Defining ˜First Principles' of Geospatial Intelligence

by | Mar 31, 2016

In 2015, I developed and taught a free Massive Open Online Course (MOOC), Geospatial Intelligence (GEOINT) and the Geospatial Revolution, to help broaden the discipline. When I began outlining the course, I asked several in the community, what should be the focus of the MOOC? The common reply was teach the principles.

I then asked, what are the principles? More often than not, I got a deer in the headlights stare or you know what they are, you've been in the discipline for years answer. I began to ask myself, what are GEOINT's principles and why do we need them?

Professions and Professionals

Control is a key aspect of all professions, and many elements affect the content and control of GEOINT work, because it exists in an interrelated system of professional jurisdictions. According to Andrew Abbott in The system of professions: An essay on the division of expert labor, jurisdictional reach can be thought of as having the elements of a problem, a method to reason about the problem and ways to action on the results. In the case of GEOINT, these jurisdictions encompass the variety of work roles and applications of public safety, homeland security, disaster management and business.

Professions maintain their jurisdiction by controlling their practice or knowledge. Licensure and certification is a technique of controlling the jurisdiction. In a sense, certification limits an individual's access to the discipline by defining practical techniques that are specific competencies for which standards are demanded. Licensure restricts entry into professions, such as in surveying.
The other form of occupational control involves controlling the abstract knowledge articulated as First Principles, where control lies in the principles at the root of the practical techniques. The techniques themselves often are delegated to others, but the principles clearly identify the professional jurisdiction. In professions controlled by principles, the application of an individual's knowledge requires extensive education and can't be applied in a purely routine fashion. In other words, application of the knowledge is case-by-case, as in GEOINT. Medicine is another common example.

We all appreciate that licensure or certification has the intent of ensuring quality. As typically implemented, certification follows a knowhow paradigm assuming that requirements can be identified, taught and observed in evaluation. It's representative of professions largely perceived as technical, where the profession becomes lists of tasks organized into a hierarchy of subjects.

The problem with such professional control is that it tends to freeze the roles, responsibilities and rewards for the individual. It's difficult to evolve the profession's problems, defend the professional domain from interlopers and act on results in new domains.

The knowhow paradigm is contrasted to the knowledge paradigm, which is governed by First Principles. The knowledge-based paradigm allows the profession to redefine its work, defend its jurisdiction from interlopers, have the agility to seize new opportunities, and recognize continued advancement of an individual's expert knowledge. Importantly, principles in the form of abstractions enable survival in the competitive system of professions and the continually changing world of technologies and organizational structures. A profession's base of knowledge represents its value to others and the currency of exchange in the world of competition.

What Are First Principles?

The Greeks used the term principles not only to express their fundamental laws but also to explain their ultimate objectives. Science begins with obvious truths referred to as First Principles, which form the foundations upon which all practice rests.

First Principles are the fundamental truths from which inferences are made and conclusions are based. They're considered to be self-evident truths and can be thought of as both the underlying and governing principles of a worldview. First Principles are not defined; they are discovered. First Principles are critical to the practice of GEOINT, because they perform the following:

  • Provide professionals with an understanding of how and why things happen, or might happen, in the domain.
  • Expose the tiered scaffolding of critical geospatial thinking skills to guide learning.
  • Guide analysts to high-order thinking when encountering unfamiliar problems, uncertainties, questions or dilemmas typical of geospatial analysis.
  • Allow analysts to cope with rapid changes in new intelligence topics.
  • Prevent a mechanistic-only, box-ticking or buttonology approach to geospatial analysis.
  • Encourage responsibility and the exercise of judgment.

The First Principles of GEOINT

I suggest the following First Principles as a foundation for GEOINT's body of knowledge and, perhaps more importantly, markers that define the professional domain in terms of uniqueness, value and competitive advantage.

These principles can be divided into two major types: process and causal. A process principle is a sequence of events under the influence of human nature”tendencies independent of the influence of culture. A process principle isn't a sequence of actions performed by a person, which is a procedure. A causal principle is a cause-effect relationship such as water expands when it freezes.

Process Principles

¢ GEOINT, rooted in the geospatial sciences, geospatial technologies and critical geospatial thinking, seeks knowledge to achieve a decision advantage. Implication: GEOINT education and training should ultimately address how science, tools and techniques help analysts outthink a potential challenger. This includes speaking to the possibility of denied and deceptive information.

¢ Analysis occurs as a natural human-scientific/technical-human sequence. Implication: Build and teach methods and systems placing the human at the critical beginning and end of the sequence.

Causal Principles

¢ GEOINT reveals how human intent is constrained by the physical landscape and human perceptions of Earth. Implication: Analysts must have the mental agility to simultaneously work in three spaces: 1) human behavioral (often represented as patterns of life), 2) physical (i.e., landscape) and 3) cognitive (memory, attention, perception, reasoning and decision making of the opponent).

¢ GEOINT seeks to anticipate patterns of life through time. Implication: It's essential to teach the models and tools that address the organization of human activity on Earth and how patterns change through time.

¢ Data and technical systems used by analysts are human creations. Implication: We need to teach that all data contain technical and human biases that influence the results of an analysis.


Author's Note: Please view these as a first cut at GEOINT's First Principles. My goal is to establish a base for the growth of the discipline to which I owe so much as well as connect the full range of international applications and uses. I welcome your thoughts and comments.

Todd S. Bacastow is a member of the Geospatial Intelligence Program Faculty at The Pennsylvania State University; e-mail: [email protected].Todd Bacastow


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