GEOG 882
Geographic Foundations of Geospatial Intelligence

10.6 Geospatial Intelligence in Support of IHR


International disasters can be even more complex than domestic disasters. In the last lesson on Katrina we saw the challenges faced by the US government, state and local governments, and NGOs in dealing with a major hurricane disaster. Consider, however, that only one set of national laws applied, most people spoke the same language, and the resources of the rest of the US could be brought to bear. Now consider the challenge for US government and NGO personnel when working on an international disaster relief mission. The host nation government is in charge and their laws apply. There could be several affected nations, thus there could be several sets of laws and several different languages with which to contend. The affected nation could quite probably be a developing world nation with far less infrastructure and fewer resources than found in the US. The affected populations may have a far higher number of lower socio-economic class citizens with far fewer personal resources than in the US (think social justice issues on a much larger scale). US government elements will usually work with several other partner nations providing relief, as well as many more local and international NGOs. The point here is that international humanitarian relief operations can be very complex.

Just as GIS&T has a major contribution to make to domestic disaster preparedness and relief, it also has great potential for support of international humanitarian aid and relief operations. Many of the same challenges found in domestic activities apply to international efforts. US Government geospatial intelligence (already challenged at the inter-agency level) faces even greater challenges and constraints when dealing with partner nations and organizations that might not be particularly sympathetic or friendly to the United States. Read the following selections and consider how geospatial intelligence can be leveraged by governments, IGOs, and NGOs to support international disaster relief and humanitarian aid agencies. Consider the limitations faced by the US government and how such limitations might be overcome.

You will watch a short video from the Geospatial Revolution series on applications of geospatial technology in the Haitian Earthquake. You will then review three short articles on the web that approach this topic from different perspectives.

Mirroring the question concerning geospatial intelligence and law enforcement, consider these questions as you review this material:

  1. Is the application of GIS&T to international disaster relief and humanitarian aid really an application of geospatial intelligence? Why or why not?
  2. Given what you know of the application of geospatial intelligence to US national security activities, compare and contrast how the international relief community (especially non-governmental organizations) uses GIS&T and geospatial intelligence.
  3. Is a geospatial intelligence approach appropriate for the different elements of the international relief community (why or why not)?

Required Viewing

Watch the section "Why we need it" on the Haitian Earth Quake (video begins at 7:08)
Click for transcript.

DIGITAL FEMALE VOICE: Welcome to The Geospatial Revolution.

CAPT. ARTURO DERRYBERRY: In a world where everybody's texting, geospatial technology is critical to understanding what's happening at a particular location.

MARK BRENDER: It's the speed of the internet. It's a capability of remote sensing satellites. It's software like Google Earth. Taken all together, we have an explosion in the way we view the earth.

WALTER SCOTT: Everybody's somewhere. Everything's someplace. And a map is a way of organizing of all that information.

DAVID COWEN: It's information from aircraft, from satellites, it can be a collection of information from a tower that you've set up.

KASS GREEN: We've been using maps for hundreds and hundreds of years to know where we are. Now, that nice lady tells me which way to turn.

GPS: Turn right, then turn left.

ADENA SCHUTZBERG: Virtually all the information that you're sharing with anybody these days has some kind of geospatial tag on it.

PATRICK MEIER: It's really the human element. There's basically this entire information ecosystem that we have access to now.

JOE FRANCICA: I can receive information. I can transmit information. I can broadcast my location. And that is revolutionary.

JAN VAN SICKLE: It's amazing. It's cutting edge. It's, well, changing the world.

GPS: In 1/10th mile, turn right at stop sign.

DAVID DIBIASE: Some people call this a GPS. It's a GPS receiver. It is, I think it's fair to say, a miracle of science and technology. It's able to collect signals from global positioning satellites far up in space.

ADENA SCHUTZBERG: Each one of them is every moment of every day saying, this is the location I'm at in orbit around the Earth. If you know where you are with respect to three satellite points, you can use mathematics to determine where you must be on the face of the Earth.

DAVID DIBIASE: There are millions of coordinates encoded in this box.

GPS: Re-calculating.

DAVID DIBIASE: And it can take those coordinates and render a map on the screen for you.

GPS: Turn left on Whitehall Road. Then, turn left in 0.3 miles.

DAVID DIBIASE: Where do all those coordinates come from? Where do those streets come from? Lots and lots of people driving special cars, continuously up and down every single road and digitizing those roads into a database that then can be downloaded into this little box.

MICHAEL JONES: There's nothing new about mapping. You can imagine, without being able to talk, somebody showing where you're going, and draw a line, show where the river is, and X where they are now, and X where they're going to go.

MARK BRENDER: Viewing the earth has really been based on technology. The Babylonians etched the lay of the land on clay tablets and 2300 BC. And then in the 15th century, with the advent of printing, they started making maps using wooden blocks.

DAVID DIBIASE: Surveyors would map by making measurements in front of them to a reference point and then back behind to the reference point they had just passed. That information had to be transcribed into a map.

DAVID COWEN: From in the air, it's as if we sent out thousands of surveyors all at once. Remotely sensed data provides highly accurate measurements of the earth and the features upon it.


GEN. C. ROBERT KEHLER: We rely on satellites for pictures of the earth for communications, for navigation, for weather. Geospatial technology has become woven throughout the fabric of how we live.

JACK DANGERMOND: About 50 years ago, people came along and started building on big-ol' mainframes. Geographic information systems, which would integrate on a map information about culture, about population, about demographics, about physical environment. GIS allows us to bring it all together.

JAN VAN SICKLE: I used the first commercial GPS receiver-- took two men to carry it-- our antenna was a meter square piece of aluminum. We had to have a generator for it. Massive batteries.

TIM TRAINOR: The Census Bureau in the United States needed to capture all of the mine work for roads, railroads, hydrography, and then boundaries. That formed the basis of the first TIGER files in the late 1980s in support of the 1990 census. TIGER was an impetus to technological developments like MapQuest, Yahoo, followed by Google.

MATT O'CONNELL: Google Earth introduced people to the coolness of place. I am here. Where's the nearest Starbucks? Or, where's the nearest hospital?

CHRIS PENDLETON: Now, we're all carrying around GPS. We've got really rich interfaces that allow us to do things that we would only imagine previously.

MICHAEL JONES: On a mobile device, you are the center of the map, and the city is around you, not you see a city and then look for yourself on the map. It's putting you in the map.



ADENA SCHUTZBERG: Say you find yourself in a location that you don't know very well. You might want to find a place to have dinner. Well, what places are around, and which places have other people rated very highly? Maybe you want a particular kind of food within a 15-minute walk.

DAVID COWEN: I've got not only a restaurant, but I've got the map. I can find the reviews of it. I can find out what the menu is.

CHRIS PENDLETON: We're moving away from me having to actively search for something too now searches telling me what I should check out that might be interesting to me. These are the things where location and search start to come together.

JOE FRANCICA: We are becoming individual sensors. We are creating this huge sensor network of people holding these mobile devices. And that information is two-way.

DAVID COWEN: It's not just a passive collection, listen to your GPS technology, tell you how to get to someplace. You're going to say, wait a minute. I see a problem. I want to report that problem. I want to see that someone's going to respond to that.

JEAN PHILIPPE FRANTZ: We were playing basketball. We see the ground keep on moving. I saw a lot of people-- some of them dying. Like, the ceiling killed them.

JEAN-ROBERT DUROCHER: I have both extended family members and close family members who live in Haiti. And the first reaction was more like surreal. Is this really happening?

CAPT. ARTURO DERRYBERRY: We needed to know where we could go in, and so we use geospatial technology to prepare the area with information before we even got there.

CRAIG CLARKE: Approximately 2/3 of the cell towers stayed active. And aid workers and Haitian nationals are posting information saying that they needed help.

PATRICK MEIER: I was watching CNN and immediately called our Ushahidi tech lead in Atlanta. I told him that we needed to move and set up an Ushahidi platform for Haiti.

JAROSLAV VALUCH: Ushahidi's an open-source platform for crowdsourcing crisis information. Basically, that means you are following the local media, Twitter, Facebook, text messages-- any sort of information you can get. Once you aggregate this information and map it, you have a real-time picture of the actual situation on the ground. This information can be used by rescue workers or anyone.

PATRICK MEIER: With an Ushahidi platform, you can decide what kind of map you want to use. OpenStreetMap uses crowdsourcing to do street mapping. And within a few days, OpenStreetMap had the most detailed map of Haiti that was available.

KATE CHAPMAN: There were maps of Haiti before the earthquake, but they just weren't up to date anymore. So people started using donated satellite imagery to trace, in OpenStreetMap, collapsed buildings, clinics, hospitals.

PATRICK MEIER: Within a week or so, we had trained over 100 individuals at Tufts University to map the incidents and the alerts. And then a text number, 4636, was set up for reporting. But these text messages were all going to be in Creole. So we started getting as many of Creole-speaking volunteers as possible.

JEAN-ROBERT DUROCHER: I found out about 4636 effort through a friend of mine. So I got online and started getting involved, basically staying up late after putting the kids to bed, trying to translate as many text messages as I could.


There was this energy. People from, basically, all over the world creating sort of like a support system over the internet.

CRAIG CLARKE: A soccer stadium was serving as a camp for displaced persons. But we didn't know it was there. Through Ushahidi's mapping ability, we knew that that would be a location to take aid. We wouldn't have seen it without them.

CAPT. ARTURO DERRYBERRY: Ushahidi alerted the world that if you've got needs in Haiti, or you're trapped in a building, or you're out of food, or you're injured and you need help, that you can alert us.

CRAIG CLARKE: Whether you are that person in Des Moines, Iowa who's reading Twitter or Facebook or you're a Haitian on the ground, with mobile technology and open sourcing information, you're suddenly empowered.

JEAN-ROBERT DUROCHER: Being able to stay online translating those text messages, you know that that information will be forwarded directly to a specific organization. That really felt like almost I was on the ground helping.

JACK DANGERMOND: A map is worth a million words. Maps communicate with everybody. That's powerful. You can make a difference. And you can look at relationships, and patterns, and processes, and models-- help save the world.

JOE FRANCICA: I don't think we can project 50 years out. But given what we're seeing today, it's just a fantastic explosion of location technology and location based data. And now, we have the devices to read it, and capture it, and visualize it. And that's something that's really helping the geospatial revolution truly explode.

WALTER SCOTT: Revolutions rarely end up the way they started. That's almost a definition of a revolution.

Required Readings

  • Remote Sensing and Humanitarian Aid: A Lifesaving Combination.
  • Using satellite imagery to improve emergency relief.
  • UN Uses GIS to Promote Peace and Provide Aid.

Readings can be accessed from the Lesson 10 Checklist.