Geospatial intelligence is the ability to process and make decisions based on spatial data. Spatial data is a set of information that describes locations in space. 

A large percentage of the data we use today is linked to physical locations. Hence, geospatial intelligence is practical knowledge that requires not only displaying location data but also a deep understanding of where things are, why they are and what is likely to happen in a certain location. By gathering spatial data and using critical spatial analytics, we can solve real-world problems. 

In the business world, you’ll hear this referred to as location intelligence. In the defense industry, it’s known as GEOINT. Despite the difference in names, geospatial intelligence serves to harness spatial data through spatial analytics and reasoning. 

Why Is Geospatial Intelligence Important?

Business leaders, military officers and public service providers rely on geospatial intelligence insights to plan events, manage markets and respond to emergencies. Use cases of geospatial intelligence are widely spread across domains and industries. Whether we use geospatial intelligence for military, business or public service, it’s critical to providing insights into what happens on Earth, where it happens and why. 

More From This ExpertWhat Is Exploratory Spatial Data Analysis (ESDA)?


How Does Geospatial Intelligence Work?

Geospatial intelligence helps organizations visualize and analyze spatial data to understand why a certain place or feature is important for a given issue. Spatial information is not intelligence per se; instead, the insights we derive from geospatial intelligence are its real value. 

For example, we can use satellite imagery to see where things are on Earth in order to provide contextual foundations but we need an analyst to synthesize and communicate information in an organized way to develop a comprehensive intelligence product. Artificial intelligence is, however, revolutionizing geospatial intelligence practices through the automatic classification and detection of objects from satellite imagery.


Important Geospatial Intelligence Software and Tools

Remote sensing and geographic information systems (GIS) software play a key role in geospatial intelligence. Specialized software like ENVI and ArcGIS spatial analyst or defense mapping can leverage images from satellites and drones, as well as spatial vector data. Google Earth also provides basic functionality for geospatial intelligence purposes. Additionally, we can use many open-source GIS software to derive geospatial intelligence insights, including QGIS and GRASS.  

What Is Geospatial Intelligence? | Video: National Geospatial Intelligence Agency


What Are the Advantages of Geospatial Intelligence? 

Stacking different layers of spatial data to produce geospatial intelligence provides many benefits. First and foremost, this practice helps us identify the relationship between different spatial data sets, which is not readily available without layering together and scrutinizing locational data. In addition, geospatial intelligence provides detailed information about where things, people or critical resources are located. Finally, geospatial intelligence practices can help prevent disasters by helping us develop models for determining the probability of an event happening in the future.

This can be particularly helpful when tracking the likelihood of a natural disaster or disease outbreak.

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What Are the Disadvantages of Geospatial Intelligence?

Despite its many benefits, the only drawback is that spatial intelligence has many components, techniques and processes you need to pull together to achieve your objectives. It’s truly a discipline-specific practice. The applications of spatial intelligence in defense, for example, are much different than their application in real estate. No software package can offer all the spatial intelligence functionality you need across disciplines, industries or applications. 


Geospatial Intelligence Example

A great example of spatial intelligence is the classic story of John Snow’s 1854 London cholera map. People generally believed cholera was caused by poisonous air. By investigating and collecting data on water pumps and the death toll, Dr. John Snow concluded that cholera is a waterborne disease. Mapping out the water pump locations and overlaying the death toll on each street, it became clear the Broadway street pump had far greater death numbers than others. Thus, removing the handle from the street ended the 1854 epidemic. 

Geospatial intelligence image of the cholera outbreak map described above
John Snow Cholera Map, 1854. | Source: Wikimedia.

This example illustrates the power of location intelligence. Today, geospatial intelligence not only serves to track disease outbreaks, as in the case of this example, but also helps managers, public servants, defense personnel and other professionals for whom location is an integral component of their job performance. 

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