Dr. Lee Schwartz, geographer of the United States with the U.S. State Department, discussed geopolitical boundaries, participatory mapping, human geography, and more May 9 at USGIF’s GEOINTeraction Tuesday event, sponsored by Woolpert and Cherokee Nation Technology Solutions.
Schwartz shared insights on how the Office of the Geographer is organized and what it does. In the last 10 years, Schwartz has worked to integrate technical expertise in science, technology, and geography with that of the traditional skill sets of Foreign Service and Civil Service intelligence officers. This is part of an effort to incorporate more use of geographic data, imagery analysis, and information sharing technologies into the office’s processes.
The scope of the Office of the Geographer’s mission is broad—starting with the responsibility to determine how every boundary in the world (with the exception of U.S.-Mexico and U.S.-Canada) is depicted on all official U.S. government maps, including those produced by USAID, the Department of Defense, Combatant Commands, and many others. The office even provides all international boundaries used by Google Earth.
The Office of the Geographer also provides naming policy guidance to the U.S. Board on Geographic Names based largely on advice from U.S. embassies and foreign missions.
“You’d be surprised how often we are dealing with naming and boundary issues on a daily basis,” Schwartz said.
He added that since the State Department now makes all its boundary information publicly available, it often receives feedback from the public when a boundary is incorrect.
“Now that people are out there with GPS devices and cellphone technology we’re getting people literally on the India-China border offering corrections to our boundaries,” Schwartz said.
Advances in technology are also enabling the department to revise maps for higher fidelity.
“Most of the world’s boundaries as they’re shown on many maps internationally at certain scales have errors,” Schwartz said. “We are in the process of what we call ‘boundary verification,’ where with digital technologies and satellite imagery we’re remapping many of the world’s boundaries based on priorities—such as places where we have military troops patrolling—with digital precision that we never had before.”
Another essential role of the office is trans-boundary intelligence and analysis for issues that transcend borders, such as food and water security, refugee movements, human rights violations, wildlife trafficking, and environmental sustainability.
“This type of analysis is often fundamentally based on spatial relationships,” Schwartz said. “A lot of the work we do is based on having an understanding of the people, environments, and relationships that drive conflict in the world today.”
It’s when revealing criminal perpetrators and networks that GEOINT especially comes into play. In these instances, Schwartz said, a map can be more valuable than data or imagery alone.
“A before/after image is not enough,” he said. “It’s the power of using all the tools of our trade together.”
The State Department has several mapping initiatives under way to further humanitarian efforts around the world. The Humanitarian Information Unit coordinates unclassified U.S. government information—largely geospatial data—that can be made available to partners such as NGOs in the wake of a disaster.
Schwartz’s office is also working to apply the same data sharing practices used in humanitarian crises to the wildlife trafficking crisis.
“We are hoping to conduct a series of workshops in Africa to provide geospatial discipline and standards to the data collection efforts of groups on the ground there,” he said.
The Office of the Geographer is also focused on participatory mapping in which community members provide volunteered geographic information to map their own locales.
“This empowers them for local decision-making that can improve their lives and provide for better human security,” Schwartz said.
The office launched the MapGive project a few years ago that has provided the impetus for participatory mapping projects in collaboration with organizations such as USAID, the World Bank, and the Red Cross. For urban environments, the office launched a similar initiative called Secondary Cities with an emphasis on sustainable development as well as resiliency and emergency planning.
“There’s a lot of attention on megacities and capital cities, but there’s a lot of unplanned urban growth that isn’t captured,” Schwartz said.
Schwartz concluded his talk with some challenges, including the need to mainstream human geography throughout defense and intelligence enterprises.
“How do we best capture non-observable features such as social and cultural content in order to map them?” he asked the audience. “It’s a challenge, but it can be done.”
Headline photo courtesy of the U.S. State Department