A Guide to Geospatial Intelligence (GEOINT)

Geospatial Intelligence (GEOINT) is attracting growing interest and attention from the wider public. Indeed, the capacity to synthesise complex situations in visual representations allows it to directly reach a large audience. As Benjamin Strick said in our dedicated podcast episode

I could do a Twitter thread of 500 tweets or I could write a 120 pages report on the complexities of a conflict but it’s still not as valuable as a single map.”

The Open Source GEOINT maps created to monitor Russian violence in the current invasion of Ukraine well illustrated this power. [source]

Despite this popularity rise, GEOINT remains wrapped in a veil of mystification. Simply put, there is not enough attention to clarify what GEOINT means, and the techniques used to analyse geospatial data. In this article, we will unpack GEOINT and show how these investigations are within everyone’s reach. 

1. What is GEOINT? 

Geospatial Intelligence (GEOINT) consists of the analysis of images and data associated with a specific geographical location. Two elements usually form GEOINT analysis:

  1. Satellite imagery: photos taken by the dozens of Earth remote sensing satellites that orbit in the atmosphere. 
  2. Geographic data: data with implicit or explicit reference to a location relative to Earth [source]. For example, military posts, political violence (ACLED), natural disasters, global pandemics or lesser spread of diseases.

Thanks to the technological development of the last years, GEOINT potential has increased dramatically. Due to the high usage of satellite imagery, it is generally considered the successor of Imagery Intelligence (IMINT).

Initially elaborated for military uses, over the years, GEOINT has demonstrated wide applicability to many sectors: from environmental sciences, through the health sector (COVID-19 infection map), to economic applications.

1.1 A brief history

While the elaboration of GEOINT dates back just two decades ago, its origins have deeper roots. At the begging of the 1900s, thanks to the technological improvement in the field of photography and aviation, the armies started using aerial photography to gather intelligence. Nevertheless, it was only between the two World Wars that a specialised intelligence domain in the analysis of aerial imagery arose: Imagery Intelligence (IMINT). During the Cold War, this tradecraft experienced a boom. Both the US and the USSR became key to carefully observe the competitor’s movements. 

After the 1957 USSR launch of the first satellite, Sputnik, the space race started and offered great spying opportunities. In this sense, the CORONA program by the US (1959-72), with the launch of more than fifty satellites, allowed the acquisition of hundreds of important images of the USSR and China. The key role played by the imagery analyst Dino Brugioni during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis clearly showed the discipline’s importance for national security and fostered its development. 

After 1991, The improvement of the satellites’ sophistication, the launch of numerous remote sensing satellites and the development of the private market favoured the creation of GEOINT. The 1996 establishment of the National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA) consolidated this turn. Finally, with  the creation of the US National Geospatial Agency in 2003 and the European Union Satellite Centre in 2004, GEOINT achieved a foreground role. 

1.2 A multidisciplinary domain

GEOINT is much more than the analysis of satellite imagery. Rather than being a detached intelligence tradecraft, it is more of an overarching framework capable of analysing and visually synthesising the intelligence collected by Human Intelligence (HUMINT), Signal Intelligence (SIGINT) and IMINT. 

Several disciplines compose GEOINT: 

  • Geography
  • Cartography
  • Photogrammetry
  • Geodesy 
  • Geomatics (including Geographic Information System)

2. Why is GEOINT important?

The importance of GEOINT derives from two factors: 

2.1 Analysis and Prediction

By analysing the available information, GEOINT allows a better comprehension of the present while attempting to estimate the future. Indeed, this discipline analyse pattern of behaviour laying the basis for prediction. For example, one application of GEOINT are the Early Warning Systems that monitor conflict context and alert about significant changes. This enables the decision makers to act before dangerous escalation. [source]

2.2 Widespread applications

GEOINT importance derives also from its adaptability to many fields. 

  • Security: it improves situational awareness, assists border control and informs military operations.[source]
  • Health Sector: mainly used to understand disease outbreaks. The tracker map of the Covid spread are GEOINT products. [source]
  • Environmental sciences: used in crisis management (natural disaster), to understand long-term environmental events (change in weather patterns, land degradation) and to inform agriculture policy. [source] [source]
  • Economics: even if it is not well developed yet, GEOINT could significantly contribute to shed light on the complex global economic relations in order to comprehend them better. [source]

3. How to do GEOINT?

The technological advancements and the multidisciplinary nature of GEOINT renders it a very complex domain. However, part of the discipline charm lies in the democratisation of knowledge. Indeed, even beginners can start familiarising with GEOINT through the use of intuitive Open-Source software. To understand better this process we are going to answer together to a practical question: 

3.1 How to trace Lake Aral’s shrinking through open source GEOINT software?

Located between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, The Aral lake, also known as Aral sea, was the fourth largest lake in the world. However, the soviet administration diverted the two principal lake’s tributaries to boost cotton production. This caused a massive shrinking resulting in an environmental catastrophe. 

1. Download Google Earth Pro desktop version. (freeware) 

Here is the link: Earth Versions – Google Earth

2. Search “Aral Sea” in the search banner. 

3. If you want to save the location for future researches, add a placemarker.

4. Click on the clock symbol to access the available historical imagery. Mover the cursor in order to change year. 

5. To compare the images, you can easily take screenshots of the years you are interested in. 

4. Tips and tricks for GEOINT

4.1 Be patient with yourself 

Even if the software development of the last years rendered GEOINT more user-friendly, it remains a complicated tradecraft. 

Sometimes it will be frustrating, but it is part of the learning process. In this dark moment, remember that there is a vibrant community of GEOINT lovers and experts that is ready to sustain you. Most probably just brief research on the web will help you find a YouTube tutorial or a website that will explain step by step how to resolve the issue. 

4.2 Learn Python

Knowing a scripting language is not required to practice GEOINT. Nevertheless, it helps to bring your beginners skills to the next level. Indeed, especially if you are interested in Geographic Information Systems (GIS), learning Python is a wise time investment. Python is among the principal data analysis programming language and the main one used for GIS application. [source]

Here is an open-source book that will help coding beginners to learn Python for Geospatial Analysis: Introduction to Python for Geographic Data Analysis (pythongis.org)

If you are interested in better understanding Python’s importance for Geospatial Analysis, here is a dedicated Mapscaping podcast episode: Geospatial Python – March 31, 2023 (mapscaping.com)

5. Common mistakes to avoid when doing GEOINT

5.1 Confirmation bias  

Such as any other intelligence tradecraft, the GEOINT analysis is vulnerable to analytical pitfalls. One of the most common is the confirmation bias. When the analyst has already some knowledge of the topic, they will tend to give more importance to the pieces of information that confirm his thesis. Conversely, the analyst should attempt to approach the research with curiosity, trying to understand how events relate to the geographic element. This will allow to better understand the conflicting elements and reach more precise conclusions.

5.2 Descriptive tendence  

The geographical dimension of an event is central to understanding it. However, it is not enough. Indeed, just grasping the spatial element does not allow to properly analyse a phenomenon. Consequently, the GEOINT analyst should go beyond description, trying to comprehend the reasons behind a determined situation. For this, the analyst should integrate the contributions from other disciplines.  

6. Tools and resources for GEOINT

The available technology highly influences GEOINT analysis. Although the National Agencies dispose of unattainable technical capabilities for the private user, there are several valuable tools.

In the last years, an increasing number of private providers have entered the satellite imagery market. One of the most famous firms is Maxar. While the images quality of the private firms is very high, the cost of the services could represent an entry barrier. Nevertheless, there are other open-source alternatives. For instance, even if it is impossible to choose the exact day, Google Earth offers good-quality satellite imagery. Complementary, Sentinel Hub offers the option to decide the images’ date, but their quality is lower. 

Concerning the GIS sector, Esri has maintained his primacy intact in the sector. The license of the primary product, ArcGIS pro, is 100 dollars per year. Nevertheless, there are some open-source alternatives: 

The major drawback of these alternatives is that they recommend user to have basic coding skills (python, C++). 

7. Frequently asked questions about GEOINT

7.1 How can I start to familiarise with GEOINT? 

A good way to start familiarising yourself with Open Source GEOINT software is through YouTube tutorials. For instance, Google Earth Engine published a series of videos dedicated to beginners: 

Embed: Google Earth Engine 101 Part 1 – YouTube

Additionally, the National Geospatial Agency regularly publishes videos that explain definitions in a simple way: National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency – YouTube 

Other relevant channels are:

Finally, if you just need to create a timelapse about geographic transformations, Professor Qiusheng Wu elaborated an Open Access web app for this purpose: Streamlit – a Hugging Face Space by giswqs

7.2 How to become a GEOINT analyst? 

Unlike other professions, there is no single path to pursue a career in GEOINT analysis. Indeed, it is possible to deepen GEOINT aspects at different phases of life, even with a career already started. While curiosity and self-practice are fundamental to sharpening GEOINT skills, to get introduced to the field, it could be helpful to attend a course. Additionally, obtaining a certificate related to GEOINT disciplines could significantly increase the appeal in the job market. 

Several academic and non-academic institutions deliver introductory courses. In particular, most of them are focused on GIS. 

Here are some introductory courses: 

Academic institutions are creating ad-hoc masters dedicated to GEOINT. Here are some examples: 

7.3 Where are the jobs? 

Both private and public GEOINT sectors are significantly growing and will require more analysts in coming years: 

LinkedIn job offers in Europe: geospatial analyst Jobs in Europe | LinkedIn

In the US the major employers are: 

  • Commercial companies (not only related to security/defence sector)
  • US intelligence community 
  • Military 

LinkedIn job offers in the US: geospatial analyst Jobs in United States | LinkedIn

8. Advanced techniques for GEOINT

8.1 Certifications from recognised institutions

Apart from learning a programming code, there are other ways to improve one’s skills in GEOINT. Indeed, while self-practice is relevant, it is also important to demonstrate one’s ability through certificates.

A good idea to show your advanced GEOINT skills is to take a certification. There are Several internationally recognised institutions that periodically organise exams: 

8.2 Artificial Intelligence and GEOINT 

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is developing at a fast pace and its influencing all human activities. GEOINT is no exception. Indeed, the AI applications to GEOINT could speed up the labour-intensive process of geospatial data collection. 

For this reason, AI application to GEOINT represent the development frontier of this tradecraft. Almost certainly the effort of familiarising with it will be soon paid back.  [source]

9. Case study for GEOINT

Our recent research about the activities of the Wagner Group in Central African Republic (CAR) clearly shows the potential of GEOINT. 

Indeed, through the utilisation of Maxar, Google Earth, Esri Landsat and Sentinel-2 we were able to better analyse the Wagner Group operations in CAR by locating the main axes of its activities. 

Specifically, the apparent abandonment of the Bambari (5°49’52.14″N, 20°36’59.28″E), combined with the troops redeployment in eastern Ukraine underlined a slight slowdown in the Wagner operations in CAR.

Additionally, the presence of numerous light fixed-wings air in Bria Airport (6°31’35.46″N, 21°59’28.48″E) and nearby Bossangoa suggested Wagner operations’ reliance on rotor-wing capabilities and light fixed-wing aircrafts.

Finally, the mining activities in the Ndassima mine (6°10’1.72″N, 20°48’29.67″E), along with the launching of other businesses, such as “bois rouge”, implied a growing revenue diversification aimed to build a resilient economic structure. 

https://greydynamics.com/wagner-pmc-activity-in-the-central-african-republic-a-geospatial-analysis/

Conclusion 

GEOINT has significantly developed in the last two decades, reaching a foreground role in the Intelligence domain. Indeed, thanks to its multidisciplinary nature and widespread applications GEOINT has become a prominent tradecraft capable of synthetise in one map complex situation. 

Even if GEOINT potential could intimidate the users that approach it for the first time, the web is overcrowded of helpful resources for beginners. Although some programming confidence would substantially support the geospatial analysis, it is not at all mandatory of being geeks to start with GEOINT. Among others, several youtube channels, podcast, websites, introductory courses are publicly available online aiming to make newcomers familiarise with the discipline. 

From military threats to climate change, from the health sector to economics, all the current and future challenges have geographical element. That is why GEOINT domain will substantially grow in the next years. That is why your contribution to the GEOINT community is essential!

If you would like to deepen the topic, we advise you to listen to our dedicated podcast episode: 

https://greydynamics.com/episode-21-geoint-osint-facing-vicarious-trauma-with-benjamin-strick/
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