Individual Core Geospatial Knowledge in the U.S.

Insights from a comparison of U.S. and UK GEOINT analyst education


The geospatial intelligence (GEOINT) discipline has arrived at an inflection point where its teaching methods must be changed. Adaptive learning can improve the learning of core geospatial knowledge which is essential for the integration of artificial intelligence (AI) with the work of humans. With increasing amounts of geospatial and imagery data, organizations may leverage AI in the image and data processing environment and then rely on the cognitive capabilities of GEOINT analysts to perform geospatial analysis and problem-solving. Compared to the United Kingdom, the United States GEOINT Community contains a pool of talent with widely varied education and backgrounds. UK education focuses more on essential core geospatial knowledge, thus new prospective students may see GEOINT as a career path earlier on. In the U.S., students may not be aware of GEOINT until discovered through military service or later in their career path.

The interconnected relationship of the UK and the U.S. demonstrates an interest to examine the systems in place to educate GEOINT analysts. We’re talking about the differences in preparation with a goal to understand and improve the teaching of the GEOINT analyst. A recent Pennsylvania State University research seminar examined who the GEOINT analysts are, where they work, where their education takes place, and what foundation is developed. Findings also highlighted the professional community as an underpinning in the preparation of the GEOINT analyst.

Geospatial Intelligence and Work Goals

GEOINT’s historic foundations are cartography, mapping, and imagery analysis. Currently, geospatial intelligence, as defined by the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), is the exploitation and analysis of imagery and geospatial information to describe, assess, and visually depict physical features and geographically referenced activities on the Earth. It has been said that, “Geospatial intelligence—or GEOINT—is a highly evolved intelligence discipline that goes beyond telling you what is happening, where it is happening, and when it is happening—it also reveals how it is happening, why it matters, and what is likely to happen next.”

In contrast, in the UK, geospatial intelligence is defined as the spatially and temporally referenced intelligence derived from the exploitation and analysis of imagery intelligence (IMINT) and geospatial information (GeoInf) to establish patterns or to aggregate and extract additional intelligence.

To overcome national differences in definitions of GEOINT, this research focused on principle work goals to compare analyst outcomes. The principles provide a benchmark to connect the work of analysts, design curricula, develop continuing education, and guide GEOINT analysts when encountering new challenges. These principles are:

  • GEOINT seeks knowledge to achieve a decision advantage.
  • GEOINT reveals how human behavior is constrained and/or enabled by the physical landscape, time, and human perceptions of Earth.
  • GEOINT reshapes understanding by discovering relationships through space and time.

U.S. and UK Geospatial Intelligence Communities

An Intelligence Community (IC) is a system of separate government agencies that work both independently and together to conduct intelligence activities. Although differences in the organization of the national intelligence apparatus play a part, vigorous professional communities occupy a particularly central role in analyst learning. It is not hard to imagine a community in which those who teach geospatial analysts teach separately and together to prepare individuals in the IC based on common principles. Trainers and educators have a broad view to identify the organizations, outcomes, and pedagogies. Ideally, professional teaching communities within a national IC are fundamentally oriented to the classroom practice and linked to a variety of external sources of knowledge and support.

The U.S. IC models a federation of government agencies working together to conduct intelligence activities to support the country’s foreign relations and national security. The GEOINT Community is a social unit sharing a common place in this larger IC. It is a partnership among the government, business, and educational sectors known as the National System for Geospatial-Intelligence (NSG), developing an integrated approach to advance the GEOINT mission and tradecraft.                                                                   

British intelligence didn’t officially exist until the Parliament of the United Kingdom, Intelligence Services Act 1994. This act confirmed the existence of the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) and the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), declaring, “There shall continue to be a Secret Intelligence Service.” The concept of the Single Intelligence Environment focused to support decision-makers at all levels is both a mind-set and method of operation. The design of the Defence Intelligence Fusion Centre (DIFC) creates collaboration with dynamic changes to teams depending on the mission and intelligence requirements.

  • 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. 

U.S. and UK Geospatial Intelligence Educational Communities

Comparative education is an established field of study that examines education in one country by using insights from the practices and situation in another country or countries. It is believed that important educational questions can best be examined from an international and comparative perspective. The Bray and Thomas cube models the abstract systems of a nation, its education system, and society. The units of comparison provide a multilevel analysis of the preparation of GEOINT analysts.

A GEOINT Essential Body of Knowledge (EBK) was developed by the United States Geospatial Intelligence Foundation (USGIF) to describe competencies of remote sensing and imagery analysis, GIS analysis, geospatial data management, and data visualization. Research for this article was not able to uncover a UK Body of Knowledge relating to geospatial intelligence or geospatial sciences. The practice of GEOINT in the U.S. can be viewed as the overarching discipline encompassing many subcategories of the IC.

U.S. educational institutions have the unique ability to produce scholars, whose education exceeds the training received in government. A key to examining curricula for the education of GEOINT professionals can be found in geography, GIS, remote sensing, environmental science, and general science degree programs. Curricula in the geospatial community vary to some degree but share common foundational elements. There are other examples of universities offering degrees relevant to crowdsourcing, human geography, and visual analytics.

More specialized training is available through university graduate programs, professional development programs, workshops, and short courses offered by professional and scientific societies. In the U.S., many universities offer courses in core/emerging areas of GEOINT, with recent growth in geodesy, geophysics, and remote sensing. There are 190 universities that offer programs focusing on geodesy and geophysics, 15 offering a concentration in photogrammetry, 105 with a remote sensing related degree path, 189 offering degree tracks in GIS, and more than 400 community/technical schools with geospatial technologies courses.

A majority of education is provided by universities that directly impact the supply of graduates researching relevant topics, breadth of knowledge, and overall quality of candidates. Projected growth rates for graduates in a geospatial career field are expected to rise through 2030 as emerging technologies continue to grow. One recent trend is the blending of specialties falling under GEOINT. Cartography, photogrammetry, GIS, and geospatial analysis are beginning to overlap due to technological developments and the digitization of maps and mapping products. Graduates potentially could have a specialty in cartography while maintaining a degree plan in a broader subject area.

An intelligence agency such as NGA has a major incentive to participate in, and sometimes fund, educational initiatives that will directly enrich the pool of potential GEOINT employees. One of NGA’s initiatives is to partner with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) to identify Centers of Academic Excellence (CAE) in geospatial sciences (GS) that aim to grow the GEOINT career field by enriching educational opportunities. NGA employs thousands of analysts, many whom have already earned graduate degrees. As NGA standardizes the education and knowledge of future employees through opportunities with CAE for GS, this initiative does not support current employees. To ensure the knowledge standardization of current employees, NGA manages its Geospatial Intelligence Professional Certification (GPC) program. The GPC is available to cleared Department of Defense, civilian, military, and contractor personnel working in GEOINT-related positions throughout the NSG.

By charter, USGIF is dedicated to promoting the GEOINT tradecraft and developing a stronger GEOINT Community to address national security concerns. The foundation’s accreditation of collegiate GEOINT Certificate programs at 14 national and international academic institutions demonstrates this commitment. USGIF maintains an academic board drawn from government, industry, and academia to advance geospatial education and connect new GEOINT analysts with professional opportunities. The USGIF Universal GEOINT Certification Program allows qualifying, experienced professionals to achieve certifications in GIS & analysis tools, remote sensing & imagery analysis, and geospatial data management.

The Royal School of Military Survey (RSMS) is the predominant organization involved in the education of military geographers and fills a unique role unlike anything found in the U.S. Within the UK geospatial intelligence community, RSMS is positioned at the intersection of government and academia, offering multiple education programs developed in conjunction with and accredited by civilian universities to offer full degrees. It educates students from multiple government agencies in multiple locations around the country.

A major role of RSMS is to teach Military Engineer soldiers the key functions of their job roles, including collecting, processing, managing, exploiting, and disseminating geospatial information. All courses at RSMS are delivered in person and designed to meet the requirements of specific Ministry of Defence (MOD) customers. Since 2008, RSMS has been organized into three “training delivery wings,” each with its own curriculum. Individuals assigned to the Geospatial Exploitation Wing at Chicksands are taught how to collect geospatial data using the latest digital capture methods and modern GIS software. Individuals assigned to the Geospatial Exploitation Wing and Geospatial Information Management Wing, both in Hermitage, are responsible for the fundamental principles of map science and cartography in an effort to ensure products of the highest quality.

Education at RSMS yields multiple possible degrees for individuals that complete the flagship programs. Royal Engineer technicians attending soldier training are enrolled on a foundation (two-year) degree course accredited through Sheffield Hallam University. The Foundation Program was launched in 2001 and, according to RSMS, has been successful as a catalyst for soldier recruitment. As a result of the program’s success, RSMS has entered into a contract with Sheffield Hallam University to enable soldiers to continue progressing and earn a full bachelor’s (three-year) degree.

Beyond the foundation degree, the Army Survey Course (ASC) at RSMS was accredited through Cranfield University to award a four-year Master of Science (MSc) degree in 1994. The ASC was revised in 2009 to better cover the needs of the UK IC and was re-accredited to award a MSc in geospatial intelligence. Cranfield University also developed a degree program related to geospatial intelligence to those outside government, offering a MSc in geographic information and a related postgraduate diploma and certificate. Ninety percent of graduates find employment within the geographic information or research sector.

Research Findings

The Scope of the U.S. and UK GEOINT Entities are Different

Our research found the scope of U.S. and UK GEOINT entities are different in size, funding, and design. The size difference is significant and impacts organization of the community, volume of GEOINT products, and scalability to address threats to national interest and geospatial analysis problems not related to security.

The U.S. GEOINT Community is well funded. Just like the size of the community, the UK GEOINT community also has a much smaller budget. The difference in these budgets results in large differences in the scope of the work that can be accomplished by either entity.                                                                                   

A final difference between U.S. and UK geospatial entities is design. The U.S. GEOINT Community is layered. This design of different intelligence services overlapping and repeating efforts is a process of competitive analysis based on as many collection sources as possible. Conversely, UK GEOINT is steered by top-driven requirements.

Education of Analysts Shows Differences Between UK and U.S. Universities

Common principles, the formal standards for training GIS/geospatial intelligence in the UK, via the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) and the Spatial Literacy in Teaching, are more well-defined and accepted compared to U.S. standards. The method of teaching GIS/geospatial intelligence in the UK has borrowed and mirrored a lot of the U.S. methods and standards.

Both countries share similar attributes of geospatial science studies; but the preparation of analysts differs. The U.S. has a large pool of institutions, and, generally, geospatial sciences are presented via ad hoc curricula set by the institution or degree program. U.S. education prepares graduates for employment, often competency-oriented, focusing on skills and technical tradecraft of geospatial analysis.

The organized, sophisticated relationship between RSMS and UK universities is education-oriented to develop a student’s cognitive thought. An integrated approach of civilian universities with RSMS and national quality standards represents where principles drive program design. UK education leads to certified or professional status for military geographers and civilians.

UK Education of Military Engineers is Unique

Members of the British military are trained through partnerships with universities to provide an education tailored to the soldier’s or officer’s branch, but with the rigors of the national education standards. Service members attend RSMS, where multiple formal universities oversee training to provide foundation, bachelor’s, and master’s degrees. Other UK geospatial intelligence analysts are educated from universities and/or formal military training.  

The U.S. Military Academy and U.S. Air Force Academy resemble the RSMS system in educating military officers prior to active duty assignments. U.S. Army and Air Force officers are not specifically assigned to geospatial roles.

Relevance of the Findings

  • Given the similarities and differences in the preparation of the GEOINT analyst between the U.S. and UK, the relevance of our findings suggests the UK focuses more on core geospatial knowledge.
  • In contrast, the U.S. is establishing creditable GEOINT analysts based on course training (civilian and/or military) and certifications post traditional academia degree.
  • The key difference between the two counties is foundation and awareness. For example, the UK offers schools centered on geospatial technical practices, thus new prospective students may see GEOINT as a career path early on. Whereas, U.S. students may not be aware of GEOINT until later discovered in the military or in their geospatial career path. As a result, U.S. students tend to gain higher education focused on GEOINT via accredited GEOINT program/schools, subsequently earning specific GEOINT credentials per employer or agency requirements.


The GEOINT discipline has arrived at the point where teaching methods must change to address the lack of individual core geospatial knowledge evident with the ad hoc curricula of U.S. institutions and degree programs. Adaptive learning techniques and technology can help. The suggestion of adaptive learning is driven by a realization that the U.S. GEOINT community is far too diverse and complex for non-adaptive approaches. In other words, we need to allow the individual’s learning needs to determine what they are taught. Adaptive learning is an educational method which uses computers to orchestrate the allocation of human and mediated resources according to the needs of each learner. Specifically, computers adapt the presentation of material according to students’ learning needs.

Adaptive learning seems the best means to address the identified lack of core geospatial knowledge in the U.S. GEOINT Community. It is likely that this knowledge is essential for the integration of AI with the work of humans. The possible implications of new GEOINT technology affects communication, the way analysis is performed, and all aspects of imagery collection and data storage/manipulation. The community can be influenced through elements, links, and the environment—with technology adding a dynamic to the process. The elements are analysts, agencies, and academic institutions. The links include the ability to communicate and develop transferrable skills. The environment in this case is significantly influenced by the academic community’s ability to adequately prepare the student with the essential knowledge that serves as the foundation of understanding. Applying adaptive learning to the core geospatial knowledge can change the environment for the better.

With a shared goal for the community to improve GEOINT curricula, the focus can’t be on change at each institution. The path to changing the learning environment for GEOINT analysts is to change the way students are taught—to provide customizable education. Our comparison of U.S. and UK preparation of GEOINT analysts, including the RSMS case study, highlights the fundamental differences between the education systems in these two countries. The GEOINT Community must come together to improve the preparation of analysts. Focusing on the environment, improvements to GEOINT curricula, program design, ways of teaching, and pedagogical methods may significantly impact the foundation of professionals’ critical thinking skills and ability to analyze complex problems.

Headline Image: Second Lieutenant Abigail Freeman of the 7th Military Intelligence Battalion, British Reserve Forces works with 48th Infantry Brigade Combat Team Intelligence Officer Maj. Luke Gurley and Capt. Sam White, assistant intelligence officer, to construct a modified combined obstacle overlay during the 48th IBCT’s eXportable Combat Training Capability rotation at Fort Stewart, Ga. Freeman was trained with the 48th IBCT through the Military Reserve Exchange Program. Photo Credit: Capt. William Carraway, Georgia National Guard



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