GEOINT job roles and specialized skill sets have not kept pace with the changing technology environment and will continue to lag behind as data, collectors, tools, and technology expand. Remedying this situation demands an aggressive approach to preparing current and future GEOINT practitioners, which entails more than stating the problem and developing a few new training courses. Rather, the discipline needs a comprehensive growth campaign; one that markets to a wider audience, professes a broader understanding and global acceptance of GEOINT, prepares future practitioners to seek GEOINT careers and master complex GEOINT problems, encourages current practitioners to embrace and shape emerging capabilities, and engages industry to drive cutting-edge solutions that will transform the GEOINT discipline. Fundamental to this campaign is a common lexicon and a central body of knowledge. This common basis will underpin the future expansion of the discipline and ensure GEOINT practitioners receive the breadth of foundational and emerging skills required by the GEOINT Community.

This article addresses how the GEOINT Community can meet this changing environment with an emphasis on collaboration among stakeholders (government, industry, and academia). The changing GEOINT landscape in St. Louis offers an exceptional test ground for the broader GEOINT Community.

One of the most dramatic changes that has occurred in the GEOINT arena is the expanding community of practitioners. Historically, the practice of GEOINT included the fields of cartography, geographic information systems (GIS), remote sensing, imagery analysis, geology, image science, geodesy, photogrammetry, and other highly technical fields in which data was complex, attained from unclassified and classified sources, and demanded computer processing. Those who engaged in these fields often found themselves working hands on because computer systems were limited to just data processing and were not sophisticated enough to make human-like assessments and decisions. Fast forward a few decades to a computing world that now delivers huge volumes of data and hovers on the brink of delivering the benefits of machine learning and advanced automation. Expand that world one step further, where data once almost solely in the domain of scientists, classified operators, or academic fields has exploded globally across most industries.

This expansion has huge benefits because GEOINT, as a discipline, offers powerful insight to many different kinds of problems through improved data and technology. But with expansion comes a number of challenges. GEOINT experts have known for decades the necessity for precise and accurate data. In order to achieve precision and accuracy, data users were typically steeped in understanding the science, basic principles, algorithms, acquisition, and processing that went behind the data. Today, as computer technology becomes more sophisticated, many users will only have to push a button in order to get an answer and not be required to understand the origins of the data. This push-a-button ease runs the risk of creating a discipline not driven by experts. Now, more than ever, some subset of GEOINT practitioners and industries must understand the fundamentals of GEOINT and be held accountable to ensure accuracy, precision, and quality of output.

A clearly defined path for an expanding community of GEOINT experts starts with the GEOINT Essential Body of Knowledge (EBK) developed by the United States Geospatial Intelligence Foundation (USGIF). The EBK comprises the geospatial intelligence competency and practice in terms of key job tasks and essential knowledge, skills, and abilities required for a professional to be successful. Segments of the GEOINT Community already adhere to some standards because they recognize the importance and the impact on their output. For example, government users have long known the absolute precision required in defining operational products for military users. GEOINT practitioners in this area should be well versed in the science, understand and write computer algorithms, and know how to assess the overall quality produced. When a failure occurs, the forensics reveal a break in the chain of science and technique between the humans and their computers.

New GEOINT practitioners may not think they need the same level of accuracy to support their products and missions. This assumption becomes a challenge the GEOINT Community must overcome. For example:

  • A geospatial company providing locational data for the automobile industry wants to keep drivers out of harm’s way and needs accurate portrayal of important road safety features.
  • Future driverless cars will demand highly precise GEOINT data in order to build a trusted product.
  • Firefighters dealing with large forest fires require precise location and weather data to fight the fire and remain safe.
  • Agricultural companies seek to maximize plant health and minimize fertilizer use over large spans of ground at a precise level of locational detail.

Travel, flight, real estate, oil and gas, agriculture, and a number of other industries will demand accurate GEOINT data and personnel that understand how to deliver said accuracy. That ability means the next generation of GEOINT practitioners must understand the varied nature of the data and its sources, error budgets, the quality of processing algorithms, and the science behind the underlying GEOINT principles.

Now is the time for GEOINT experts across academia, government, and industry to collaborate and bring about a globally recognized discipline. The USGIF EBK provides a key first step. The Foundation also developed a Universal GEOINT Certification Program that will solidify the discipline and standardize the level of quality similar to that experienced in other fields. Industry and government are encouraged to use the certification as a condition of employment, and continuing education is required to maintain proficiency. Academic centers can tailor their programs in accordance with the certification requirements, providing students with both the necessary skills and the competitive advantage for employment. GEOINT professional societies will foster community practices such as peer review of major products to ensure scrutiny when viewed against established scientific principles. This collaborative effort can build a globally accepted discipline that will reach across industries.

Case Study: St. Louis

Establishing a global GEOINT discipline means building a comprehensive and expandable framework. Demonstrating and building such a framework efficiently must first be done where collaboration, planning, and implementation can be accomplished at a manageable scale. Using St. Louis, Mo., as this global launching platform takes advantage of a robust academic environment, an expanding industry and practitioner base, and an evolving government enterprise. USGIF recently established a St. Louis Area Working Group (SLAWG) focused on GEOINT collaboration among professionals from the government (both federal and local), military, industry, and academia to create lasting educational and community pathways to geospatial degrees, certifications, and/or careers in the St. Louis Region. The working group will support or build new geospatial centric pipelines that integrate and amplify existing National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) efforts designed to educate and train individuals from the St. Louis and the surrounding region. The end goal of this work is to grow and sustain a populace within St. Louis and the surrounding region that possesses the necessary geospatial skills to qualify for and fill existing and future NGA or industry technical, analytic, and management careers.

The St. Louis region has nationally and regionally ranked higher education institutions including Saint Louis University (SLU), Washington University in St. Louis, the University of Missouri – Saint Louis, Maryville University, Webster University, St. Louis Community College, Harris-Stowe State University, Lindenwood University, as well as several other universities and colleges nearby in Illinois. These institutions provide a range of GEOINT-related courses and programs of study to include remote sensing, GIS, and GPS courses toward bachelor of science degrees, certifications, and high school mentorship programs. Other programs include digital imaging, machine learning, computer vision, artificial intelligence, and programming. Among a population of new students as well as analysts already within the GEOINT Community who seek to upgrade their skills, St. Louis has a sizable potential population of GEOINT practitioners.

To coordinate the academic offerings in St. Louis with the future needs of the GEOINT discipline, discussions among the universities, NGA’s dedicated presence in St. Louis, and St. Louis tech companies can identify needed additions or changes to academic programs. For example: expanding data science programs to include how to communicate data interpretation results; augmenting analytic skills with probability and statistics, computer science, and communication; or growing the number of graduates in computer programming, GPS, geodesy and surveying skills, software coding, and data analytics.  

Some innovative program changes are already under way. At SLU, for instance, faculty have discussed how to combine various science and engineering majors and minors, allowing students to customize interdisciplinary programs that better address new GEOINT-related career fields. Other innovative ideas include more curriculum development and teaching in interdisciplinary areas, supporting research infrastructure through shared equipment and computational support, and allowing greater cross-department, STEM-focused collaboration in educational reform, outreach, and student support. For example, the creation of a curriculum roadmap for youth around critical skills needed for Air Force, mapping, and space exploration analysis could target middle school age students with an interest in STEM.

In 2013, the National Academies Press released the “Future U.S. Workforce for Geospatial Intelligence” report, which identified five core areas of GEOINT:

  1. Geodesy and Geophysics
  2. Photogrammetry
  3. Remote Sensing
  4. Cartographic Science
  5. GIS and Geospatial Analysis

The study also identified five emerging areas of GEOINT:

  1. GEOINT Fusion
  2. Crowdsourcing
  3. Human Geography
  4. Visual Analytics
  5. Forecasting

The study found that NGA’s future workforce, which is likely to be more interdisciplinary and focused on emerging areas, would need skills in spatial thinking, scientific and computer literacy, mathematics and statistics, languages and world travel, and professional ethics. Spatial thinking, math, and computer skills remain a gap in many natural and social science programs, and spatial perspectives remain a gap in most computer science and engineering programs. Only about one-third of the universities and colleges where NGA currently recruits have strong programs in core or emerging areas. Competition and a small number of graduates will likely cause shortages in cartography, photogrammetry, geodesy, and all emerging areas.

Long-term Steps

In addition to discussions about emerging skills needed by government, industry, and academia to help shape academic programs, there are a number of long-term solutions that could help create more comprehensive academic programs both in St. Louis and nationally:

  • Attract more people to the profession by introducing GEOINT to students during middle school. Today’s younger students, already comfortable with viewing their homes on satellite imagery, could easily be introduced to geospatial skills. Encouraging educators to include select programs within their STEM curriculum would begin to introduce some of the analytic principles behind the discipline, easily built upon as students progress to higher levels.
  • Partner USGIF-accredited colleges and universities with local schools to promote GEOINT understanding, practical experience, and college credit.
  • Maintain an easily accessible GEOINT database to facilitate a student’s ability to find colleges and universities known for GEOINT or related programs. The database could include recommended schools, courses, degree programs, and professors known as experts in the field.
  • Market programs maintained by USGIF and other nonprofit organizations to highlight existing resources for students. For example, America View, which is a partnership of remote sensing scientists from across the country, advocates for the use of Landsat and other publicly available remotely sensed data for K-12 STEM education and workforce development. In recent years, USGIF has also expanded its educational programming to include K-12 students.
  • Build the GEOINT Community through service hours or continuing education/development assignments to promote volunteering among GEOINT professionals to, for example, help with STEM-based, GEOINT-related education at local schools.
  • Modify the post-secondary academic curriculum for primary and secondary teachers to incorporate Next Generation Science Standards and relevant GEOINT materials. For states that have not adopted the standards, initiate an education campaign at the Department of Education and legislative representative level by school district to lead them forward, employing assistance from national education groups associated with the standards.

GEOINT professionals across industry, government, and academia have nurtured a discipline from what were highly technical sources and disparate organizational elements to one that has achieved far-reaching effects as an interconnected enterprise. As any discipline matures, it needs to build an operating framework that can support its acceptance, expansion, and continued growth. GEOINT has reached that point. The industry demands standards, professionalism, breadth, and continued advancement in knowledge, expertise, and technology. Advances in computing processes, the exponential growth in data sources and accessibility to that data, and the nature of informational problems that require locational intelligence place the GEOINT discipline on the cusp of becoming globally accepted. Now is the time for community members to partner to ensure the GEOINT enterprise has a solid foundation for its future.

Headline Image: USGIF Intern Madalyn Caraway (left) volunteered at a GeoPlunge tournament in Washington, D.C., where more than 100 students played the geography card game and learned spatial skills. 

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Posted by Jerome Lenzcowski, retired NGA; Robert McNair, St. Louis University; Tara Mott, Ph.D., Esri; Nathan Spangler, Continental Mapping; and Lisa Spuria, Elumins Consulting