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Geospatial Arsenal For Homeland Security

Geolocation awareness is critical to homeland security in today’s complex and fast-paced world. Rapid advancements in geolocation technology provide unprecedented transparency of hazards, threats, and vulnerabilities to security missions.

By David J. Alexander,
US Department of Homeland Security

Geospatial capabilities offer tremendous potential for driving new cost efficiencies and operational effectiveness for homeland security missions. Geospatial data and technology improve the ability of information technology applications and systems to enhance public security and provide for more effective situational awareness and delivery of a common operating picture. Geospatial information is often the common denominator that links disparate information together to reveal the necessary context and understanding required to connect the dots, and generate actionable information vital for effective decision-making.

Location is everything to homeland security. Without geospatial context, we cannot understand where and how events are occurring, nor can we rationalise why they are occurring. The location component is the ‘make or break’ for nearly all homeland security operations from back office functions such as facilities management, to frontline operations in disaster response, border security, customs enforcement, critical infrastructure and threat reduction.

However, speed, fidelity and information vectors have introduced new challenges to the transformation of homeland security capabilities, culture and comprehension required to overcome the failures of policy, imagination and capabilities, like they were redlined in the 9/11 Commission Report in the United States. The homeland security geospatial community needs to deliver capabilities that are fast, reliable, interoperable, easy-to-use and integrated with the mission. It must focus on delivering the right technology at the right time to the right users and place the power of geospatial intelligence in the hands of homeland security operators. From a pragmatic standpoint, the geospatial community needs to develop a culture of preparedness — First Responder Mindset — fight like you train; train like you fight; correct what does not work. This will build trust between geospatial practitioners and frontline users, increase technology adoption, and ensure that geospatial information is better understood. While the geospatial community must remain cognizant of how geospatial data and tools are being used, vigilance in homeland security demands placing situational awareness capability in the hands of the mission operators and frontline responders. No longer is it acceptable to keep a close hold on geospatial information and technology; especially, given the ubiquity and success of consumer offerings such as Google Earth and OpenStreetMap.

US Homeland Security geospatial strategy
Homeland security for all intensive purpose is the expression of the nation. It is an amalgamation of policy and functions that encompass a diverse set of missions spanning public safety, law enforcement, emergency management, intelligence and analysis, cyber and maritime security, risk mitigation and homeland defence. This broad homeland security enterprise requires interactions across the entire spectrum of a nation — among federal, state, and local governments, private sector and community organisations, between academia and the research and development industry; and perhaps most importantly, participation from citizens.

In the United States, geospatial strategy for homeland security, perhaps one of the best in the world, is based on a whole of nation approach. It encompasses a national geospatial policy landscape that is cross-domain (unclassified and classified), incorporates collaborative governance between the civilian and defence/intelligence communities, leverages a national spatial data infrastructure that incorporates all sectors, relies on shared resources and capabilities from the whole of community, and establishes a standards-based architecture that supports data and system interoperability.


This national geospatial framework is aligned to the homeland security mission and business functions through a Geospatial Concept of Operations (GeoCONOPS) that serves as a mission blueprint for understanding the points of coordination across the geospatial ecosystem supporting the homeland security enterprise. The GeoCONOPS describes the who, what, and the how of the geospatial community as well as what geospatial activities, data, best practices and technical capabilities are needed to be successful. This fusion of geospatial capabilities with business requirements is leading to a transformation in geospatial technical architecture that is based on authoritative and trusted geospatial data sources supplemented by derivative geospatial analytic products and volunteered geographic data. The geospatial information sharing components of this emerging homeland security geospatial architecture are grounded in the principles of data and system interoperability that encompass the doctrine of responsible and safe geospatial information sharing that recognises the need for data portability and data stewardship. Homeland security operations transfix harsh operating environments. Any geospatial architecture must provide support for disconnected access and offer identity credentialing and access management controls to facilitate data safeguarding. The emerging geospatial interoperability reference architecture provides the means to integrate geospatial strategy with national strategies for: identity, credentialing, and access management (i.e. GFIPM); information sharing (i.e. NIEM and OGC specifications); and technology and standards (i.e. NIST, S&T R&D).

The delivery infrastructure supporting this geospatial information sharing strategy is based on the notion of core capabilities expressed through the GeoCONOPS. These core capabilities are realised as shared resources with integrated, federated search capabilities that are orchestrate- able across network domains. This Web-based geospatial delivery infrastructure includes federal resources such as the Homeland Security Geospatial Information Infrastructure (GII), the Department of Interior Geospatial platform, the Intelligence Community Geospatial-Intelligence Online that are linked to resources such as the National States Geographic Information Council (NSGIC) GIS inventory and other private sectors offerings. Supporting a ‘no wrong door policy’, through the establishment of a geospatial resource federation provides for more immediate access to the most relevant geospatial information and ensures location-based information is based on reliable, trusted data sources.

Effective homeland security is not about prescribing a single map viewer; it is about enabling integrated operations through an information Web that better ensures our shared missions are working off a common set of information that is consumable within respective situational awareness solutions. This approach values the importance of geospatial metadata and geo-tagging to facilitate near real-time information exchange and the search, discovery, and retrieval of geospatial data best suited to a user’s need.


Emerging trends
Homeland security is already starting to apply new advances in geospatial capability to employ more effective hazard mitigation and risk management strategies and detect and respond to terrorism and disaster related threats with more speed and agility. Emergent areas such as big data, social media/crowdsourced information, Internet of Things, Firstnet, next generation 911, secure information exchange, zero trust networks, smart analytics, full motion video, drones and unmanned aerial surveillance, remote sensing and Li- DAR, and 3D landscape and geospatial immersion offer tremendous opportunities for new science and technology research initiatives and practitioner-based innovations.

Homeland security geospatial practitioners, technology firms, and data providers are moving beyond maps and cartography toward location-based decision support. There is a wave of geospatial analytic and location-based services representing innovations across wireless, sensor, data management and feature extraction technologies. These innovations combined with advanced manufacturing techniques will usher in a new renaissance for geographers and a golden age of actionable information sharing in homeland security. Sustaining this geospatial renaissance will require geospatial tradecraft that relies on geospatial competencies and skills. Geospatial techniques such as agent-based modelling, terrestrial simulation, remotely sensed differential change detection, geofencing and near real-time geo-alerting that are plugged into the Internet of Things (sensor web), supported by crowdsourced information and built through the democratisation of situational awareness. This transformation in geospatial intelligence compels a National Spatial Data Infrastructure (NSDI) that leverages public and private sector contributions, includes participation from all sectors, and ensures representation from operators (users), data providers, university and research labs, and ordinary citizens.

The Homeland Security geospatial community is a microcosm of a larger geospatial marketplace comprised of multiple communities of practice with overlapping communities of interest that benefit from cross-fertilisation to stimulate creativity.

David J. Alexander
, Federal
Homeland Security Expert &
Director, Geospatial Management
Office, US Department of
Homeland Security