GIS: Protecting the Homeland

Security and defense are important to the stability and safety of any country. Traditional intelligence activities and military preparedness are important tools, but not the only ones. However, geographic information systems (GIS) technology, which can analyze massive amounts of seemingly unrelated data connected through location, is becoming a key to maintaining domestic tranquility without having to react to a serious incident or fire a single shot. And those who have an advanced GIS degree will have the breadth of understanding to further make the technology a strategic part of homeland security.

The reason GIS has become such a powerful tool for agencies attending to homeland security is the insight it brings to data mining and analysis, as reports HSToday.us, a site that focuses on homeland security:

“There are all types of data coming into the [77 Department of Homeland Security data analysis] centers today,” said Russ Johnson, Director of Public Safety and Homeland Security at Esri, one of the nation’s leading GIS software companies, based in Redlands, Calif. “From suspicious activity reports to law enforcement reports, fire reports, phone calls, electronic intercepts and imagery, GIS is beginning to play a really important role in being able to mine databases with common kinds of keywords,” said Johnson.

On one hand, there is nothing new about using location to create correlations between seemingly unconnected data. You could say that generals have used rudimentary techniques of it for centuries, annotating maps with troop deployments. In the 19th century, doctors in Paris and London used maps to better understand the patterns of cholera breakouts. The practice extended as technology in the 20th century allowed maps to be printed in transparent layers, adding additional information to the basic layout of the land.

However, manual measures are slow and limited and unable to handle the massive amounts of data that security measures collect in telephone calls, airline travel, shipments of goods, customers and immigration clearance, high-resolution satellite imagery, cell phone GPS locations, social media traffic, weather patterns, and other sources. The volume of data is immense, literally measured in millions of trillions of bytes. That is far too much to handle manually.

That’s where GIS becomes a critical aid. Using powerful computers, the Department of Homeland Security can look for correlations and patterns in data and then project them onto maps and look for intersections with events, infrastructure, and other potential targets of terrorist activity, natural disasters, or developing conditions that could produce social instability.

And yet, with all that capability come ethical issues of privacy and the inherent difficult in integrating such complex systems into decision making procedures. It is why advanced GIS knowledge, such as can be obtained from a GIS masters program will be necessary.

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