The Cross-Flow of Information for Disaster Response

Efficiently and effectively sharing data across communities


The flow of geospatial information and services across organizational boundaries is ultimately the fulfillment of the social contract, or the expectations between the government and its people. In a humanitarian assistance/disaster response scenario, there is an expectation that an element of the government, whether federal, state, or local, will show up and provide some kind of situational awareness. This can range from hard copy maps to an application displaying the location of critical infrastructure.

Recently, we’ve learned a lot about the operations of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), but the lead federal agency in disaster response situations varies depending on the specific statutes governing the response. The focus needed to satisfy federal, civil, and non-governmental needs involves the evolution of policies and tools. Policy issues include (but are not limited to) federally controlled unclassified data dissemination guidance and awareness of the guidance available to invoke Defense Support of Civil Authorities (DSCA). Tools include both specific databases and aggregation services for situational awareness data such as the Pacific Disaster Center’s EMOPS tool and many more. These are tools that enable the sharing of aggregated geospatial data—a need the public demands of its government in disaster situations.

Aggregation is arguably one of the most important functions to fulfilling this social contract. There must be a place to have threaded, focused discussions at a controlled unclassified level over a mobile device complementing all of the other communication methods used. Understanding the data within government and how it is managed is one part of this complex puzzle. Yet U.S. society demands that these approaches be designed and smartly executed as part of the services, or contract, paid for by taxpayer dollars.

The previous administration’s Executive Order 13556, issued in 2010, established a Controlled Unclassified Information policy, but the implementation of this effort to corral the wide range of differing unclassified control systems (including ”For Official Use Only” and “Law Enforcement Sensitive”) requires the replacement of “hundreds of different agency policies and associated markings.” This policy issue must be resolved as the geospatial community as a whole strives to understand the sharing paradigm in fulfilling the social contract. Commercial industry does a tremendous job supporting disasters, especially when one of the sponsor nations invokes the International Disaster Charter, a UN-derived agreement among 16 nations to share remote sensing information during major disasters, opening the spigot for all manner of geospatial data to flow into data lakes such as the Hazard Distribution Data System to assist first responders. Yet, the cross-flow of data can always be improved through the use of tools in concert with an awareness of how different elements of government work, especially civil-military relations in a disaster context.

One way to understand how the federal-civil community works with the Department of Defense (DoD) is to review Joint Publication 3-28, Defense Support of Civil Authorities. Analyzing the multifaceted dynamics of policies, however, tells only one part of the story. The real key is some kind of focus on shared access among first responders and other users of geospatial data during a crisis—people who leverage and use these data outside the world of theory and in the chaotic environment that is the modern world. The crucial component is having data at the point of need, which includes hard copy of the type provided during the recent hurricanes by the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) in concert with the Defense Logistics Agency.

  • 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. 

Point cloud-based visualizations complement powerful analysis provided by web-based analysis tools such as the National System for Geospatial-Intelligence Open Mapping Enclave during any kind of disaster response scenario or other geospatially referenced problem. Yet, despite the success, the challenge remains control. Not just control for security’s sake, but also program control to understand usage and system metrics in an agile programming environment. Or, managing shareholder/user expectations and ensuring profit while providing a cyber-resilient community service in a fast-paced geospatial intelligence (GEOINT) economy that demands success. Approaches to solve these problems must be tethered to a set of users ranging from novice to advanced, requiring uniform cataloguing of data and easy dissemination. This includes GIS-ready data lakes for the advanced user to manipulate complementing simple visualizations to provide key decision-makers with at-a-glance updates. Implementing rules that incorporate all data, categorized by confidence of quality (spatial and thematic) in a common language will allow decision-makers access to all data available and to take action accordingly.

At a minimum, a properly designed tool should incorporate source (state data, authoritative, ancillary, etc.), accuracy, projection/datum, classification/category, credential/permissions, and temporal. Yet the time to observe this information is also at a premium given the tyranny of the immediate need on mobile devices. Shared access, then, is more than simply providing geospatially-ready data and services. It is about understanding the consumer base and the psychology of the user at multiple points of need. It also means moving beyond the comfort of email into shared spaces to communicate.

Collaboration between the federal-civil, DoD community, and leaders of existing data aggregation programs/tools is imperative to the successful implementation of the suggested cross-flow of information. The existence of programs like the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) Airport GIS is an example of such a program, and much can be learned and duplicated/avoided as a result of this effort. Airport GIS offers funding to airports that are already required to submit electronic airport layout plans (eALPs), and who submit such plans in a way that is digestible to the geospatial repository. This results in data that is already required to be captured, attributed, and delivered in a common format that can be stored in the FAA’s database as well as be used by the airport operations themselves for enhanced functionality and increased operational efficiency. Social business software also sets the stage for the aggregation of data and services, but this can only be accomplished if the user base complements their dependence on email communications.

Email is a useful tool, and yet, it ruins so much productivity in wasted communication. Users benefit from migrating to “complementary” services that reduce this wasted time, such as Dropbox and Jive. Fortunately, the geospatial community has access to many tools that can help link various datasets. One example is the Structured Analytic Gateway for Expertise (SAGE), a Jive-based platform for social business communication.

A DoD Inspector General report from 2013 highlights a powerful capability to share data among various users within the academic community. The recommendation is to create varied methods of communication for a range of users as part of the National Centers of Academic Excellence program such as through the use of the SAGE environment. This is a powerful capability that enables controlled, unclassified, and mobile access to data sponsored by a DoD component. It complements and, in some cases, replaces the need for email, especially in the arena of the federal civil community’s engagement with the Intelligence Community/DoD. The U.S. Geological Survey’s Civil Applications Committee (CAC) facilitates this effort, creating a disaster hub to share data previously sent out only via a large email alias. This data provides a hub for complex information sets that previously operated in the purview of large email aliases. Field data can also be leveraged by increasing deployment of software to the various app stores and through the use of shared software code facilitated by GitHub. One example of this is the Mobile Awareness GEOINT Environment (MAGE), recently used to support FEMA operations in Puerto Rico. This app was previously only available on the GEOINT App Store inside the DoD firewall but is now openly available for consumption by Apple or Android devices.

For example, these capabilities allow volcanologists dealing with an erupting volcano to quickly get data on their mobile devices, potentially bringing to bear the shared expertise of hundreds of imagery and other geospatial-services professionals. Similarly, a disaster manager working issues associated with Puerto Rican hospitals severely damaged in the wake of Hurricane Maria can receive and share appropriate geospatial datasets from a multitude of communities. This approach does not solve access problems associated with data management protections, but it does expose data efficiently to allow for shared discussion of a problem set. Questions can be posed and answered quickly without resorting to emails that often unintentionally leave crucial individuals out of the loop. All of these initiatives complement overarching and unifying efforts across the geospatial civil and military communities, such as the GeoPlatform developed under the auspices of the Federal Geographic Data Committee.

The cross-functional competencies within USGIF’s GEOINT Essential Body of Knowledge (EBK) are “synthesis, reporting, and analysis.” The description of synthesis is to identify, locate, and obtain essential information efficiently and effectively. Social business tools such as SAGE and MAGE under the auspices of full-spectrum geospatial support committees such as the CAC and Federal Geographic Data Committee (FGDC) allow the union of controlled, unclassified, and mobile access, and are an ideal venue to enable this aspect of the EBK. Policies will change and morph, but proper communications enabling a free-flowing exchange of ideas among a wide group of users is a definite path to the fulfillment of the social contract. Many tools have limited costs as long as the purpose of the endeavor is to support a federal agency or department’s statutory mission set, such as homeland security, disaster response, or even scientific and academic research. Continued funding is needed to provide the best possible support using taxpayer dollars.

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