Penn State professor sets off on journey to improve geospatial intelligence

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- After working and teaching for more than 30 years in geospatial intelligence (GEOINT), Todd Bacastow, professor of practice in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences’ John A. Dutton e-Education Institute, recognized that crucial elements were missing to advance the field beyond its current limits.

“The definition of GEOINT needed to be distilled to its fundamentals, the uniqueness of the discipline needed to be made clear across all industries and the field needed an educational experience to unify the discipline around the world,” said Bacastow, who serves as lead faculty for the geospatial intelligence programs offered through Penn State World Campus.

Like medicine, GEOINT is both an art and a science, said Bacastow.

“It is about anticipating how humans will use the earth for a purpose. It includes the geographic sciences, the tools and the professional knowledge, often called tradecraft, that ultimately leads to how one makes sense of and reacts to a situation,” he said. “GEOINT has traditionally been used to deter wars, resolve conflicts and promote peace, but it also supports both the commercial sector and civil authorities.”

After coming to his realization, Bacastow spearheaded several projects -- from investigating how professionals learn new thinking styles to redefining the industry to educating about GEOINT at a global level through a massive, open online course (MOOC) -- to advance the field as a whole.

“Every sector in the geospatial community -- academia, government, industry and nonprofit -- joined to make this course a success."

-- Robert Cardillo, National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency director

The first partnership of its kind

The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) partners with companies and organizations to share information, personnel, services, facilities or equipment through what’s known as a cooperative research and development agreement, or CRADA. In 2011, Penn State became the first university to partner with the NGA through a CRADA, with Bacastow leading the initiative for Penn State.

“At the time, a colleague of mine and I had been struggling with how we could improve learning in the GEOINT industry. So we worked together and wrote a cooperative research agreement to study how analysts think and how we can help geospatial intelligence analysts learn more effectively,” said Bacastow.

A CRADA doesn’t involve financial support; instead, each organization partners in pursuit of the same goal. In this case, Penn State and the NGA wanted to improve how effectively geospatial intelligence analysts learn new techniques and thinking strategies.

“Learning in the geospatial intelligence field is influenced by both the structure of the profession and the individual’s analytical style. The profession was defined primarily by the NGA over the past few decades, so it’s very top-down in nature. We knew that, but what we didn’t know was how practicing professionals tended to think,” said Bacastow.

Through the partnership, Bacastow visited several NGA offices to interview GEOINT professionals about how they saw the profession, and what types of thinking they did on a daily basis.

“Understanding the profession lets us understand the analytical mindset. For example, many government industries are top-down in structure. That type of organization influences how people think, so how you think in that realm is much different from another realm that doesn’t have that top-down structure. And as a whole, the GEOINT field as we think of it was defined in that top-down manner,” he said.

Bacastow distilled the definition of the field to its fundamentals, and launched his MOOC -- “Geospatial Intelligence and the Geospatial Revolution” -- to bring together professionals from around the world.

A MOOC to teach the fundamentals

Bacastow’s first step in creating the MOOC was to define geospatial intelligence in a more contemporary and international way.

“There really was no literature to ground our course in — nobody had articulated the worldwide fundamentals of geospatial intelligence, let alone put them into a class,” he said.

Through distilling the industry’s definition, Bacastow was trying to address the fact that there were political influences in the emergence of GEOINT.

“The United States heavily influenced the geospatial intelligence discipline with the creation of the NGA, an intelligence organization,” said Bacastow.

Bacastow designed and developed the course material in collaboration with the nonprofit U.S. Geospatial Intelligence Foundation (USGIF) so they could actively engage with and learn from participants. Several USGIF professionals served as mentors in the course.

The MOOC highlighted real-world uses of GEOINT, such as predicting the location of a natural disaster. The capstone assignment used an Ebola map that the NGA made public to help fight the spreading disease. For this project, Bacastow worked with the NGA, DigitalGlobe, a geospatial content company that provided high-resolution satellite images and geospatial content of Monrovia, Liberia and Esri, a geographic information systems software company that provided based maps and online geographic information system capabilities to the students.

National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) Director Robert Cardillo lauded Bacastow for the partnership and called the MOOC a “remarkable initiative” at the February 2015 national Esri Federal GIS Conference.

“Every sector in the geospatial community -- academia, government, industry and nonprofit -- joined to make this course a success,” said Cardillo, who added that the MOOC’s use of the NGA’s Ebola map website was “having a major positive consequence for global education and outreach.”

“I was happy to be recognized,” said Bacastow. “It really reflects on the commitment of the entire faculty and staff to establish our Geospatial Intelligence program and keep it moving.”

The international makeup of students in the course also gave Bacastow and the USGIF mentors in the class a chance to learn from students about their conceptions of GEOINT. Of the 22,000 active participants, only about 40 percent were from the United States, while the remaining 60 percent represented more than 181 countries throughout the world.

Bacastow noted, “If you want to advance GEOINT through education, it’s important to understand the differences in the profession around the world. The MOOC, for the first time, gives us a forum to better understand the dissimilarities that we would never have predicted because of our tendency to assume that other countries are like us. For example, in the United States, government has a strict legal definition of GEOINT, which organizes the profession, while most other parts of the world GEOINT has emerged naturally with different roles, responsibilities and practices.”

Continuing on his journey

The MOOC ended in February, and Bacastow and his colleagues are assessing its success. They hope to offer the course again in 2016. Bacastow also is investigating ways to help GEOINT professionals learn more efficiently and effectively. 

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Last Updated April 29, 2015