Geospatial Intelligence: The Made-Up Term That’s Changing the World

Geospatial intelligence is ready to take its place alongside business intelligence, artificial intelligence, and competitive intelligence in the business world.


Around 2003, we in the intelligence and defense communities had a problem. Years earlier, we’d forced together remote sensing and imagery analysis with mapping and charting—two distinct disciplines and cultures—to create the imaginatively named National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA). Though we realized the potential advantage this integrated operational approach would provide us over our adversaries, and despite NIMA performing admirably in the wake of 9/11, it simply didn’t work as envisioned. Myriad obstacles, primarily related to history and culture, and to a lesser extent immature technologies, complicated our quest.

Taking a few pages from the books of successful change agents, we decided to rally NIMA’s workforce around a new vision for a collective future—without disregarding any of the respective heritage organizations and tradecraft. The agency needed a new name and a new operating framework.

After much whiteboarding and brainstorming, we settled on the term “Geospatial Intelligence,” which allowed us to acknowledge the mapping and imagery collection and analysis legacies while providing something new, as well as a new moniker: the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA).

Congress added the required language into the fiscal year 2004 National Defense Authorization Act and President Bush signed it into law, but no one in government, industry, or academia (U.S. or abroad) knew what GEOINT actually was. We’d created an internal strategic communications campaign to bring the workforce along—but what about getting the rest of the world excited about this new term and new operational construct?

And so, in the fall of 2003, Geo-Intel 2003 was hastily conceived and executed in New Orleans. This highly collaborative effort, led by a group of government and industry executives who recognized the need to foster discussion around GEOINT, exceeded everyone’s expectations. This growing nucleus of a public-private partnership led to the creation of a nonprofit educational foundation—USGIF—to foster the idea of GEOINT, to produce future events, and to germinate the education, training, and professional development to underpin the nascent GEOINT tradecraft.

With a very small staff and a strong cadre of volunteers, the Foundation has grown from this initial event to an annual GEOINT Symposium with as many as 5,500 attendees and hundreds of exhibitors. Additionally, USGIF has eclipsed 250 member organizations, awarded more than $1.1 million in scholarships, presented GEOINT Certificates to 800+ students from our 14 accredited academic programs, and developed the standards for a professional GEOINT certification program.

GEOINT is now a commonly used term globally in the defense and intelligence context, and the engagement among government, industry, and academia has been remarkably successful and fruitful. Adoption of the term continues to grow.

Those who apply it will have a decided advantage. Those who fail to apply it will ignore the power of GEOINT at their own peril.
– Keith Masback

As time passed, it became clear that technological advances were combining to create something we termed “The GEOINT Revolution.” This included the commoditization of commercial remote sensing, powerful analytic software, ubiquitous precision geolocation data, far-reaching broadband, rapidly advancing processing power, affordable cloud storage, and advanced analytics and visualization.

However, the government and military aren’t the only ones affected by the GEOINT Revolution. The features in this issue—a chronicle of crisis mapping successes during natural disasters that affected the U.S. in 2017, an examination of GEOINT law and policy in the commercial realm, and a special report from SXSW on the state of artificial intelligence—are a strong testament to this.

The expanding application of GIS, the ongoing maturation of location intelligence, and burgeoning business use cases across a number of verticals are sparking further imaginative approaches. GEOINT technology has gone viral, though the term “GEOINT” has not. Some are trying to stretch the definition of GIS, or cram more into the concept of location intelligence than logically fits.

Ironically, the community is at an inflection point where we’re experiencing the inverse of the problem we faced in 2003. We have the near-explosive emergence of a powerful synergy in the commercial world at the nexus of remote sensing from phones to drones to space, geospatial and location information of all types and layers, data analytics, and data visualization…but no term to describe it.

So, USGIF proposes that geospatial intelligence is ready to take its place alongside business intelligence, artificial intelligence, and competitive intelligence in the business world. The GEOINT framework has been in dynamic, iterative development for 15 years.

It’s time to talk about GEOINT in the commercial and consumer marketplace. It’s time to share lessons learned and to crosswalk best practices. It’s time to develop GEOINT practitioners native to the commercial sector. It’s time for GEOINT to be taught in business programs at the undergraduate and graduate level. From precision agriculture, to oil and gas exploration, high-velocity logistics, marketing and retail, smart cities, the Internet of Things, and autonomous vehicles, GEOINT is a key competitive differentiator. Those who apply it will have a decided advantage. Those who fail to apply it will ignore the power of GEOINT at their own peril.

Taking GEOINT to the commercial sector is an ambitious undertaking, and I hope you are as excited about the possibilities as we are.

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