Marshaling Data for the Greater Good

A preview of Linking the World CEO Mina Chang’s GEOINT 2018 keynote


While it comes as no surprise that the worlds of geospatial intelligence and humanitarian outreach are very different, Mina Chang, CEO of Linking the World, is fully invested in bringing those worlds together in meaningful, and possibly paradigm-shifting, ways.

“Our industries use such different language,” Chang said. “And when we do have the same terminology, we are using it in such different ways. We need a cultural shift.”

Chang, who is also an International Security Fellow at New America, will moderate a panel on spatial analytics and disaster relief Sunday during GEOINT Foreword, as well as give a keynote address during Monday morning’s general session.

She described how NGOs apply data to their goals of identifying and delivering aid to populations in crisis around the world. Typically, aid organizations’ use of geospatial data is two-fold: First, crisis mapping or post-program output data demonstrates to donors and potential donors how their money has been or will be used. Second, there are mountains of statistics—such as who is located where and what they are doing—that Chang said are not really actionable for aid organizations.

“The military uses this kind of data for contingency planning, and even enemy groups use it,” she explained. “There are tools that allow us to identify problems on the ground, but NGOs are not incentivized to use data in this way.”

Rather, she said, NGOs are forced to use data to meet the needs of donors rather than aid recipients.

“NGOs had to put ourselves in boxes: water, health care, education, etc., in order to target donor dollars,” Chang said.

She said there have been some unintended consequences from incomplete or inappropriate project implementations. Her goal is to recast how the GEOINT Community can use open-source, unclassified tools to support humanitarian organizations in using data to shape truly targeted programming.

“I didn’t want to continue programs that were reactive, so we shifted to becoming proactive,” Chang said. “We know which are the failed states; let’s use the big data tools to see what the next trouble spot would be. We need to build resiliency in target populations against bad actors who want to prey on the peoples’ vulnerability. We can see who is gaining territory to legitimize their ascendancy.”

Chang said it’s essential to identify this tipping point—the moment when aid intervention would be most useful to support local leaders who don’t have tools or jobs to give their populace.

“The 11-year-old boy who works at a checkpoint for a radical group doesn’t care about ideology,” Chang said. “He does it because they give him money for himself and his family.”

Though this paradigm shift will require considerable effort, Chang sees models in the business world for how it could be applied.

“I admire Silicon Valley: They celebrate failures, they learn from those lessons. I so wish our non-profit sector would do that. There are best practices that are not shared, nor lessons learned,” she said, adding that much of the data used to identify a crisis goes afterward into what she called ‘the data basement.’ “We need to apply this data for machine learning. How can we put values on all these indicators? The AI doesn’t exist yet.”

Moreover, Chang said, there is a general lack of coordination of data analysis efforts among NGOs on the ground.

“We have to get them to want to share. As the NGO sector grows and gets better at collecting data from human sources [it can be put to better use].”

Chang is looking forward to engaging with experts from defense, intelligence, and industry who recognize both the consequences and the opportunities of our increasingly interconnected world.

“Geospatial intelligence is vital to understanding the world, but we all understand that data science alone is not enough,” Chang said. “This is a community of people who are not afraid of complex challenges and welcome cross-sector, cross-discipline collaboration. So it is a privilege to keynote at [the GEOINT Symposium] because I know that through coordinated efforts, we all help advance national security and global stability.”


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