question from moderator Melissa Hersh, a fellow with the Truman National Security Project: “What is it, from your perspective, that we need to do in advance before the next incident occurs?”
Karen Walsh, CEO of Blue Glass Development, questioned whether better visualization at the onset of the outbreak could have prompted aid sooner, referring to the six months from the time the World Health Organization reported an outbreak of Ebola in Guinea to when the U.S. government deployed aid.
“Were the maps not good enough?” she asked, referencing the delay. “Was the data not compelling enough?”
Rob Shankman, GIS program manager for HHS, said the department has become “as open source as possible,” and more flexible, accessible, and agile. He said they have the ability to track their health care teams every five minutes and monitor data on which teams are still available to deploy. HHS maps can overlay multiple data layers, showing, for example, hospitals and inclement weather.
Justin Poole, director of National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s Xperience Directorate, said the agency learned that analysts on the ground often just needed to see images, not necessarily download them. It took NGA nearly two weeks to launch its public, unclassified Ebola website, but after the Nepal earthquake this spring, it rolled out a similar page within 24 hours.
The panelists discussed the decision points regarding whether to contain an epidemic and when to intervene; how the effort to collect data often gets lost beneath the larger mission; and how the same scenario would have played out in a megacity.
Walsh said it wouldn’t be a straightforward task to gather imagery-derived products and infrastructure details for a megacity.
“We do work around the world, and nations don’t want to give that information to us,” she said, referring to the location of reservoirs and sewers.
Shankman said HHS is working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to track the H5N2 avian influenza domestically and study migratory patterns. While they had pinpointed the virus as stemming from specific farms, farmers were uncomfortable with that information available at such a precise level.
“So we’re reporting at the county level,” Shankman said.
Although there are still information-sharing challenges with the practice of pairing geospatial data with other data such as that related to health, agriculture, and infrastructure, some of the panelists indicated that the process will become more widely accepted as the benefits are experienced and publicized over time.
As of mid-May, Liberia is Ebola-free, and Sierra Leone and Guinea are on their way. But history tells us such outbreaks are always a possibility.
“History tells that it’s going to happen again,” Giberson said. “Hopefully we’re better prepared.”