The value of human geography in times of crisis is well chronicled. The Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) hopes applying “anticipatory analysis” to human geography will move the timeline up to help predict crises.

“Socio-economic conditions tend to shift very gradually,” said Nicole Sponaugle, chief of DIA’s operational environmental analysis division, in a Thursday panel of experts from other federal agencies, the United Nations, and academia on Human Geography at GEOINT 2015.

“By the time a crisis erupts, it looks like a very dramatic event,” Sponaugle said. “As a matter of fact, the stage for the crisis has been set in many cases over the course of years, and it’s very difficult to pick up this gradual shift.”

Hence the desire to apply anticipatory intelligence.

While identifying catalytic events remains elusive, Sponaugle said, there are conditions that act as fuel in search of a spark. The DIA and others are trying to predict areas in which those conditions exist with the goal to forestall the fire.

The group is working from a hypothetical scenario that begins with a government in which power is concentrated with a few people. And when resources—particularly water—are scarce, competition for them can make the government unstable. Add the level of oppression and corruption in the country, along with urban growth, and it’s upheaval waiting to happen.

The key to coping with the entire scenario is human geography data, which abounds, but which isn’t always shared.

“We’re very effective at sharing data in the event of crisis,” Sponaugle said. “I think what we’re missing out on is looking at areas that are teetering on the brink of crisis where there’s still hope for intervention or less drastic measures can be taken to prevent worse developments down the road.”

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