Accurate, up-to-date information is a first responder’s biggest asset. Data about infrastructure, passable roads, regional populations, and supplies is essential in a crisis, and can be more difficult to obtain in underdeveloped countries. Without immediate access to the right data, first responders scramble to assess damage and lose valuable time that would otherwise be spent helping people.
To assist with relief efforts in both domestic and international disasters, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) developed an open-source web application that collects unclassified imagery from nontraditional sources. Called GeoQ, the tool is accessible on any internet browser and pulls together geo-tagged data from social media, maps, news, Earth imaging satellites, and more to provide response teams with a holistic picture of disaster areas in real time.
The problem we realized was a lot of people didn’t have this GIS or remote sensing background. They wanted something easy and intuitive to use, and that’s where GeoQ comes into play.
—John Mills, Penn State Applied Research Laboratory
Since its launch on code-sharing site GitHub in April 2014, GeoQ has been deployed for relief management efforts in more than 35 natural disasters, including tornadoes in Oklahoma, earthquakes in Nepal and Japan, typhoons in the Philippines, and the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.
Traditional damage evaluations can take up to 72 hours—during which relief agencies operate mostly “blind” on the ground. But GeoQ can provide a thorough damage assessment within 24 hours of an event, according to Ray Bauer, NGA‘s innovation lead and GeoQ project manager.
In the first ever applied use of GeoQ—a 2013 tornado in Moore, Okla.—“We were able to have 90 percent of the damage assessment done before we could get imagery from traditional sources,” Bauer said, referring to the period just after a disaster when relief agencies rush to compile data before deploying response teams.
As data pops up online—such as geo-tagged photos on Instagram or helicopter footage from live news broadcasts—GeoQ’s crowdsourced workflow allows users to quickly receive and filter information to annotate at-risk areas. Emergency volunteers working online from relief agencies around the world are assigned manageable cells of land in the affected region and pore over the data, placing markers for things such as roadblocks and flood perimeters.
Responding agencies can pull up the crowdsourced analysis on their computers or mobile devices, and can share information directly with other agencies. That shared accessibility is one of GeoQ’s primary benefits.
“In working with [federal, state, and local partners], we realized the inefficiencies of everyone doing their work a little bit differently,” Bauer said. “If you looked at the houses after Hurricane Sandy, they got marked with three or four Xs. Different organizations would come through and put a red X on the door … to show that they’ve already accounted for this property.”
With GeoQ, NGA hopes to standardize responder workflows and reduce that kind of overlap and resource waste to establish a more collaborative model of disaster relief.
Because of their access to tools and bandwidth for damage analysis, federal governments typically lead major disaster response efforts as requested by state and local authorities. GeoQ’s open-source approach helps give similar bandwidth to local responders so time isn’t lost communicating up the chain of command. Another benefit is geospatial intelligence (GEOINT) data held locally is often far more detailed and up-to-date than federal data.
“All disasters are local,” Bauer said, meaning that because disasters are primarily community-based in their impact, relief efforts should begin at the local level rather than the current model for disaster relief that puts most of the responsibility on federal agencies.
Bauer wants to flip the script with GeoQ to give more power to local entities such as fire departments and volunteer organizations, which are in a better position to provide immediate help but often lack sophisticated analytic technology.
“We’re giving them the fishing pole and teaching them how to fish,” Bauer said.
NGA’s desire to share this local-first concept with the rest of the Intelligence Community and beyond is what led it to release GeoQ code on GitHub for free download and unrestricted use.
This means a user not affiliated with NGA could identify inefficiencies with the platform, alter GeoQ’s code, and upload the new, updated version on GitHub. If NGA approved the solution, it could be added to the source code. NGA hopes this low barrier to entry will encourage non-government organizations and private companies to participate.
“We’ve had several companies who have pulled the software down and have taken some of the ideas from GeoQ and started to implement it in their own software,” Bauer said. “That’s awesome. It’s about being open, transparent, and sharing ideas.”
Such a high level of transparency has led to significant leaps for GeoQ in the past three years.
GeoHuntsville, a nonprofit initiative in Alabama that unites organizations to improve disaster management, led an effort beginning in 2014 to integrate GeoQ with the operations of nearly every response agency within the municipality. This includes law enforcement, fire and rescue, medical, dispatch, civil air patrol, and more.
According to GeoHuntsville CTO Chris Johnson, “[GeoHuntsville] working groups were seeking a technology platform that would both visualize spatial data and capture tactical activities going on during an event.”
The organization wanted every Huntsville responder sent into a damage-prone area to be able to answer four questions: ‘Who am I?; Where am I?; How am I; and How can I report my activity back to the rest of the responding community?’
“We started using GeoQ to address the four questions, and also to help us break down workload, which it turns out GeoQ does very well,” Johnson said.
Now, GeoHuntsville utilizes its “Responders Working Group”—a collective of public safety specialists—to address prospective real-world challenges using GeoQ. GeoHuntsville’s technical unit, the “Geospatial Intelligence Working Group,” develops pilot programs and functional experiments based on those challenges to stress-test emerging tools and capabilities within GeoQ. NGA analysts as well as Federal Emergency Management Agency teams have participated directly in a number of these GeoHuntsville pilots.
“Through this working collaboration, we’ve been able to add a lot of features to GeoQ. And the wonderful thing about that is it doesn’t just benefit us in Huntsville,” Johnson said. “We are sharing [these capabilities] with everyone through GitHub.”
In August 2016, GeoHuntsville teamed with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Weather Service to explore the use of unmanned aircraft systems as a platform to deliver live imagery to first responders on the ground. That intake of real-time surveillance paired with the ability to track the unmanned vehicle was new to GeoQ.
In the same exercise, GeoHuntsville developed a YouTube filter within GeoQ. Now, an operator can pull up an effected area on his or her screen and query YouTube for a specific keyword, timestamp, or location to pull real-time video data as soon as civilians post it online. Such data could be instrumental in determining where to direct resources and avoiding repeat coverage.
Pennsylvania State University has also contributed to GeoQ’s field testing and open-source development.
John Mills, a technologist with Penn State’s Applied Research Laboratory (PSU ARL), worked alongside Bauer on NGA’s “Map of the World,” and took a lead in enhancing GeoQ’s automation and data analytics when it first launched.
“The problem we realized was a lot of people didn’t have this GIS or remote sensing background,” Mills said. “They wanted something that’s easy and intuitive to use, and that’s where GeoQ comes into play.”
PSU ARL joined forces with the PSU College of Information Sciences and Technology’s Red Cell Analytics Lab to focus on predictive analytics and implementation of open-source software into local, state, and federal GIS workflows. PSU students test GeoQ in the field, with student-run analytics teams evaluating and managing security threats at events such as Penn State football games at Beaver Stadium and THON, the world’s largest student-run philanthropic event.
According to Mills, the Red Cell teams have focused primarily on two initiatives: exploiting social media to access data, and supplementing GeoQ with other open-source projects such as NGA’s Mobile Awareness GEOINT Environment (MAGE) app. MAGE allows users to create geo-tagged data reports containing observable photo, video, or audio records, and to share those reports instantly with other team members.
“I call it the Red Cell Army,” Mills said. “They were able to go out and use MAGE to do event observable collects, and then in real time, GeoQ was in the emergency operations center in Beaver Stadium and you could see all these [MAGE] data sets popping up. That allowed emergency response folks to better do force deployment.”
Additionally, Mills continued, PSU ARL supervisors and Red Cell Analytics Lab members meet with government stakeholders—including NGA—to observe workflows and brainstorm ways the process could be automated to improve GeoQ’s efficiency and efficacy.
Though the application’s development has been primarily focused on disaster relief, GeoQ’s collaborative model has broader possibilities. The tool is designed to be applied internationally and in other industries.
People on six continents have downloaded or shown interest in GeoQ on GitHub. For example, an insurance company reached out to NGA about using GeoQ for after-damage reports to show where agents made adjustments.
Archaeologists have shown interest as well, according to Bauer. GeoQ currently divides land into single kilometer cells, but perhaps, he said, the program could be used to divide land into centimeter cells to support the examination and analysis of historic excavation sites.
The Next Level
For the next generation of GeoQ, NGA is exploring gamification to incentivize more people in the GEOINT Community to use the program. For now, GeoQ still requires an entry-level background in damage analysis and data management to be used productively.
To encourage engagement, NGA released in late 2014 a gamification code within the program that rewards volunteer analysts with badges and points based on feature creation within GeoQ. For example, a contributor might gain five points for marking five damaged houses within their assigned cell—once they acquire 10 points, they’d earn a badge. Accumulation of badges leads to higher clearance to assist in further, more intense disaster relief.
Badges and other user awards can be exported into a folder called the “Open Badges Backpack,” where contributors can show off their expertise.
Bauer joked about his children’s enthusiasm for virtual games. “We can see how powerful this gamification is—now imagine if we can start to use it for good,” he said.
According to Bauer, tests of this gamification technique during real-world events have engaged analysts working side-by-side in friendly competition to earn more points and badges.
Bauer said perhaps by incorporating GeoQ into emergency response training programs for the public “[NGA] could start to develop a community in the future where we have civilians participate in first response.”
Through its open source code, GeoQ and similar applications provide first responders and volunteers with unprecedented speed and ease of use in data sharing. The advent of open-source tools will help keep first responders informed and unified in their assessments of danger and damage, enabling superior aid and ultimately saving more lives.
Featured image: GeoQ allows anyone with a web browser and an understanding of geospatial tools like Google Earth and ESRI ARC products to support a project. Contributors focus on information within the image as well as outside the frame to rapidly assess impacts and changes of disasters over large geographical areas to produce detailed features from traditional and non-traditional data sources quickly. (Credit: NGA)