“Geospatial” as a Noun

Taking the next step in defining the community


Lt. Col. Michael Wood, UGP

Over my 20-year Army career, I have commanded topographic units and soldiers who were topographic analysts. During that time the lexicon in the community began to change. The Army redesignated Mapping, Charting, and Geodesy (MC&G) as Geospatial Information and Services (Gl&S). Engineer topographic units were retitled to geospatial units and topographic engineer soldiers were redesignated as geospatial engineers. While the term “geospatial” is now commonly used, it primarily serves as an adjective. This article asserts that the term can be legitimately used as both an adjective and noun. Further, establishing “geospatial” as a noun with an agreed definition will provide a term to anchor future growth in our lexicon and lend clarity to the community dialogue. This article seeks to explain the rationale for and value of establishing “geospatial” as a noun in addition to an adjective.

The word geospatial originated in the early ’90s in its hyphenated form “geo-spatial” as a new way to describe the computing environment that mirrored geographic and spatial relationships. This term originally took the word geographic (a noun) and the word spatial (an adjective) and provided a way to describe spatial relationships, entities, and objects within computer programming and geography. At the same time, Geographic Information Systems (GIS) were introduced in software with vector databases, and some geographers described this as geographic information science. Now, with the new capabilities and datasets they use, they could be renamed as Geospatial Information Systems (GIS).

As the government, academic community, and commercial companies pursue changes within technology they seek to better understand what geospatial is defined as. Online definitions still refer to the word geospatial as an adjective and even their definitions are not fully descriptive. More critical, however, is how people conceptualize and use the word geospatial. It is digital geography that uses various datasets to visualize and map the world. It brings physical and human geography together in a digital environment to solve problems with regard to spatial analysis, physiography, sociocultural aspects, and temporal relationships.

Geospatial has grown beyond its previously established definitions and should be thought of as its own field of science. As such, geospatial can reshape how digital geography, mapping, science, and engineering are applied. Geospatial is an inclusive word that integrates disparate data types, which contain many relationships, into one common framework extending beyond environmental engineering into geopolitics, three-dimensional simulated environments, business modeling, vehicle routing, and mapping.

The field of study and the word geospatial are experiencing a significant revolution.

Geospatial is used for anthropology, archeology, and various types of physical and social sciences. If geospatial were properly distinguished within the science,

technology, engineering, & mathematics (STEM) community as its own field of study, a person explaining the word could appropriately classify geospatial engineering, geospatial information, and geospatial intelligence, as sub-disciplines of geospatial. People would still have the choice to use geospatial as an open compound word or as an adjective, but it would not be limited and always reliant upon something else to define it—geospatial would be the entire field. The world geospatial would be used to integrate other fields of science and their disparate datasets, tables, and information to provide a common reference and framework for analysis and decision-making. There are currently geospatial libraries in which various types of sensors store elevation data, satellite and airborne data, drone datasets, three-dimensional models, infrastructure records, and other spatial ontologies.

If the Federal Geographic Data Committee were to agree to define geospatial as a noun then changes could be made to the United States Code Title 6 § 343 and 10 § 467. This could then lead to changes in governance regarding requirements and capabilities that are defined as geospatial. Geospatial would then be re-categorized not only as an intelligence discipline, but as an over-arching field of study. This would provide various communities with a naming structure to organize an ontology for integrating various types of data that have geospatial relationships.

Often, two words are used to describe a capability in this community. When someone asks what you do, it is typical to respond: “geospatial intelligence; geospatial engineering or geospatial science.” Although those terms are still accurate, I recommend it is appropriate to respond with simply “geospatial.” Like the word “physics,” which is a noun, the word geospatial should also be used as a noun to provide a foundation for other fields to build upon.

The science used to create cartographic and geospatial products continues to advance exponentially. We now have Global Positioning System (GPS) receivers in our phones with the ability to search petabytes of data throughout the world and then display visual information from satellites and airborne platforms, points of interest, businesses, infrastructure, and interactive three-dimensional simulations of accurate, real-world, immersive environments. Routing analysis has become more relevant with the advent and democratization of GPS and with cellular devices able to pass coordinates with origin and destination information to various servers to determine optimal routes.

As technology evolved, many techniques of surveying and geodesy that dealt with calculating positioning, gravity, and magnetic fields were renamed under geomatics. By anchoring the lexicon of geospatial, geodesy and geomatics could be reorganized under the geospatial discipline within academic institutions. This is especially important as the software and computations for positioning are directly related to the technology used to define those datasets.

Communities of practice such as the Open Geospatial Consortium, an international nonprofit organization that guides the community in creating open standards for the global geospatial community, have been formed. Universities such as Tufts, Harvard, and MIT have launched initiatives to create geospatial libraries such as The Harvard Geospatial Library.

Mapping and data collection now use the terms lidar, radar, multispectral, superspectral, hyperspectral, infrared, and thermal to describe various forms of data collection across the electromagnetic spectrum. As a science, geospatial focuses on sensors, collection, data, analysis tools, and the people, scientists, analysts, and users who collect, work with, and edit data.

Geospatial enables common devices to task satellites to collect superspectral data of a farm in order to determine the health of crops. UAVs can collect a video over a home to advertise the property. They can map humanitarian disasters and provide a common picture for emergency responders. Full-motion video can be converted into three-dimensional objects for simulated environments and analysis. Volunteered geographic information and crowdsourced mapping allows users to contribute accurate data.

In light of these STEM advances, I propose the following definitions for geospatial:


Noun Defined:

1. The scientific discipline which brings physical and human geography together in a digital environment to solve problems with regard to spatial analysis, physiography, socio-cultural aspects, and temporal relationships.

2. The field of study that describes the relationships of entities based upon proximity or the relative position of things on the Earth.

3. The field of science that uses both information and intelligence to solve spatial problems using technology, engineering, math, sensors, and data.

Noun Examples:

1. There is a revolution underway in geospatial in which digital mapping and routing are being redefined.

2. Libraries and servers that store various types of historic maps, city infrastructure, insurance risks, taxation and plat maps, along with political and administrative boundaries are all geospatial.

3. A wide variety of positions that are geospatial are becoming available within the job market and STEM fields.

Adjective Defined:

1. Relating to or denoting data associated with a particular location.

2. The relative position of things with regard to a coordinate system.

3. Relationships of entities based upon proximity.

Adjective Examples:

1. The accurate geospatial layers for the points of interest provided the ability to navigate quickly to the businesses.

2. The geospatial location within the drone was recorded as it flew over the crops and provided the system’s elevation, latitude, and longitude, in addition to its speed and trajectory.

3. Entities that are closer to one another are more geospatially related than those farther away.

With rapid changes in science and technology we are experiencing a digital revolution of sources, methods, and products used within mapping, positioning, data collection, analysis, and distribution. Penn State described this geospatial revolution within its video series published between 2010 and 2012. USGIF CEO Keith Masback described the GEOINT Revolution in the Q4 2015 issue of trajectory.

Through a further grasp of the entire geospatial field and community there can be further discussion about roles and responsibilities. The next step, however, is to recognize the word geospatial as both a noun and an adjective.

About the author:

Lt. Col. Michael Wood, a U.S. Army Geospatial Engineer Officer, is one of the first geospatial intelligence professionals to achieve USGIF’s Universal GEOINT Professional (UGP) certification, the highest designation in the Foundation’s burgeoning Universal GEOINT Certification Program. He led the Army’s 5th Geospatial Planning Cell, the 320th Topographic Company, and the 60th Planning and Control Cell. He was also a team leader and instructor at the National Geospatial-lntelligence College for synthetic aperture radar, and in 2005 was the Iraq theater geospatial engineer officer. Lt. Col. Wood holds two master’s degrees, one in defense geographic information from the Royal School of Military Survey of Cranfield University in the U.K., and another in military art and science in strategic intelligence from the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College. He is currently assigned to the Department of the Army, G-2 GEOINT Team as the Army Geospatial Information and Services Officer.

Headline photo courtesy of DigitalGlobe. Tools such as DigitalGlobe’s Geospatial Big Data Platform (GBDX) automate information extraction from satellite imagery at scale.

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