Human Geography + Physical Geography Predicts the Future!

If you have been following my thoughts the last several months, I have been fixated on geospatial thinking and geographical information systems (GIS) themes. In other words, thinking about time and space (or place), when and where things happen. In a follow up to an article on the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency’s (NGA’s) role in using GIS to pinpoint the location of Osama Bin Laden, we now hear from NGA director, Letitia Long, about the use of geospatial thinking in predicting human actions. As agency director Long says, “The key to predicting the future? Human geography.” As articulated by Long, if you insert the human component into the equation of time and place, you will see patterns of behavior arise that help guide and thus presage future actions.

While human geography data sets can change rapidly based on current needs, the human geography of a place would provide significant granularity and usefulness to the GIS map. Such data sets could include sociological, political, technical, and economic attributes of a people. Thus data sets could include ethnic and tribal conclaves with their languages, levels of education, and political leanings. It could include the use of technology including social media. It could include economic factors around health care and nutrition. All such factors influence human behavior. As Long says, Geospatial intelligence “is the examination of all this data viewed through a spatial and temporal lens.”

Place is defined by physical attributes (physical geography) that include terrain, roads, buildings, hills and valleys, water ways, and even the climate to characterize a location. A coupling of human geography with physical geography to track the movement of people from place to place would help define patterns of interactions that predict what people might do next, or where a disease might spread, or where people might migrate to.

Further, Long says such analyses would give our intelligence agencies insight into security questions such as 1) where the conditions are right for weapons of mass destruction proliferation, or 2) where the spread of transnational criminal activity might occur, or 3) where people are most susceptible to extremist ideology.

As you can see, the application of GIS tools are varied and still evolving. For me, this is a fascinating insight into our government’s use of geospatial analyses.

You can read the entire article on “Mapping Human Terrain,” by William Matthews in Government Executive July 1, 2011.

© Baldwin H. Tom CMC
(First published September 4, 2011)

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