L1.06: The Emerging Definition


The Official Definition of GEOINT

The official United States Government definition of Geospatial Intelligence is stated in U.S. Code Title 10, §467 as:

The term 'geospatial intelligence' means the exploitation and analysis of imagery and geospatial information to describe, assess, and visually depict physical features and geographically referenced activities on the earth. Geospatial intelligence consists of imagery, imagery intelligence, and geospatial information.”

It is not unreasonable to say that this definition, written in 2003, was crafted to inform how NGA operated with the other US intelligence agencies, but was not intended as the functional definition of the discipline. I might note that there is no hyphen between the words geospatial and intelligence.

GEOINT is the commonly used acronym formed from the initial components of the words "Geospatial" and "Intelligence." It has been said that the 2003 renaming of NIMA to NGA recognized the emergence of geospatial information as an intelligence source in its own right. In the US, the term GEOINT is used to connote a source of intelligence like HUMINT or SIGINT. The national differences notwithstanding, GEOINT is different from the other sources (e.g., SIGINT) and is inherently multi-source. This is to say, it integrates and enriches information collected by the other INTs into a space-time context.

Emerging Definition of GEOINT

The narrow definition of GEOINT in the U.S. Code does a disservice to the discipline when considering geospatial intelligence is broader than as narrowly defined in the US law. While Geospatial Intelligence is essential in the traditional intelligence areas of deterring war, resolving conflict, and promoting peace, GEOINT is also important to other areas such as supporting the commercial sector and civil authorities. There is an emerging definition of Geospatial Intelligence that is vastly different from the U.S.'s statutory definition. An enhanced definition was offered by Bacastow and Bellafiore in 2009. The emerging definition is:

Geospatial intelligence is actionable knowledge, a process, and a profession. It is the ability to describe, understand, and interpret so as to anticipate the human impact of an event or action within a place-time environment. It is also the ability to identify, collect, store, and manipulate data to create geospatial knowledge through critical thinking, geospatial reasoning, and analytical techniques. Finally, it is the ability to present knowledge in a way that is appropriate to the decision-making environment.

In the above definition, I want to highlight that GEOINT's process includes Geographic Information Science (GIScience) and Geographic Information Technologies (GIT) when creating geospatial knowledge. Recall that GIScience and GIT are also referred to collectively as GIS&T. I want to be absolutely clear that GIScience and GIT includes the US Title 10 elements of imagery and imagery analysis. In fact, GIScience and GIT (collectively GIS&T) are promoting an integration of the science and technologies associated with remote sensing, geodesy, surveying, photogrammetry, image processing, and many more disciplines including, but not limited to, cartography and the cognitive sciences.

Central to this emerging definition is the notion that the focus of GEOINT is understanding how people organize and arrange their activities on Earth's surface. For all the emphasis in GEOINT on data and technologies, people remain GEOINT's most precious analytic resource. The analyst describes, understands, and interprets so as to anticipate the human impact of an event or action. The analyst's work involves the analysis of place and time using geographic information sciences (GIScience), geographic technologies (e.g. satellites, UAS, UAV, GPS, GIS, and cyber) and a unique tradecraft.