by | Sep 27, 2015

Teaching in the geospatial intelligence (GEOINT) field provides the opportunity for discussion and debate regarding the elements of this discipline. In the course of discussions with students, educators and those in the profession, the question as to how GEOINT is different from other geospatial analytic activities is occasionally raised. It's an important question to answer, because what makes GEOINT, GEOINT influences what educators teach.

This uncertainty is best exemplified by the following question recently received from another educator:

. And I feel that geographers do geointelligence, that it isn’t necessarily anything special, although it is done with ˜computerized' geospatial tools rather than traditional geospatial tools. So, I’m still looking for this answer! What does make GEOINT, GEOINT?

To answer this question, it's valuable to first identify the primary features of GEOINT, which is recognized from other forms of geospatial analysis in the geography discipline because of its purpose and tradecraft. Simply put, GEOINT delivers a decision advantage gained from analyzing places in time using Geographic Information Science (GIScience), Geographic Information Technology (GIT) and the GEOINT tradecraft. There are four defining characteristics that, when combined, distinguish GEOINT from other disciplines.

  1. Geographic Sciences

GEOINT is a subdiscipline of geography that uses geospatial sciences. It uses every other subdiscipline of geography for specific reasons covered in the remaining three characteristics. GIScience, which includes scientific research areas of GIS, cartography, remote sensing, photogrammetry and surveying, is common to geospatial analysis and GEOINT. It addresses fundamental issues in the use of digital technology to handle geographic information. GIScience also overlaps with many traditional disciplines such as earth science, mathematics, computer science, physics, cognitive science and ethics. GIS together with GPS, remote-sensing techniques and other spatially related technologies comprise a larger array of tools that can be grouped under the term geographic information technologies.

  1. Domain Knowledge

GEOINT develops place and time domain knowledge through geospatial thinking and reasoning.  Numerous applications of geospatial analysis consider the concept of <I>location<I>. However, not all geospatial analysis considers <I>place<I>, which is a required concept in GEOINT. At first glance, location and place may seem similar, but places have physical and human attributes that make them what they are.

In other words, GEOINT must have a physical <I>and<I> human consideration of a location on Earth. Just like other forms of geospatial analysis, GEOINT is concerned with understanding why places, and people in those places, are located where they are and how they interact. Places are building blocks of analysis in GEOINT, keys to making sense of the landscape, stages for events and central to understanding human activity. If the analysis doesn't have a human connection, it's not intelligence and, therefore, can't be GEOINT.

Time isn't unique to GEOINT, but GEOINT explains spatial phenomena through changes of geographical features through time. Space (can we say place?) and time are inexorably linked.

Torsten Hägerstrand, a Swedish geographer, illustrated decades ago that human spatial activity often is governed by time limitations. Hägerstrand's space-time model provides a theoretical foundation for intelligence concepts such as Activity-Based Intelligence.

  1. Human Impact

GEOINT renders insights about the human impact of a past, present or future event.  In GEOINT, the challenge is to understand the nature and human implications of a place, over time, to respond with informed decisions, and make those decisions before the competition reacts or the situation changes.

  1. Competitive Advantage

GEOINT delivers a competitive advantage by applying the art, or tradecraft, of the intelligence discipline. The GEOINT tradecraft includes unique organizational sources and methods for obtaining GEOINT data, sometimes surreptitiously, and making sense of the data in ways that may not be known to others. GEOINT's methods comprise GIT tools and 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 is distinctive to GEOINT from other applications of geospatial analysis. Secrecy, which often is contrasted with transparency as an ideal, has negative connotations and often is associated with spying and espionage. However, in a real way, total transparency is unnatural and seldom occurs. Humans conceal aspects of their personal lives and business relationships from others due to fear of inappropriate use of the information, embarrassment, retribution, denunciation, harassment or loss of income.

So what does make GEOINT, GEOINT? It is GEOINT's purpose to deliver a decision advantage and the GEOINT tradecraft that supports this purpose with unique sources of information and methods for processing it. It's hoped that applying these defining characteristics can help answer this recurring question.


Greg ThomasToHandwerkdd Bacastow, Stephen Handwerk and Todd BacastowGregory Thomas are Geospatial Intelligence Program Faculty at The Pennsylvania State University; e-mail: bacastow at psu.edu, sph15 at psu.edu and gat5 at psu.edu, respectively.



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