L1.08: What Makes GEOINT Different?


How is GEOINT Different?

At this point you may be asking, "How is GEOINT different as a discipline and unique from other geospatial analytic activities?" GEOINT is a sub-discipline of geography and is unique from other forms of geospatial analysis because of its tradecraft. Specifically, GEOINT delivers insights gained from place and time for a decision advantage by integrating Geographic Information Science (GIScience), Geographic Information Technology, and its unique tradecraft. Let's examine the highlighted terms:


Place is fundamental to geography and perhaps the most important concept in GEOINT. At first glance, location and place might seem to be similar terms; however, places have physical and human attributes that make them what they are. Physical attributes may include a description of such things as the mountains, rivers, beaches, and topography of a place. Human characteristics may include the human-designed cultural features of a place, from land use and architecture, to forms of livelihood and religion, to food and folkways, to transportation and communication networks. Place emphasizes the understanding of both of these factors and their integration. To illustrate this you might explore the TED Talk by Daniele Quercia that explains how "happy maps" that take into account not only the route you want to take, but how you want to feel along the way. The following is from an article published by Dr. George Van Otten in the April-June 2014 Issue of the Military Intelligence Professional Bulletin.

Places have unique attributes and characteristics that give them identifiable personalities. Therefore, they are constantly evolving in response to a multiplicity of environmental and human influences. Because places are in a constant state of change, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse, they greatly influence the lives of those who live in or near them. Places are the settings in which people experience life, develop relationships, and form their own unique identities. Human personalities do not form in a vacuum. Instead, they are a product of biology, family structure, and the nature of the places in which individuals live.

In addition to the concrete or absolute space in which places are situated, there are also places that are products of human hearts and minds. In fact, it is common to hear elderly people describe the places where they lived, loved, and worked many years ago, even though these places (as they once were) are no longer part of the modern landscape. Moreover, people are often emotionally tied to specific places. Consider the emotional attachment of most Americans to the site of the World Trade Center in New York City, or the powerful emotional and cultural symbolism associated with the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Places do not usually elicit the same reactions from everyone. While some people think of bucolic settings as ideal, others see them as primitive and uncivilized. Conversely, many see great beauty in the skylines of great cities, while others consider them to be blights on the landscape.

In some places, people are resilient and open to change, while in others, people are tradition-bound and resist even the mildest cultural, social, economic or political changes. Moreover, such resistance sometimes results in conflict, violence, and even war. Understanding the degree to which a people are committed to preserving the status quo relative to the places in which they live should be a fundamental part of the IPB process, because conflict (even low intensity conflict), nation building efforts, and peace-keeping missions all involve changing the nature of the places in which they occur.

Although places are unique expressions of human occupancy in time and space, most are also interdependent. This is because each place tends to fill a specialized role relative to the greater region in which it exists. Some places focus on primary sector activities including agriculture, mining, logging, and commercial fishing, while others serve as centers of commerce, processing, government, and/or manufacturing. All of these places must regularly interact with each other to survive. To fully understand the character of a given place, geographers must be able to identify these interdependencies, while at the same time keeping in mind the distinctive qualities that give specific places their unique personalities. In order to fully comprehend the long-range implications of operational plans in a contested area, professional military analysts must understand the importance of interdependencies between communities, nations, and regions. History is replete with examples of military actions that have resulted in far-reaching unintended consequences. For example, while closing a major regional transportation artery might bring short-term positive results to a specific place, it may also create great regional chaos for allies who depend on that network for vital shipments of food, fiber, and energy.

Places are building blocks of analysis in GEOINT, keys to making sense of the landscape, stages for events, and testimonial to the fact that humans require space to live, work, play, and flourish. People create distinctive places according to their knowledge, technology, and needs. Places are involved in important decisions—personal, corporate, and governmental. Places exemplify the principle events of history. Understanding a place's history, variety, and complexity, and how that place may have shaped a human's life and experiences, are keys to cultural understanding.

Ultimately, in GEOINT, we are concerned with understanding why places, and people in those places, are located where they are and how they interact. To answer this question, we must be comfortable with the underlying concepts and theories of the spatial distribution of a particular phenomenon. The spatial distributions can be a human phenomena, such as population and religion. The spatial distribution can be some sort of the relationship between society and nature, such as potential deaths to natural disasters, as a reflection of topography and socioeconomic processes allocating particular kinds of people to particular places and construction types.

In general terms, geospatial analysis and GEOINT can be considered to be the formal quantitative study of spatial linkages that manifest themselves in space. Spatial linkages are explained using theories and observations such as the First Law of Geography. According to Waldo Tobler, "Everything is related to everything else, but near things are more related than distant things." This law is related to the law of demand, in that interactions between places are inversely proportional to the cost of travel, which is much like how the probability of purchasing a good is inversely proportional to the cost. Within the GEOINT community, Tobler’s First Law of Geography is regarded as a fundamental and a key to analytic insights.


Geography and, hence GEOINT, approaches the explanation of spatial phenomena through the change of geographical features. For example, before May of 2011, an estimated 300 Syrian refugees had crossed the Turkish border to avoid war. By 2014 the number of Syrian refugees in Turkey grew to 400,000. Space and time are inexorably linked. Over forty years ago, a Swedish geographer, Torsten Hägerstrand, illustrated how human spatial activity is often governed by time limitations. He identified three categories of limitations: capability constraints, coupling constraints, and authority constraints.

  • Capability constraints refer to the limitations on human movement due to physical or biological factors. For example, a person cannot be in two places at one time.
  • A coupling constraint refers to the need to be in one particular place for a given length of time, often in interaction with other people. For example, your space-time path must temporarily link up with certain people to accomplish a particular task.
  • The authority constraint is a controlled area that sets limit on its access to particular individuals. For example, a person's space-time path is normally not permitted to enter a sensitive military base.

Hägerstrand's concept of space-time is powerful. Hägerstrand's space-time model provides a framework for understanding human activity and provides a theoretical foundation for intelligence concepts such as Activity-Based Intelligence (ABI).

Geographic Information Science (GIScience)

Please recall that geographic information science and geographic information technology are referred to collectively as GIS&T. I will address each of the concepts separately here.

Geographic information science (GIScience or GISci) includes scientific research areas of geographic information systems (GIS), cartography, remote sensing, photogrammetry, and surveying. GIScience addresses fundamental issues in the use of digital technology to handle geographic information about places, activities, and phenomena on and near the surface of the Earth that are stored in maps or images. GIScience includes fundamental questions of data structures, analysis, accuracy, meaning, cognition, and visualization to name a few. As such, GIScience overlaps with many traditional disciplines such as earth science, mathematics, computer science, physics, cognitive science, and ethics. While GIScience is not central to any of these disciplines, researchers from many different backgrounds work together on particular sets of interrelated problems.

I've gotten the important question: why is imagery and imagery analysis not included in this list as a separate item since remote sensing, remote sensing technologies, and image analysis are important to capturing, creating, storing, managing, querying, displaying, and analyzing picabytes of accurate, reliable, timely and relevant GEOINT data? I suggest that remote sensing and imagery analysis are a key and growing part of GIScience and Geographic Information Technologies. What are your thoughts?

Geographic Information Technology (GIT)

The term "geographic information systems" (GIS) has been used to describe the hardware, software, geographic data, and people that enable geospatial information processes for making decisions. More recently, GIS, together with global positioning systems (GPS), remote sensing techniques, and other spatially related tools for decision making, comprise a larger array of tools that can be grouped together under the more complete term of "geographic information technologies" (GIT).


Tradecraft is what makes GEOINT unique and is addressed in greater detail in Lesson 4. We define the GEOINT tradecraft as encompassing the unique organizational sources and methods for obtaining GEOINT data and making sense of it to support the decision maker. GEOINT's methods comprise the tools to organize geospatial data and the reasoning techniques for rendering judgments, insights, and forecasts about human activities and intentions. The skills of detecting geospatial deception and, where required, maintaining secrecy of geospatial sources and methods makes GEOINT unique. I fully appreciate that the word secrecy is provocative. Secrecy, which is often contrasted with transparency as an ideal, has negative connotations and is often associated with spying and espionage. However, in a real way, total transparency is unnatural and seldom occurs. Humans conceal aspects of their lives from others due to fear of inappropriate use of the information, embarrassment, retribution, denunciation, harassment, or loss of employment.

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