The Learner's Guide to Geospatial Analysis

Memory Aid


Spatial thinking is the essence of Geospatial Intelligence. Spatial thinking is thinking that finds meaning in the shape, size, orientation, location, direction or trajectory, of objects, processes or phenomena, or the relative positions in space of multiple objects, processes or phenomena. Geospatial thinking is spatial thinking related to the earth. An expert geospatial thinker (NAP, 2006, p. 3):

  1. Identifies spatial patterns within the context of life, physical, and intellectual space by examining the fundamental spatial aspects, qualities, and relationships
  2. Recalls similar spatial patterns
  3. Performs mental transformations to compare the patterns
  4. Assigns meaning and significance to the patterns with respect to earth phenomena

The following geospatial thinking process is simply offered as a structure to make sure that key concepts are not overlooked. Nothing here is likely new to the skilled geospatial thinker, but it is purely a reminder of the actions that can help the analyst think about geospatial problems.

Action 1: Identify the entity. This entity can be natural and human phenomena relative to the problem. For example, the DC Shooter case.

Action 2: Think about the entity in the space contexts. The definition of the spatial presence of an entity is the prerequisite for spatial thinking. The spatial context is critical because it is the space the entity is in that ultimately determines its interpretation. There are three spatial contexts within which we can make the data-to-information transition. These are:

  • life space
  • physical space
  • intellectual space

In all cases, space provides an interpretive context that gives meaning to the data.

  • Life space, or behavioral environment, is the four-dimensional space-time that provides the means of coming to grips with the spatial relations between self and objects in the physical environment. This is cognition in space and involves thinking about the world in which we live. It is exemplified by navigation and the actions that we perform in space. An example is how the DC sniper navigates through a neighborhood.
  • Physical space is the four-dimensional space-time that focuses on a scientific understanding of the nature, structure, and function of phenomena. This is cognition about space and involves thinking about the ways in which the "world" works. An example is the scientific understanding of the geometry of a rifle’s projectile and how an intervening building shields a shooter’s target.
  • Intellectual space is in relationship to concepts and objects that are not in and of themselves necessarily spatial, but the nature of the space is defined by the particular problem. This is cognition with space and involves thinking with or through the medium of space in the abstract. For example, Rossmo’s (1997) “hunters” who are those criminals that specifically set out from their residence to look for victims, searching through the areas in their awareness spaces that they believe contain suitable targets.

Action 3: Place the phenomena in the context of the earth. When making sense about the space (Gershmehl and Gershmehl, 2006) the spatial thinker first asks the fundamental spatial questions:

  • Where is this place?
  • What is at this place?
  • How is this place linked to other places?

Examples are:

  • The shooting occurred at Y.
  • Y is the location of a gas station.
  • Y is 5 miles from where event X occurred.

Action 4: Examine the qualities of the objects or events. The spatial thinking then proceeds to examine the places by asking the following questions:

  • How are places similar or different?
  • What effect(s) does a feature have on nearby areas?
  • What nearby places are similar to each other and can be grouped together?
  • Where does this place fit in a hierarchy of nested areas?
  • Is the change between places abrupt, gradual, or irregular?
  • What distant places have similar situations and therefore may have similar conditions?
  • Are there clusters, strings, rings, waves, other non-random arrangements of features?
  • Do features tend to occur together (have similar spatial patterns)?

For example, the DC shootings occurred at gas station near entrances to high speed highways. Note or remember the qualities. Return to Action 2 if you have not explored all of the space contexts.

Action 5: Recalling the results of Action 4, examine the space-time relationship between the objects and/or event. Last, the comparisons are placed into the context of space and time. Spatial thinking goes beyond a simple identification of locations. It involves comparing locations, considering the influence of nearby features, grouping regions and hierarchies, and identifying distant places that have similar conditions. It is also the consideration of change, movement and diffusion through time and place. This is spatiotemporal thinking which asks the questions:

  • How do spatial features change through time?
  • How do conditions change at a place over time?
  • What is the change in position of something over time?
  • What is the change in extent of something over time?
  • Where are places that do not seem to follow an observed “rule”?

For example, the DC Sniper pattern of events seems to be spatially random. Note or remember the time-space relationships.

Action 6: Recalling the results of Actions 4 and 5. Think through your past results or lists you created.

Action 7: Transform the patterns while searching for similar spatial patterns. This is the ability to imagine and reason about objects and their spatial layout. Mental transformations that are important to geospatial intelligence cognition are: object-based spatial transformations and egocentric perspective transformations. Object-based transformations are imagined rotations or translations of objects relative to the reference frame of the environment. Egocentric perspective transformations are imagined rotations or translations of one’s point-of-view relative to that reference frame. For example, to retrieve what is on the other side of the grocery aisle you might imagine the aisle rotating or ourselves moving relative to the aisle. Another example is the mentally transforming Rossmo’s (1997) “hunters” pattern to match the observed the DC Sniper’s pattern.

Action 8: Compare qualities and relationships. A primary cognitive function of the geospatial analysts is determining the spatial relationships between features. The patterns representing prototypical hospital, school, or housing development is an example of comparing spatial relationship. For example, Rossmo’s “hunters” yields a donut-like geospatial pattern but the pattern exhibited by the DC sniper is largely random.

Action 9: Assign meaning. Interpreting and understanding a pattern is a complex reasoning process since the human mind is functioning symbolically where the human mind assigns meaning based on experience, consciousness, beliefs, and emotions. This is not direct knowledge and the symbolism is very fallible. For example, the DC Sniper’s patterns might not conform to Rossmo’s “hunters” modus operandi and there could be other valid alternative meanings assigned to the observed patterns.