Core GEOINT Skills & Competencies for Nextgen Analysts
By John Gaughan, Joel Harrison, Colleen McCue, and Todd Massengill
This article was originally published in USGIF’s State & Future of GEOINT Report 2017. Download the full report here.
The previous 15 years have included rapid changes in the amount and nature of traditional GEOINT data, including commercial airborne and satellite imagery available at resolutions and refresh rates never before imagined. At the same time, the increase in non-imagery locational data available has far exceeded the amount of available imagery; effectively evolving the definition used by global GEOINT practitioners to include sources, methods, and enabling technology not considered when GEOINT was a nascent professional discipline.
While this increased access to geospatial content and capabilities represents new opportunity for the GEOINT profession, the identification and maintenance of core GEOINT skills and competencies will be necessary to ensure the continuous improvement and perpetuation of essential GEOINT knowledge and tradecraft. In addition to the identification of core GEOINT skills and the establishment of associated training requirements, external education and “marketing” would support the development of the “informed GEOINT consumer” who would be able to differentiate between professional GEOINT services and many of the self-serve capabilities now available. The consumer referenced is both the global population of those that consume geospatial information products and decision-makers using GEOINT products to make those decisions. Finally, better understanding of the millennial and subsequent generations will better position the professional global GEOINT Community to leverage unique knowledge, skills, and abilities of practitioners, while also anticipating and effectively mitigating gaps in core skills or experience.
As we witness this expanding definition and associated “democratization” of GEOINT, the professional GEOINT Community should consider the following:
Inward: Identify core GEOINT skills and competencies and establish training requirements to protect the professional GEOINT legacy and ensure the perpetuation of core GEOINT knowledge and essential tradecraft.
The rapid proliferation of spatially-oriented data and high-performance computing has created tremendous opportunities for the GEOINT professional. Spatially-oriented data that were not even considered a few years ago are now widely available to the professional GEOINT Community, as well as to the broader public — frequently in real time or near-real time and with spatial, spectral, and temporal resolutions that far exceed those only imagined in the early days of remote sensing.
The development and broad deployment of high-performance computing and visually compelling display environments has made location-based analysis relatively simple and intuitive. Traditional barriers to entry, including access to geospatial content and tools, have been removed while interest in multi-INT analysis has risen, making these capabilities increasingly available to the GEOINT professional, all-source analyst, and lay person alike. We must ensure traditional GEOINT education emphasizing core imagery and terrain-based GEOINT principles and related tradecraft is not being replaced in favor of training focused largely on “buttonology” — creating geospatial technicians vice professionals in many domains. Nonetheless, the democratization of GEOINT data, products, and services prompts the larger community of users to question whether GEOINT will remain a separate professional discipline, or if it has evolved to just another intelligence sub-discipline available to the all intelligence analysts.
As the GEOINT Community moves to embrace new, improved, and promising sources, methods, and technologies it must ensure critical geospatial thinking is not replaced by attractive “easy button” solutions. Efforts to support this requirement are already underway, including the incorporation of analytic methodology and techniques, as well as ensuring geography theories and models are central to GEOINT analyst education. Moreover, training emphasizing analysis as a process that lets the problem guide the solution enables the intellectual agility necessary to seamlessly incorporate new sources, methods, and technologies as they become available. Further supporting this educational model, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) has articulated a clear requirement for an “integrated analytic environment” that is embodied in “a unified GEOINT platform that aligns disparate tools, algorithms, and capabilities into an interoperable, data-centric exploitation and analytical system of systems.” Finally, effective instantiation of these requirements will be validated through the development and rigorous use of assessment tools and methods that measure problem solving skills and “knowledge” rather than “how to” skills and technical proficiency.
Outward: Develop an external education or “marketing” strategy designed to highlight the difference between professional GEOINT services and other readily available, self-service capabilities to educate the broader community and create “informed GEOINT consumers.”
The increased availability of self-service capabilities has expanded access to geospatial content. Most adults now have direct experience with the use of these capabilities for route planning, shopping, real estate, and many other tasks. In addition, emergency management increasingly leverages the unique nature of the geospatial environment for the visualization of complex information in an intuitive, actionable manner that also provides context. While these represent great benefits associated with our increased ability to provision content in a geospatial environment, they also may have created a false sense of competence among end users. The onus is on the professional GEOINT Community to identify and promulgate core GEOINT skills and tradecraft and ensure perpetuation of the profession. Additional education and even “marketing” may be necessary to ensure end users understand the value proposition of professional GEOINT services and related products. Specifically, the community should consider education and marketing that address not only the unique differentiators associated with professional GEOINT services, but also the “art of the possible.” In some situations this education may occur during the requirements phase when the analyst is discussing options with the intended end user including alternative approaches or future analysis, while other occasions may support the use of educational narrative in the methods and results sections that guide interpretation of the results to include caveats. This becomes particularly important as the goal of effective visualization frequently is to present the results in an easily consumed, intuitive manner that addresses the “I’ll know it when I see it” requirement. This often creates the misperception that geospatial analysis is similarly simple, easy to execute, and based on intuition rather than well-founded geographic theory and tested geospatial science.
The democratization of GEOINT has been associated with the broad proliferation of geospatial content and related capabilities. As with many things, however, just because you can do something does not necessarily mean you can do it well, or even that you should. For example, the ability to measure the Euclidian distance between two points, or to perform simple route planning in many of the online geospatial capabilities currently available is markedly different from a true route mobility calculation or least cost path analysis. Similarly, the use of location-based decision support capabilities, including tools that can infer location and make spatially “informed” suggestions makes GEOINT seem almost “automagic.” Without understanding sources, methods, and associated constraints on the interpretation and use of these capabilities, errors in interpretation can result in faulty decision-making. For example, analysis of local crime data taken out of context may reveal compelling “hot spots” that correlate perfectly with the police headquarters or local precinct offices as these frequently are the locations from which citizen complaints are filed and other police work is completed. Similarly, other police-initiated activities to include narcotics and vice enforcement often are staged at locations that support operational requirements to include officer safety. Because these locations are associated with specific neighborhoods, it is easy to support the inflated and faulty assumptions used regarding local crime patterns. In another trends example, the analysis of mortality data can create the faulty impression that hospitals are inherently unsafe places given the number of death certificates filed at those locations. While the consequences associated with faulty inference in a search for a good barber or locating a new retail outlet may be significant to the lay end user, they are markedly different than the consequences associated with faulty interpretation of GEOINT in other settings. Therefore, if the goal of intelligence is to provide information and related insight to decision-makers so they can make informed judgments regarding policy and the management of risk, then uninformed or overconfident use of these capabilities will have serious consequences, which may include faulty interpretation of the results and misallocation of resources, or even loss of life in some domains.
Many professional GEOINT analysts understand the importance of educating the end user, including guidance regarding the appropriate source and/ or method for the task, as well as education regarding the interpretation and use of GEOINT analytic products. Sometimes this guidance might be as simple as suggesting specific visualization techniques to highlight relevant findings. In other situations, this guidance can set the conditions for informed interpretation and use of the results in support of allocation and optimization of scare resources, particularly where time is of the essence or lives hang in the balance. Extension of this current practice to include differentiation between professional GEOINT services and related products, as well as the value-added benefits associated with the use of advanced GEOINT analytic techniques versus the many self-service capabilities, will enable end users to make informed choices.
Millennials: To prepare the next generation of GEOINT professionals, the unique knowledge, skills, abilities, and experiences of the millennial and subsequent generations should be understood and leveraged in support of GEOINT professional excellence.
It is increasingly likely that future generations will enter the community with some level of experience with spatially-oriented data, including mapping. This experience may increase their curiosity regarding the “art of the possible” as it relates the use of location-based content and the associated importance of geospatial context in understanding their environment, and even whet their appetite for more precise and powerful sources, methods, and technology as a GEOINT professional.
Conversely, casual experience with location-based content and related technology may impart a false sense of security or competence in geospatial analysis. Will future generations be willing to devote the time and effort to learn core imagery and GEOINT tradecraft when “easy button” solutions are readily available and easy to use, even if they lack the precision, accuracy, and reliability of professional GEOINT capabilities? Will “good enough” be sufficient, particularly as all-source analysts increasingly view spatially-oriented content as just another “INT” available for consumption in the multi-INT environment? Moreover, mastery of specific GEOINT sources and methods frequently requires many years of experience and ongoing professional development and training. The increasing trend in younger professionals of advancing their careers by frequently changing roles and positions may cause a disruptive churn in a profession that historically required commitment to training and extensive experience to approach mastery. Will the experience and expertise necessary to sustain professional GEOINT churn with them?
Basic education and common life experiences increasingly diverge from the traditional skill set required for many GEOINT roles. For example, even something as simple as touch typing or keyboarding skills can no longer be assumed given the extensive use of handheld devices, and young people increasingly not only embrace but rely on voice-activated capabilities, which significantly limit the requirement for manual data entry. The irony is that until the U.S. Intelligence GEOINT Community catches up, new hires may require additional training to ensure they are able to create content accurately and reliably. Meanwhile, non-intelligence GEOINT analysts that can use their mobile devices are able to run rings around data entry and are not constrained by limited input methods. Alternatively, we may take a cue from these young professionals and explore other methods for data entry, particularly those less vulnerable to keystroke errors. This seeming limitation may actually offer an opportunity for the Intelligence Community to embrace voice translation capabilities, which have been adopted by many other professional domains such as medicine with similar requirements for accuracy and reliability in transcription.
Similarly, young professionals accustomed to broad, unfettered access to content may feel constrained by limitations associated with working inside secure environments or authorities that limit their access to specific content. As community leaders have noted, young professionals may also wonder why they are required to leave their “smart” devices outside analytic spaces. These requirements and constraints, in association with the amount of geospatial work increasingly available outside the Intelligence GEOINT Community, may present an impediment to recruitment as young talent could opt for geospatial analyst roles in the commercial and other unclassified sectors. As the global community generally recognizes the importance of open-source content and the limitations associated with working in a cloistered information environment, the proliferation of commercial imagery and unclassified non-imagery location data uniquely positions the non-intelligence GEOINT Community as leaders in the move to embrace commercial and other open, unclassified sources, methods, and technology. Therefore, this “challenge” may represent a unique opportunity as GEOINT emerges as the “right place, right time” for young professionals eager to embrace open-source content and innovative technology. Ultimately, perpetuation of GEOINT as a profession will require a workforce ready, willing, and able to forego “easy button” solutions and acquire the knowledge, skills, abilities, and experience necessary to successfully develop and sustain geospatial critical thinking skills and related core imagery and terrain-based tradecraft. Consideration of these factors and how they can be addressed will be important to ensure the community can not only recruit, but effectively retain new talent.
Discussion: The increased access to and use of spatially oriented data has supported better understanding of and appreciation for geospatial analysis, because location does matter. GEOINT offers unique opportunities for young professionals eager to shape the future of the field.
Seeing school children actively engage in crowd-sourced imagery analysis efforts in support of archeological searches and conservation programs is exciting and promises to increase their interest in the geospatial intelligence. Minimally, this exposure serves to elevate the geospatial literacy of the population. Ideally, early exposure to or engagement with geospatially-enabled content and related capabilities will prompt some to pursue GEOINT as a profession. Similarly, ready access to location-based information has increased the public’s ability to identify and access resources, locate places of interest, and even disseminate important public safety and emergency response information in an easy to interpret format because location with context provides insight. Moreover, the ability to execute computationally intensive geospatial analysis in real time or near-real time can provide end users with timely analysis and a genuine decision advantage.
But the proliferation of capabilities has the potential to yield the unintended consequence of confidence grounded in a shaky foundation of self-service tools that may visualize and manipulate spatially-oriented data but are thin on analytic rigor. This is particularly true with tools stripped of expert options that enable a skilled GEOINT professional to effectively validate and refine the results in support of accurate and reliable geospatial products. Almost simultaneously, training programs that emphasize technical proficiency with specific sources, methods, or technology over critical geospatial thinking have slowly eroded the importance of traditional GEOINT education. These programs favor “buttonology” over core imagery and terrain-based GEOINT principles and related tradecraft, and the creation of geospatial “technicians” in many domains creates cause for concern regarding the longevity of GEOINT as a profession.
Conclusion: As responsible stewards of the profession, the professional global GEOINT Community can effectively respond to and leverage these changes in support of ongoing professional excellence by ensuring the identification and propagation of foundation level geospatial concepts and principles, critical geospatial thinking, and core imagery and GEOINT tradecraft through capacity development and training that are tool agnostic, incorporate geographic theory and models, and can be evaluated. At the same time, the community owes it to end users to educate them on the differences between readily available self-service capabilities and professional GEOINT services, including key differentiators and the “art of the possible.” Experience also suggests the “informed consumer” becomes a better partner, particularly when this education becomes an integral part of the entire analytic relationship from the requirements stage through messaging and narrative guiding proper interpretation and use of the results. Finally, recognizing the unique knowledge, skills, abilities, and experiences millennials and subsequent generations offer will enable the field to evolve and grow by leveraging their unique perspective, knowledge of ubiquitous technology, and sense of connectedness, empowering them to help shape the future of the profession. Doing so will enable the community to effectively incorporate new sources, methods, and technologies, while protecting core skills and tradecraft to ensure professional GEOINT tradecraft services remain available now and into the future.