The DNA of Geospatial Intelligence at Johns Hopkins

Posted in Center for Advanced Governmental Studies, Geospatial Intelligence, Global Security Studies, Home page featured, Intelligence

A closer look at the Johns Hopkins University Geospatial Intelligence Program

By Jack O’Connor

According to a television commercial I see frequently, it is now possible to map our internal geospatial history. You submit your DNA sample to different companies and learn the geographic origins of your individual genetic code.  The combination of geospatial intelligence and DNA also has a professional value.  As well as a way to look at individual pasts, the double helix of DNA also serves as a way to look at professional futures.

Geospatial intelligence has multiple definitions.1 In this changing profession, recent commentary forecasts how much of the future will be in the government or the private sector, what technical skills will be essential, and what human tasks will soon be automated. Nearly daily, the profession adapts itself in response to new questions, communities, sensors, platforms, discoveries, and methodologies. These adaptations have a common basis. They are some combination of four basic disciplines. Like the double-helix of DNA, the four disciplines occur in two combinations, but the variety of their potential combinations is nearly limitless.

The four disciplines are

  • the art of observing, analyzing, and communicating events in the world;
  • the history of how man has been looking at earth from above to answer questions for more than one-hundred and sixty years;
  • the mathematics behind measuring aerial and space observations and determining collection probabilities and analytic uncertainty,
  • and the science behind digital sensors and digital communications.2

Like nucleobases within DNA, the art and the history combine, and mathematics and science also combine. And the twin strands of government and the private sector structure these four disciplines. But the individual sequencing of all the combinations create what is uniquely geospatial intelligence, and without all four disciplines, the intelligence often is not conveyed.

So for those interested in their future in geospatial intelligence, consider typing the four GEOINT disciplines in your professional DNA.  How well do you:

  • Learn the art of seeing changes that others don’t, and communicating clearly to attention-challenged audiences the changes obtained through geospatial technology?
  • Know the history of the profession and its earlier challenges and accomplishments so as to discern how much of a new question or challenge is really unique?
  • Understand mathematical principles to judge the algorithms and software that are simplifying the challenge of processing the increasing volume of geospatial data and estimating the likelihood of observation of future activities?
  • Understand the science that informs the increasing number and kinds of geospatial sensors?

These questions help any geospatial professional assess areas of competency and areas for growth. Many geospatial analysts display a dominant capability in two of the four disciplines and a lack of familiarity, skill, or learning in the other two. Rare is the analyst strong in math and science as well as in art and history. Thinking about DNA and GEOINT together, along with its personal value, serves practitioners and leaders well as a diagnostic tool for shaping individual or organizational professional development.


1 See the Wikipedia article on Geospatial Intelligence.
2 The DNA model does not map exactly to the most common taxonomy for geospatial intelligence, the USGIF Essential Body of Knowledge (EBK), but it encompasses the entire content of the EBK.


To learn more, please visit landing.advanced.jhu.edu/government.