Humanitarian Issues – Trajectory Magazine We are the official publication of the United States Geospatial Intelligence Foundation (USGIF) – the nonprofit, educational organization supporting the geospatial intelligence tradecraft Tue, 20 Feb 2018 16:12:19 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Humanitarian Issues – Trajectory Magazine 32 32 127732085 Improving GEOINT Access for Health and Humanitarian Work in the Global South Thu, 01 Feb 2018 06:55:54 +0000 Case studies on resource inequity with respect to GEOINT in the Global South

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The “Global North” and “Global South” are generally distinguished by their respectively higher and lower economic and development profiles. With respect to geospatial intelligence (GEOINT), they also exist as parallel yet distinctly different worlds. The marked dominance of the U.S. within the GEOINT sphere diminishes our appreciation for operational challenges in the Global South, where critical authoritative data and geospatial infrastructure are lacking. Humanitarian activities, including disaster mitigation, service delivery to refugees and internally displaced people, and multinational efforts such as the Global Health Security Agenda’s mission to secure the world from “global health threats,” are constrained by that region’s variable geospatial capacity. Spatial data, also known as geospatial data, is information about a physical object that can be represented by numerical values in a geographic coordinate system. The increasing availability of geographically referenced base layer data, geo-referenced imagery sources, improved processing, and crowdsourced data enable rigorous and complex analyses with more granular outputs that allow analysts to target specific locations and populations. However, owing to a dearth of geospatial expertise, core data layers, and technical and financial resources, GEOINT capabilities remain out of reach to many countries. Such resource inequity presents a significant challenge that is further amplified in conflict areas, where current, precise, and, wherever possible, verified ground-reference data are mission-critical.

In the Global North, discussions on the “state of the art” reflect the ubiquity of fundamental GEOINT capacities including automated feature extraction and change detection; big data analytics and geospatial presentation; access to topical, relevant, and quality geospatial data; the tools and knowledge required to execute fundamental geospatial processes; and to a lesser but increasing degree, machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI). While there are notable exceptions, outside of capitals and major cities, a significant part of the Global South is bereft of basic information and communications technology (ICT) prerequisites—such as consistent electricity and internet access—needed to routinely and accurately conduct geospatial work.

National and local government support for health and humanitarian efforts vary, and the onus of procuring quality geospatial data may be left to aid and health agencies, few of which have the capacity to meet this immense need. Additionally, GEOINT fundamentals, such as current census data or authoritative base layers, are often outdated or non-existent, sometimes at the country-level, and especially below second- or third-order administrative-level boundaries. Further complicating access to authoritative data, governmental and other institutions may restrict data for a variety of reasons (which may run counter to their missions to improve the well-being of their constituencies). Restriction of these authoritative datasets may arise from political sensitivities, protection of funding streams through data dominance, or deflection of questions concerning data quality.

In the absence of open-source, authoritative data, crowdsourcing platforms such as OpenStreetMap, HealthMap, Wikimapia, and CrisisMappers fill important gaps by providing egalitarian scaffolding that supports data aggregation, curation, and management. However, it is important to recognize the intrinsic limitations of user-generated and “found” data. Free and open-source geospatial platforms such as Google Earth and QGIS have had a similarly democratizing impact on geospatial software utilization within the minority of Global South countries with dependable internet access. However, while data and tools are necessary, they are not sufficient to enable true access. Geospatial expertise is the third leg of the access “stool” required to maximize data utilization. In the Global South, the preponderance of technical capability and data dwells among national-level government, multilateral, and academic institutions rather than among implementing staff or non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that operate at the subnational level.

Given this divide in geospatial resources, improved collaboration is critical among private, bilateral, and multilateral stakeholders that have access to data, expertise, and imagery. Recent examples from the global health arena illustrate how GEOINT practitioners have contributed to effectively target service delivery through a combination of imagery analysis and inexpensive, creative, low-tech ground-referenced datasets. Further field and sky coordination of GEOINT capabilities in conjunction with activity-based analytics hold significant potential to strengthen disaster mitigation response as well as civil and military humanitarian actions. We discuss the role of data access and recent achievements targeting infectious disease and humanitarian responses in remote and conflict-ridden areas as examples of successful collaborative and multidisciplinary approaches to GEOINT of benefit to the Global South.

  • This article is part of USGIF’s 2018 State & Future of GEOINT Report. Download the PDF to view the report in its entirety and to read this article with citations. 

Case Studies 

The resource inequity with respect to GEOINT that the Global South faces necessitates a continuous stream of outside financial, technical, and human resources to establish and maintain parity with the Global North. To some degree, this may account for the prominent rise of crowdsourced labor and online data sharing platforms (e.g., Ushahidi, Swift River, OpenStreetMap, Tomnod) for near real-time reporting. There have been several recent public-private efforts, however, to create sustainable solutions by investing in GEOINT infrastructure and expertise that illustrate the long-term value proposition to both donors and countries. The following case studies illustrate how providing access to authoritative base layers as well as specialized knowledge and resources such as imagery classification tools and automated feature extraction can solve problems, leverage further investment, and highlight new opportunities to bridge the North-South GEOINT divide.

1. The Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI), a public-private partnership with the goal to eradicate polio worldwide, exemplifies the application of geospatial data and analysis to solve a humanitarian problem while building technical capacity to create sustainable geospatial infrastructure. The use of GIS has significantly changed the trajectory of GPEI since 2007, when Google Earth was first used to develop “the river strategy”—a tactic devised to interrupt transmission of poliovirus along the Congo River in the Democratic Republic of Congo.This effort used imagery to identify settlements along the river, visualize potential trade routes and related population movement patterns, and facilitate vaccine distribution logistics by examining navigation patterns. Analytics were subsequently used to evaluate the geographic coverage of house-to-house vaccination teams; assess team performance and campaign coverage; collect location coordinates for all suspected polio cases; track post-campaign coverage surveys; and collect microcensus data to support imagery-based population estimates. The granular geospatial reference data collected in Nigeria for polio eradication also resulted in the Vaccination Tracking System (VTS) platform, which is arguably the most complete synthesis of population and health program data in Sub-Saharan Africa. In 2015, this system was adapted and successfully repurposed to avert the spread of Ebola within Nigeria.

The VTS has also provided the foundation for a major breakthrough in the field of demography, resulting from a collaboration among the Geographic Information Science and Technology (GIST) Group at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and Sweden-based Flowminder Foundation. This group developed population estimates for gender and standard 0-12-month and five-year age groupings at a resolution of 90 meters, based on settlement feature extraction and microcensus data.

The creation of this extensive GIS infrastructure in Nigeria led to additional base-mapping efforts in the other Lake Chad Basin nations of Cameroon, Chad, and Niger, as well as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mozambique, and Somalia. These activities revealed significant data gaps such as the identification of hundreds (Mozambique, Somalia) and sometimes thousands (Nigeria) of previously unrecorded place names and error rates in authoritative data that have been known to exceed 50 percent.

This work also spurred the formation of two informal, virtual stakeholder GIS working groups with representation from the U.S. government, UN, and private organizations and NGOs for East and West Africa. These working groups afford an important opportunity to exchange information on planned and completed regional activities and a professionally curated library through which geospatial data, tools, and analyses can be shared among partners. This activity has facilitated the exchange of base layer data among local humanitarian efforts with regional and supraregional organizations in remote environments in Cameroon, Mozambique, and Somalia.

2. Civil and military conflicts also pose an obvious barrier to humanitarian and disease control efforts. In the face of limited authoritative geospatial and census data, a number of multilateral, humanitarian, and academic groups have designed innovative, multisourced solutions to conduct needs assessments, deliver services, and monitor human rights violations in the region. For example, Boko Haram insurgents have occupied and destroyed villages throughout Northern Nigeria since 2008. Airstrikes and military raids have wrought further destruction, leaving humanitarian agencies reliant upon imagery and analysis from donors and commercial entities to maintain situational awareness in non-permissive areas. Even with myriad resources used to identify locations and estimate populations, remotely sensed data have limitations and a network of reliable human informants is required to validate information gleaned in these high-threat areas. By fusing imagery analysis and fresh key-informant data, villages can potentially be described as sustaining complete structural damage or partially/fully intact—and potentially whether inhabited—informing how the flow of internally displaced populations and refugees is monitored within the region.

3. A combination of geospatial data, imagery, and activity-based analysis has also been used to investigate and respond to outbreaks of guinea worm disease in humans, dogs, and baboons. Individuals are infected through the consumption of water contaminated with the parasite’s larvae. Breaking the transmission cycle requires the treatment of water sources to kill the larvae in the intermediate host, identification of other cases in the area, and preventive efforts through education and water filtration. Mounting a comprehensive response thus requires identification of all stagnant water features proximal to areas inhabited by infected humans, dogs, and baboons. In remote areas of Ethiopia, where the disease was detected in a baboon troop, authoritative geospatial data are sparse, and, while maps displaying water features may be available, seasonality plays a major role in water level, flows, etc. Thus, seasonally accurate, high-resolution imagery granular enough to reveal large game trails and walking paths used by baboons and humans to reach water sources was critical to formulate a response plan. Two-dimensional printed paper maps, rather than tablet- or computer-displayed imagery, also played a key role in communicating with local guides unfamiliar with digitally displayed data. In this case, the provision of technical assistance in addition to geospatial assets has not simply supported guinea worm eradication efforts in southwestern Ethiopia, it also increased GEOINT capacity where there was little and introduced new ways to approach a complex logistical problem.

Capacitating Access and Utilization

In addition to these examples, potential use cases with benefits that extend beyond the Global South are plentiful. For example, service delivery to refugee and internally displaced persons (IDPs) could benefit significantly from improved data fusion. While the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and NGOs strive to maintain current maps of IDP and refugee camps, these data are not always geo-referenced and thus opportunities to integrate multiple data types may be missed. The creation of “neighborhood” level maps that enumerate households would facilitate linkage of specific populations with appropriate services and follow-up. In the absence of such granular data, it may be incumbent upon residents to seek social, health, and protection services, which may be difficult for the infirm, aged, unaccompanied children, or women without freedom of movement. Geo-referenced, neighborhood-level, multilayer IDP and refugee camp data could also be used to evaluate the equitable distribution of services and, in conjunction with human activity patterns, monitor security incidents within the camp, while simultaneously assisting with situational awareness throughout the host area. Finally, this type of data affords an extension of services for returnees and protection monitoring as people transition from the care of agencies, such as UNHCR and implementing partners, back to their areas/countries of origin.

The increasing role of GEOINT as a form of social, political, programmatic, and technical currency is a countervailing influence on multilateral efforts to build sustainable technical and human capacity. In the absence of an incentivized sharing culture, a unified effort by the global development community can be successful in breaking this data-sharing impasse. One such effort is the Geospatial Reference Information Database (GRID) project, which aims to create open-source geospatial reference layers in priority developing countries selected by donor-partners, along with building local capacity to use, manage, and sustain the datasets at the country level. Co-funded by the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development, GRID will engage the United Nations Population Fund to support geo-referenced national censuses in all countries, which represent the “gold standard” in reference data. A key requirement of GRID is countries must be willing to expose their base reference data layers to include settlement names and locations, key points of interest, validated administrative boundaries, and GIS-modeled population estimates to a global, public platform. Such significant and freely available GIS infrastructure can directly improve digital democracy and potentially attract further investment, which could bolster the labor market for geographers, GIS specialists, and related expertise.

Additionally, several for-profit firms such as DigitalGlobe, Planet, Google, and Esri facilitate access to the imagery, data, tools, and expertise required for humanitarian and other activities consistent with their missions. In the non-profit sector, organizations such as Radiant Earth offer free access to open-source satellite, aerial, and drone imagery archives from across the globe, alongside the analytic tools that enable greater access for organizations with less technical and financial resources. Other opportunities to link sky and field lie in the integration of geospatial data with complementary computational capabilities such as AI and ML—as Palantir and the Carter Center have effectively demonstrated through the Syria Conflict Mapping Project. Through these efforts, the playing field is slowly being leveled to create parity between those with the greatest capacity and those whose access is currently dependent upon educational institutions, donors, or fee-for-service expertise. Access to free imagery, geospatial data, and analytic capacity alone is a social good in that it moves forward academic research on modeling and methods for validation. However, significant unmet needs awaiting creative and synergistic solutions remain, so continued support for robust, open-source GEOINT tools and expertise is essential to provide effective and sustainable support to the Global South.

Headline Image: A child is vaccinated against polio in the Central African Republic, November 2017. Photo Credit: UNICEF CAR

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Forecasting Disease from Space Fri, 05 Jan 2018 15:43:16 +0000 Scientists use satellite data and predictive analytics to mitigate regional disease outbreaks

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In May 2017, hydrologist Antarpreet Jutla and a team of civil scientists used predictive algorithms to forecast an outbreak of cholera in Yemen. Cholera, a waterborne bacterial disease, primarily blooms during hot and dry seasons in coastal, developing countries lacking sophisticated sanitation and water infrastructure. To identify areas where these conditions are prevalent, Jutla’s team used satellite imagery to monitor temperature patterns, water storage, population migration, regional topography, and precipitation throughout Yemen. That data was fed into a processing algorithm that predicted areas most likely to experience an outbreak in the near future—particularly cities in West Yemen along the Red Sea.

Less than a month later, the model’s predictions rang true. Because the algorithms were built and tested using data from other regions, such as the Bengal Delta in South Asia, the team did not anticipate such accurate results in Yemen and chose not to preemptively warn local officials of the model’s predictions. In June, highly populated cities along the country’s West coast (including Al Hudaydah, Hajjah, and Taiz) saw tens of thousands of inhabitants suffer moderate to severe cholera symptoms.

The epidemic confirmed the model’s effectiveness beyond the team’s expectations. The refinement of such a system to a near-certain level of accuracy would offer huge advantages to hospitals and medical professionals, such as the ability to prepare treatment facilities and appropriately allocate supplies and vaccinations.

A similar disease forecasting effort in fall 2017 predicted malaria outbreaks in the Peruvian Amazon. NASA has partnered with university researchers who leverage NASA’s satellite fleet to identify areas where popular breeding grounds for the anopheles darlingi mosquito (the species most responsible for spreading malaria) overlap with concentrated human populations, leading to high infection rates. Using the Land Data Assimilation System (LDAS), NASA can pinpoint warm temperatures and calm waters like ponds or groundwater flooding—ideal conditions for darlingi to lay eggs. Regional models analyze this data and jump forward 12 weeks to predict where malaria is most likely to erupt. Health ministries are then encouraged to administer preventative treatment, bed nets, and other resources to specific health posts throughout Peru.

Disease forecasting remains an imperfect science, but as it is refined to a point of repeated, reliable accuracy, it will play a more significant role in containing and responding to dangerous disease outbreaks. 

Photo Credit: World Health Organization (WHO)

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The DigitalGlobe Foundation Celebrates 10 Years Fri, 15 Dec 2017 17:50:43 +0000 A look at some of the globally meaningful work the foundation has made possible

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The DigitalGlobe Foundation (DGF), an educational nonprofit established by commercial satellite imagery provider DigitalGlobe, celebrates its tenth anniversary this year. To promote globally significant research and prepare the next generation of geospatial professionals, DGF awards grants to students and scientists in the form of free access to the company’s imagery, training, and other space-based technology.

DGF founder Mark Brender saw the need in 2007 to ramp up workforce development in preparation for the industry’s imminent growth.

“We needed a way to open our aperture, to bring new ideas and people into geospatial sciences and the commercial remote sensing imagery ecosystem,” Brender said. “The best way to do that was to establish a foundation that can put high-resolution imagery into the hands of students so they can experiment with it, understand it, and eventually become geospatial users.”

To date, DGF has awarded more than 3,000 imagery grants valued at more than $14 million to students and researchers around the world. Such fieldwork has explored changes in topography over time, human and wildlife population sustainability, and historic site identification.

Students at USGIF-accredited GEOINT programs are often the recipients of such grants. 

Our partnership with DGF provides unique opportunities for USGIF’s 14 accredited college and university programs,” said USGIF CEO Keith Masback, who is also a member of DGF’s board of directors. “With this access they are able to expand their ability to conduct research and advance the GEOINT tradecraft.” 

In addition to research support, DGF also offers scholarships to select partner schools, including $5,000 annual awards to students at George Mason University and the University of Colorado.

To encourage more global-scale problem-solving from promising geospatial scientists, DGF is gradually expanding its scope beyond awarding imagery grants for specific research projects. Since March, DGF President Kumar Navulur has led the foundation toward investments in three main areas:

  • Leveraging machine learning and spectral analysis to extract insights from data.
  • Promoting the study of foundational sciences where the current global capacity is sub-par, specifically photogrammetry and physics.
  • Creating a cooperative network of research-focused universities.

According to Navulur, DGF has also expanded its reach from just a few universities outside the U.S. to a wider distribution of 50 universities in 20 countries. Additionally, DGF has established a relationship with the African Association of Remote Sensing of the Environment, which consists of about 50 more universities.

The foundation hopes increased support will push young geospatial professionals to seek tangible solutions to major environmental problems.

“I would love for universities to look at how to use imagery to document the quantifiable progress of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals,” Navulur said.

In years to come, DGF partners and grant recipients will benefit from new access to cloud-penetrable radar data from Maxar Technologies, DigitalGlobe’s new parent organization. Additionally, case-specific imagery grants will be supplemented with access to the company’s global base map, DigitalGlobe Cloud Services.

“We are ensuring students have the skills to develop location-based technologies like the Internet of Things and remote sensing,” Navulur said. “Not only will they get jobs, they’ll make a difference in the world.”

Following are case studies featuring seven DGF grant recipients who are already making a difference:

Egyptian Looting

DGF granted three high-resolution images to University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Dr. Sarah Parcak to help measure archaeological looting in Egypt. Illegal digging reports were growing in the Saqqara and Dashur regions south of Cairo. Up-to-date data was not immediately available, so official theft measurements for the area were highly inaccurate until Parcak received access to GeoEye imagery via DGF.

[See image gallery at]


DigitalGlobe Foundation – Sarah Parcak / Girls Inc. from Trajectory On Location on Vimeo.

Surveying Nomadic Health

In one of its first grants, DGF released imagery to Stanford researcher Hannah Binzen Wild for her analysis of health in nomadic pastoral populations in Ethiopia. Wild used the data to locate mobile settlements quickly enough to develop and deliver hundreds of surveys to people living in the remote Nyangatom region of Ethiopia’s Lower Omo Valley. She’s now back at Stanford, working in collaboration with the Stanford Geospatial Center to refine the use of imagery for analysis by developing algorithms to determine average settlement size and other population characteristics. The team hopes these methods and pilot data can serve as a foundation to improve health care access for nomadic populations in other contexts.

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Tracking Gold

Michael Armand Canilao, an archaeologist and University of Illinois in Chicago graduate student, received an imagery grant from DGF supporting his research on ancient gold trading routes in the Philippines. DGF released four sharpened WorldView-2 multispectral images each displaying 1,000 square-foot tiles in northwest Luzon. The imagery enabled a closer look at the trails and, according to Canilao, made clear “how small-scale gold miners were able to negotiate, and, in some cases dictate, the terms of their participation in Early Historical Period maritime gold trade.”

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Mapping the Magan Peninsula

New York University doctoral candidate Eli Dollarhide sought to uncover the true historic landscape of Magan, an ancient peninsula in Oman with an uncertain political past. DGF granted Dollarhide access to Worldview-2 and -3 imagery of the land between Bronze Age settlements Bat and Amlah. This imagery helped Dollarhide’s team determine where to spend their limited time in the field and enabled the discovery of prehistoric tombs, petroglyphs, and roughly 450 other previously undocumented archaeological sites.

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Satellites Over Seals

University of Minnesota researcher Michella LaRue and her team used imagery provided by DGF to determine factors affecting the population variation and distribution of Weddell Seals along the Antarctic coast. Both commercial fishing and the melting of ice caused by climate change have affected the ice-dependent species. The project aims to determine what environmental conditions the seals require to survive. “We literally couldn’t do this research without [this imagery],” LaRue said. She manually scoured the imagery to count seals, and compared her findings to modern, ground-validated counts as well as counts from the 1960s.

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Erosion in the Yukon

It is theorized that slight increases in temperature caused the recent disappearance of the glacial Slims River in the Yukon. Dan Shugar, a researcher and professor at the University of Washington, Tacoma, was awarded WorldView-1, WorldView-2, and GeoEye-1 imagery by DGF to create 3D maps of the region. This enabled him to observe erosion processes in the Slims and Kaskawulsh rivers. Some imagery is being converted into a series of multi-temporal digital elevation models (DEMs) to visualize the hydrological system underground in search of changes that would affect glacial drainage. Shugar called these DEMs “a game changer.” DGF is continuing to work with Shugar on new tasking for stereo and multi-spectral images to detect changes in Kluane National Park.

[See image gallery at]

Valley of the Khans

DGF helped researchers from the University of California San Diego, the Mongolian Academy of Science, and the National Geographic Society in their quest to locate the final resting place of Genghis Khan. In one of its first grants, DGF provided Albert Yu-Min Lin and his team with imagery of multiple areas over Mongolia. The researchers are leveraging the power of the crowd and enlisting the general public to help study the satellite imagery and identify features of interest. The aim is to find Khan’s tomb using non-invasive tools and enable protective conservation methods at the historic site.

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Images courtesy of DigitalGlobe and the individual DGF grant recipients.

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Andrew Knight: A GEOINT Humanitarian Wed, 01 Nov 2017 14:51:35 +0000 Meet the 2017 Ken Miller Remote Sensing Scholarship Recipient

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Helping others has always been important to University of Georgia (UGA) graduate student Andrew Knight. But it wasn’t until he began his college education that Knight realized he could use geospatial intelligence to help people on a larger scale.

“I became interested in the idea of combining humanitarian needs and geoscience when my professor at James Madison University (JMU) during undergrad introduced us to the mapping of disease spread. It made perfect sense to combine my geospatial interests with my desire to give back.”

Andrew Knight is the 2017 recipient of USGIF’s Ken Miller Scholarship for Advanced Remote Sensing Applications. This $10,000 scholarship is offered in partnership with USGIF Organizational Member Riverside Research, and is awarded to a master’s degree candidate studying remote sensing and planning to enter the defense, intelligence, or homeland security workforce. Knight is the second person to earn this prestigious award.

“I have always known I wanted to work with the environment in some form but also I have a huge love for technology,” Knight said. “I found that geosciences were a good fit for me because it allows me opportunities to conduct field work, use cutting-edge technology, and apply concepts broadly.”

Knight is president of UGA’s student chapter of the American Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing. He also volunteers for Habitat for Humanity and is a member of the Boy Scouts of America’s National Honor Society.

For his thesis, Knight aims to combine machine learning with the detection of landmine and unexploded ordinance-like targets using unmanned aerial systems (UAS) and image analysis. He is developing a low-cost method using remotely piloted quadcopters to capture imagery of plastic targets representing landmines hidden in a test minefield.

“This project has allowed me to present to my peers and become a reference in my subfield while bringing high-impact, transformative geospatial technologies to my university,” Knight said. “I am thankful for being awarded the [USGIF Scholarship] as it supports my thesis work by helping me to purchase a UAS and complete my drone pilot certificate. Additionally, the scholarship will permit me to invest in higher quality materials that will be used in my field research for more accurate findings. I also hope to travel to conferences to share my results with the geospatial community.”

Knight currently works at UGA’s Center for Geospatial Research as a research assistant.

“I have really enjoyed working at the center because it is an opportunity for me to put the remote sensing skills I have learned into practice,” Knight said. “The people I work with continually push me to do my best.”

One of the projects Knight has contributed to at the center is an augmented reality system called the Sandbox/Tangible Landscape, which projects geographic information systems onto a malleable surface to create a unique 3D immersion and geo-visualization experience.

After receiving the Ken Miller scholarship, Knight plans to attend USGIF’s GEOINT 2018 Symposium in Tampa, Fla., in April 2018. USGIF scholarship winners annually receive free registration for USGIF’s Symposium.

“I am very excited about the opportunity to attend the GEOINT Symposium as I will be able to share ideas and collaborate with other professionals within the tradecraft,” Knight said. “This symposium will broaden my understanding of the GEOINT field while I learn about the different research opportunities within academia, government, and private industry.”

After he completes his master’s degree in geography, Knight hopes to work in a research laboratory or pursue his education further with a Ph.D.

Photo Credit: Andrew Knight

Return to feature story: The Next Generation of GEOINTers

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Erin Manth: An Intelligence Career in the Making Wed, 01 Nov 2017 14:50:27 +0000 2017 USGIF Scholarship winner applies GEOINT to national security

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With an affinity for current events, history, international affairs, and geography, intelligence analysis was a natural career choice for Erin Manth, who is earning a bachelor’s degree in intelligence studies. Manth, a student at Mercyhurst University in Pennsylvania, is one of 26 recipients under USGIF’s 2017 Scholarship Program.

“Winning the USGIF Scholarship is a great honor and opportunity,” Manth said. “USGIF offers the unmatched opportunity to be part of a wide network of GEOINT professionals. I appreciate the chance to further my understanding of GEOINT through the opportunity to attend the GEOINT Symposium. The scholarship will aid in funding my final semester at Mercyhurst and contribute to other scholastic experiences as I move toward graduation.”

Manth’s interest lies in applying GEOINT to national security and humanitarian response, specifically in the Middle East and North Africa. In spring 2017, Manth studied abroad in Morocco, where she was able to improve her Arabic language skills and cultural understanding.

“It allowed me to see the human element in a diverse society and achieve better understanding of the people that live in the different regions I study,” Manth said.

Manth has participated in various activities on campus related to her studies. She is a member of the National Security Club and a student volunteer for Mercyhurst’s Anti-Human Trafficking Intelligence Cell, which works with a non-governmental organization to provide analysis and research. Manth also works for the university’s Center for Intelligence Research and Training, a research arm of Mercyhurst’s intelligence program. Her team is working on a project for the U.S. Army War College examining Syria’s stability through map creation.

This summer, Manth completed a second internship with the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) as an imagery analysis intern. At NGA, Manth improved her GEOINT skills as well as her intelligence writing and briefing skills. The mentorship while at the agency was one of her favorite aspects of the experience.

“Throughout my internship, I was fortunate to have multiple amazing mentors who have encouraged, inspired, and guided me throughout my professional development in GEOINT.”

Manth graduates in December and hopes to get her first job in the Intelligence Community.

Photo Credit: Erin Manth

Return to feature story: The Next Generation of GEOINTers

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Weekly GEOINT Community News Tue, 05 Sep 2017 17:13:49 +0000 GEOINT Community Maps Hurricane Harvey Devastation; BlackSky to Develop GEOINT Brokering Platform for U.S. Air Force; Airbus and CSO Alliance Partner for Maritime Crime Reporting Platform; exactEarth Brings More Satellites Into Service; More

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GEOINT Community Maps Hurricane Harvey Devastation

Members of the GEOINT Community are providing satellite imagery, launching crowdsourced mapping efforts, and more to assist with Hurricane Harvey relief efforts.

On Friday evening, DigitalGlobe released more before-and-after satellite imagery from the region, and also announced the public can assist with relief efforts via the company’s Tomnod crowdsourcing platform.

Over the weekend, OGSystems announced it has teamed with its Geospark Analytics spin off and Planet to launch a crowdsourced effort to map flooded areas, road closures, and other devastation. The platform includes access to Planet imagery, Twitter feeds, live webcams, news streams, and more.

BlackSky to Develop GEOINT Brokering Platform for U.S. Air Force

The Air Force Research Lab awarded BlackSky a two-year, $16.4 million contract to develop and deliver a cloud-based geospatial intelligence brokering platform. The platform will provide on-demand analytics, collection, and information services from global data sources.

Airbus and CSO Alliance Partner for Maritime Crime Reporting Platform

Airbus Defense and Space partnered with CSO Alliance to build a custom online reporting platform to help counter maritime crime on a global scale. According to the Airbus press release, the platform will provide maritime Company Security Officers with a worldwide, voluntary, and anonymous incident reporting portal for assessing physical and cyber threat activities. The platform is expected to launch in early October.

exactEarth Brings More Satellites into Service

In partnership with Harris Corp., exactEarth is bringing five more satellites from its real-time constellation into service, raising the total to nine. Combined with exactEarth’s first-generation satellites, the company is operating the largest satellite AIS constellation in the world. Eight more real-time satellites are set to launch with Iridium NEXT in October.

Peer Intel

Vricon appointed Eric von Eckartsberg senior vice president of government and chief revenue officer. Von Eckartsberg will drive growth across the company’s U.S. government, international, and commercial sectors.

Photo Credit: DigitalGlobe

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Weekly GEOINT Community News Mon, 31 Jul 2017 16:04:18 +0000 Planet Introduces Rapid Response Team; MDA to Lead Hyperspectral Imaging Research; NORsat-1 and 2 Launch

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Planet Introduces Rapid Response Team

Planet launched a new digital volunteer program in partnership with the Digital Humanitarian Network to help improve humanitarian response. After a major disaster hits, members of the Rapid Response Team can provide the latest satellite images available and/or geospatial analysis directly to field-based aid organizations.

MDA to Lead Hyperspectral Imaging Research

MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates (MDA) signed a five-year contract with Defence Research and Development Canada, an agency of Canada’s Department of National Defence. MDA will lead a team of five Canadian organizations with expertise in hyperspectral imaging and data analysis. This initiative will help develop and validate airborne and ground-based hyperspectral imaging capabilities in ultraviolet, visible near-infrared, and low-wave infrared spectral ranges.

NORsat-1 and 2 Launch

The Norwegian Space Centre announced critical antennas and probes on the NORsat-1 and NORsat-2 microsatellites launched July 14. NORsat-2 carried a large Yagi antenna that will provide first-of-its-kind VHF data exchange from space. Canada’s Space Flight Laboratory built the two microsatellites for maritime traffic monitoring, communications, and science applications on behalf of the Norwegian Space Centre.

Peer Intel

President Trump recently nominated retired Vice Adm. Joseph Kernan to be Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence. Kernan currently serves as the senior vice president of corporate development for SAP National Security Services.

Photo Credit: Planet

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Mapping Invisible Threats Fri, 16 Jun 2017 17:48:08 +0000 Research from UT Austin visualizes air pollution

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An engineering research team from The University of Texas at Austin has developed what it believes is the most comprehensive air pollution map ever, visualizing block-by-block air quality analysis for 78 square miles of Oakland, Calif. The team published its methods and findings from more than a year of research in the Environmental Science and Technology journal earlier this month.

The researchers used Google Street View cars equipped with an Aclima sensor system to repeatedly measure nitric oxide, nitrogen dioxide, and black carbon pollutants in the air at street level. This method allowed for mapping at 30-meter scales—100,000 times the spatial resolution of traditional government monitors, according to the University—revealing that air pollution can vary dramatically within just one city block.

The results were compiled into publically available interactive maps accessible through nonprofit organization Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). Dark red data points indicate areas of heavily concentrated pollution, while light yellow points signify cleaner air. Pollution hotspots included congested intersections, freeways, industrial plants, warehouses, and the Port of Oakland.

This project supports a partnership between Google Earth and EDF, who have worked together since 2012 to identify sources of health risks and environmental harm so communities and lawmakers can take action to improve safety.

According to the journal article, most urban areas have only one official air quality monitor for every 100-200 square miles and often report far lower levels of pollution than actually exist. The research team believes their method should be used in more cities to provide accurate, up-to-date air quality information for local residents whose health and wellness may be affected by pollution.

Image by Aclima

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Geographer of the U.S. Speaks at GEOINTeraction Tuesday Mon, 15 May 2017 15:50:04 +0000 Dr. Lee Schwartz, geographer of the United States, discussed geopolitical boundaries, participatory mapping, human geography, and more

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Dr. Lee Schwartz

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.”

Engaging Communities

MapGive hosted an Ebola mapathon in the city of Ramallah. Photo Credit: U.S. Consulate General, Jerusalem

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

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Modeling the Planet’s Future Fri, 05 May 2017 14:55:04 +0000 Arizona State University professors pair human factors with Earth science models

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Nature and humanity are more co-dependent now than ever, according to researchers at Arizona State University (ASU), where a paradigm shift in predictive modeling is underway.

According to ASU professors Sander van der Leeuw and Michael Barton, the exclusively natural approach taken by standard Earth science models is no longer sufficient. Human impact on Earth has become too significant to ignore and it’s time for Earth science research and analysis to evolve accordingly.

The solution proposed by these ASU experts and their outside collaborators is AIMES 2.0, a new global forecasting plan that will incorporate distinctly human social systems such as the internet, finance, governance, and demography with data from traditional Earth science fields like geology, astronomy, and meteorology.

An ASU SHESC press release compares AIMES 2.0 to “a data-driven version of The SIMS.” Researchers will input variables such as overpopulation, regime change, and greenhouse gas accumulation to predict how humanity would fare under the potential circumstances of the future and recommend sustainable solutions.

According to the press release, “this includes establishing shared computational software, development and implementation standards, and even common research agendas.”

This new methodology is gaining popularity on a global scale; it has already been adopted as a part of international projects Future Earth and The World in 2050, which has received support from NASA.

Photo Credit: Benjamin Reed photography via

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