Industry Insights: Considering the State of Geography and Geospatial Intelligence Research

by | Jun 11, 2015

By Richard M. Medina, assistant professor, and George F. Hepner, professor, Department of Geography, University of Utah (, Salt Lake City.

Today's research environment is one in which basic research and understanding aren't valued as much as engineering and tech-nology. Regarding geospatial intelligence (GEOINT), in many cases there's more interest in capability-driven technologies rather than working to understand fundamental long-term processes that help preempt and mitigate problems.

The geo in geospatial represents, among other concepts, spatial pattern and awareness; places of identity or homeland; scale; connectivity among individuals, groups and places; and activities within geographic space. Within the last 10 years, some have touted the end of these traditional core concepts of geography, reasoning that access to massive amounts of information negates a need for geographic knowledge, as our geospatial activities are replaced by data computation and virtual interaction. These are misguided sentiments, leading to the belief that spatial organization is so intuitive to us as humans that anyone can be a geographer without the need for formal education and training.

What we have realized is twofold. First, understanding these concepts with consideration to political, social or economic phenomena requires rigorous scientific methodologies founded on spatial thinking and reasoning. Second, the need for geographical knowledge and understanding is greater than ever, and ignoring that need will eventually lead to extreme policy failures.

Exploring the Value of Spatial Understanding

Spatial understanding is inherent to human existence. Such concepts provide the foundation to the individual and collective understanding of our personal and group identities, our connection to the physical environment and a justification for our existence. Although the friction of distance may be decreasing because of cheaper and more available transportation and communication technologies, humans still require physical places, connections to environment, desire for a homeland and a host of other geographic realities that can't be replicated in the virtual world”at least for the foreseeable future.

For example, an Oct. 14, 2014, article in The Washington Post highlighted Amazon's plans to open a store in New York City. Many would wonder why the world's most successful virtual shopping company would want to open a physical store. Obviously, the answer is that the company sees an unmet market that will yield a profitable outcome. Although Amazon is an online retailer, the company is acutely aware of geographic realities with respect to factors such as warehouse location, shipping routes and population/income distributions.

Another more germane example of the importance of geographic concepts involves global terrorism. Al-Qaeda ideologists wrote years ago about crucial geographies, controlling post-conflict regions and capturing resources. The Al-Qaeda grand plan was focused on controlling land as a basis for expansion. Although the media portray the Islamic State (ISIS) as a religion-based political movement, which it is, the more fundamental basis for understanding ISIS is its perceptual and aspirational geographic endgame of a caliphate. ISIS' black flag and narrative of jihadist justification involves historical geographic and culturally relevant regions. Despite its tenuous control, ISIS has divided its area of administration in Syria and Iraq into provinces, with leadership by regional government to control the people and resources within those provinces. In Syria and Iraq, ISIS already has taken control of oil fields, water sources and agricultural areas. Despite ISIS' massive virtual recruiting efforts and religious-political characterization, much of its campaign is centered on human and physical geography.

Given the physical geography of recent battles in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, the use of technology-based GEOINT has achieved good results. The climate, lack of heavily vegetated landscape and limited topographic relief in most of the areas has made satellite imagery, drone use and tactical communications effective. However, being overly dependent on these technologies, combined with our failure to anticipate, educate our intelligence and military personnel, and acquire high-resolution human geography information will be a major disadvantage when the focus turns to other areas, such as Africa, Asia and Latin America, as it likely will in the future. Physical space is needed for training, planning and supplying sustained insurgent and terrorist operations.

Don't Underestimate the Value of Geography

Understanding the spatial patterns of cultural backgrounds, social connections and capital, routes, and geographic intentions are key to mitigating problems. The geography of cultural or ethnic disagreements can facilitate or agitate a regional conflict into a global one. Most people operate on geographic realities of need, power and control, threat, security, etc. (or perceived realities), not postulated political and sociological theories.

What does this all mean for GEOINT's future? We must be cautious on our path toward thinking we can gain a full understanding of human behavior and resultant actions through technology and the computation of big data. Trends of open-source intelligence, social media assessment and reliance on hardware technology and other technological capabilities for understanding human behavior are popular, but we shouldn't be deceived into believing they can take the place of modern approaches to human geography and other social science disciplines. GEOINT managers and analysts should be fluent in core concepts of spatial analysis, geostatistics and research methodologies, and they should have small-area cultural knowledge and understanding of larger-area social and physical systemic processes.

Within the GEOINT profession, the current technological push includes a focus on exploring big data and data mining. Recent studies have shown the bias of making tactical and policy decisions on the basis of social media analysis, which inherently includes sampling biases and primarily reflects the sentiment of certain demographic groups (e.g., young, literate, tech aware), whereas power, especially in traditional societies, resides in individuals and groups outside of the demographic being sampled. Geospatial data uncertainties and biases should be known prior to actions being taken on results from social media mining and other big data applications.

We shouldn't let human geography, a long-established discipline, be used as a buzzword. It's difficult to appreciate a discipline like geography when the first time many students see it in its true form is in college, if at all. Many people still believe that geography is the study of maps, the study of state capital locations, or even worse, the study of rocks. The primary focus of human geography is to understand the spatial patterns of human behavior and interactions. From these patterns, insights into behavioral processes can be gained. In these uncertain times, it's vital to understand the world and to leverage that understanding to design sound policies to address the global problems we face. Geography is a critical component to this understanding.


December Issue 2022