Luke Meyers, a planning coordinator with Seattle’s Office of Emergency Management, described himself as “a pig in mud” when he first learned about the Geospatial Concept of Operations (GeoCONOPS) at a conference in January.
He has since taken three of four available online GeoCONOPS courses.
GeoCONOPS, overseen by the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Geospatial Management Office (GMO), is a strategic roadmap for national, state, local, private sector, and academic stakeholders to coordinate geospatial information, share data and tradecraft, and communicate in support of homeland security, public safety, and emergency management.
The roadmap is a guide for linking the geospatial data efforts of the 17 U.S. intelligence agencies, 22 DHS components, and the 50 states, 3,114 counties, and 78 data fusion centers throughout the country, in addition to other data producers in major cities. GMO does not seek to own or hold the data, but rather to validate data and sources, then direct users to them.
David Carabin, Bryan Costigan, Aaron Kustermann, and Jay Moseley, who lead data fusions centers in Massachusetts, Montana, Illinois, and Alabama, respectively, hope GeoCONOPS will soon mature to support an idea they call “SitRoom.”
SitRoom, according to Kustermann, would enable analysts at any of the nation’s 78 data fusion centers to learn, for example, that an individual stopped for a broken taillight in California is driving a car stolen from Minnesota, wanted for drug trafficking in Chicago, and suspected to be part of a terrorist cell in New York.
“GeoCONOPS is how we’re going to be able to share geospatial information,” Kustermann said. “It sets the standards for our being able to share [data]. Without it, the puzzle can’t be built.”
A Maturing Concept
Although the first version of GeoCONOPS was published eight years ago, public safety leaders like Kustermann and Meyers may have only learned of it recently or not be aware of it yet at all.
“It really hasn’t been publicized a lot, at least on the state and local level,” Meyers said.
Other leaders expressed some uncertainty as to which interoperability efforts fall under the umbrella of GeoCONOPS, which perhaps has too broad a definition for the far-reaching complexities of its mission.
“I’m not sure GeoCONOPS should be looked at as a specific program or policies to try to get to interoperability,” said James McConnell, assistant commissioner of strategic data for the New York City Office of Emergency Management. “Sharing—we’re doing a lot of that—but I’m not sure it falls under the title GeoCONOPS.”
Yet when Hurricane Sandy struck New York and New Jersey in October 2012, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) dispatched a GIS unit from Baltimore to assist in relief efforts. “They basically took a copy of our entire database, which we were happy to give them, as their base for working in New York,” McConnell said.
GeoCONOPS has its roots in 9/11, when first responders lacked the maps and data needed to navigate the labyrinth of the Pentagon. Four years later, first responders viewed the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina via commercial satellite imagery, but lacked the tools to communicate about what they were seeing.
“I think that’s really when people started to wake up to this concept of location as a critical element of their operations,” said Chris Vaughan, then deployed in support of FEMA’s Urban Search and Rescue Team providing on the ground geospatial support in New Orleans, and now the agency’s geospatial information officer.
The Hurricane Katrina disaster and others before it prompted a three-day meeting in Washington, D.C., of first responders, government, industry, and academia, that generated a 2007 National Academies report titled “Successful Response Starts with a Map: Improving Geospatial Support for Disaster Management.”
The report acknowledged growing geospatial capability, but warned, “The effectiveness of a technology is as much about the human system in which it is embedded as about the technology itself. Issues of training, coordination, planning and preparedness, and resources invested in technology need to be addressed if future responses are to be effective.”
This statement embodies the intent behind GeoCONOPS.
“There was a feeling that we didn’t know what we didn’t know, and we had gaps we couldn’t identify,” said Nathan Smith, a contract program manager for GeoCONOPS. “A lot of that was a perception that geospatial wasn’t reaching its potential, and that it was constrained by a lack of coordination within the geospatial community.”
Published for the first time June 30, 2009, GeoCONOPS underwent six updates by Jan. 18, 2015, and was met with varying degrees of success. While federal agencies worked toward data sharing, many potential state and local stakeholders looked askance at the 228-page document from Washington. Today, GeoCONOPS is hosted online via geoplatform.gov. A second, more secure site is planned to facilitate shared access for more sensitive data.
“The moment something is printed, it’s obsolete,” said David Lilley, acting director of the GMO. “So we moved to the web, a dynamic mode of delivery, and it puts the content media in an environment that’s of more use to our readers. We are more able to keep the content current and add searches so users can drive directly to what they are looking for in a matter of clicks, instead of searching through 100 pages.”
Realizing What Could Be
Lilley is working to foster a more complete understanding of GeoCONOPS. According to him, GeoCONOPS not only shows how geospatial data is currently supporting the mission at hand—but what geospatial data is available to the community and how it could support other missions.
Realizing what “could be” is perhaps the most important message, especially for those with data that could help FEMA, or state and local governments who could benefit from sharing data with one another. Lilley’s outreach is bringing more data and registered systems into the GeoCONOPS community. In doing so, he seeks to foster a cultural change across all echelons.
“I think through GeoCONOPS, people are identifying the concept that ‘the more people are using my data, the better I can justify sustaining the program (that gleans the data),’” Lilley said. “That’s a fundamental shift, because it used to be that ‘my data is mine, my power is my information.’ They still control it, but letting more people into the data makes it more powerful.”
Tightening budgets are also leading more partners to GeoCONOPS.
“People are more apt to re-leverage an existing capability for their mission need through the CONOPS than always building their own,” Lilley said.
Monetary constraints, technological evolution, and more persistent threats are creating a public safety landscape ripe for more widespread adoption of GeoCONOPS.
“Technology became easier at about the same time data became more prevalent,” said Vaughan, adding GeoCONOPS has been prominent in FEMA exercises such as Gotham Shield, which in April simulated a nuclear explosion in the New York/New Jersey area.
At many levels, public safety experts said GeoCONOPS should also be used as a roadmap for preparedness and resiliency in addition to natural disaster response.
“If effective, [GeoCONOPS] is really being used to support preparedness activities—planning, exercises,” said Rebecca Harned, director of National & Federal for the National Alliance for Public Safety GIS (NAPSG) Foundation. “It’s not something you want to try to access for the first time when the ‘big one’ hits.”