The role of education, geospatial technology and human terrain systems

What should be the role of education in engaging with geospatial technology? More specifically, how should we engage with this technology used in war, intelligence, and security? Should geographers and educational institutions promote GIS, offer a “balanced” perspective or be critical of it?

These thoughts came to mind watching the latest Penn State-produced video “The Geospatial Revolution.” The episode, about 15 minutes long, deals with mapping technologies for, as it describes it “Mapping the Road to Peace” (Dayton Peace Accord), “Waging Modern War” (IEDs and human terrain systems) and “Serving and Protecting” (crime mapping). It also touches on surveillance issues (tracking an individual through a cell phone).

Overall the episode has very high production values. It’s designed as an educational resource by a leading educational institution. And it very clearly offers a message of how valuable GIS and mapping are in these three areas. Letitia Long, the Director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, is quoted as saying “you need geospatial intelligence to target bad guys” and Matt O’Connell, CEO of GeoEye, says “it’s important that we be able to look at anyplace in the world, because if trouble strikes our government has to be able to deal with the situation.” Lawrie Jordan, Director of Imagery at Esri, appears. Geographers with the Army Corps of Engineers speak favorably about human terrain systems (HTS).

It has a great wow factor; lots of slick technology is showcased, from virtual 3D environments, to touch tables and LIDAR.

And it also misses opportunities. In the case of the Dayton Accords, for example, it mentions the PowerScene technology, a 3D virtual mapping renderer, which was able to show President Slobodan Milošević how a border could be drawn across Bosnia (the video doesn’t mention his later prosecution for war crimes). This is presented as bringing to an end the war and preventing further civilian deaths.

But did the accords, pivoting around GIS and 3D terrain fly-throughs, bring about a war’s end? Were not the Serbs, after suffering large territorial defeats, already indicating they would sign a peace agreement? And as I wrote in an article in 1996, does the imposition of territorial borders with hard edges around ethnic groups present a satisfactory political geographic solution?*

(A good subsequent account of the details of the mapping is provided here; I used personal contacts in Army TEC and open source documents from Camber Corp. which provided technology at Dayton in my own article.)

The video also highlights and indeed promotes the work of human geographers in human terrain systems. This is a controversial subject. You might recall the AAG formed a task force in 2009 to investigate whether ethical violations were conducted in the México Indígena case from U Kansas. And the video clearly promotes HTS as a useful and viable career (see here for many job adverts calling for geographers and social scientists to work in human terrain systems).

The video and its authors are clearly entitled to their point of view. I’m not disputing that. But the questions at the top of this post are germane: how should geographers and educators more generally engage with geospatial technologies, especially in the field of war, intelligence and security? As much as I’d like to show this video to students its uncritical endorsement of techno-love and naive political perspective preclude it. (A possible approach could be to present it to students for critical evaluation.)

Another troubling aspect of the video is its funding. They disclose that they’ve received funding from some of the agencies and companies who appear in the video, including the NGA, Esri, and GeoEye. A major funder is Booz Allen Hamilton, a frequent defense contractor headquartered in McClean, VA (near the CIA HQ). Northrup Grumman, similarly. To what extent does this raise the appearance and/or actuality of undue influence on the video series?

They cite a number of geographers as consultants, including Dan Sui (Ohio State), Adena Schutzberg (Directions Magazine), Todd Bacastow (Penn State), David DiBiase (Penn State) and David Cowen (Univ. South Carolina). It would be interesting to get their account of what they did for this video series and how they view it.

I’ve embedded the video below.

* “Bordering on Bosnia” 1996. The GeoJournal 39(4), pp. 353-361.

Full disclosure: I graduated from Penn State and have worked with DiBiase, Sui and written a few pieces for Directions Magazine where my editor was Schutzberg.

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One response to “The role of education, geospatial technology and human terrain systems

  1. Pingback: The Geospatial Revolution | Progressive Geographies

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