How can a first responder assess damage after an earthquake? How can a real estate developer decide whether to invest in land? While these questions are miles apart, answers to both involve geospatial intelligence.
Geospatial intelligence is the insight derived from finding patterns in geospatial information such as location data and characteristics of events, phenomena, or objects, both natural and constructed, on Earth. This information comes from sources including satellite imagery, census data, maps, cellphone data, and weather data.
Geospatial intelligence, once strictly a tool used by the military to manage battlefields or analyze terrain, has evolved. Today, travel, real estate, and many other industries also use geospatial intelligence. Industries rely on geospatial intelligence analysts’ assessments of geospatial data to spotlight everything from traffic congestion to pesticide use.
Pursuing a role in this field typically requires students to complete several key steps, including education in information systems. But before considering how to become one, aspiring geospatial intelligence analysts can benefit from considering how the interpretation of geospatial intelligence can affect our world for the better.
What does a geospatial intelligence analyst do?
In basic terms, geospatial intelligence analysts convert information into knowledge that:
- Supports strategic business decisions
- Informs the construction and maintenance of infrastructure
- Helps in disaster response
A geospatial intelligence analyst’s work involves gathering, analyzing, and interpreting imagery to understand what’s happening in a real-life situation. For example, geospatial intelligence analysts’ training allows them to examine satellite images or images captured by drones.
How do various industries apply geospatial intelligence? Three examples follow:
- Military: to strategize about operations, such as combat locations
- Utilities: to alert personnel to problems, such as tree branches growing too close to wires
- Transit: to check subway infrastructure for safety and maintenance issues
Geospatial information systems
The technology of geospatial information systems (GIS) is key to a geospatial intelligence analyst’s work. It analyzes location data and descriptive data and then connects it to a map.
Geospatial intelligence analysts look for patterns and relationships between datasets, as well as seek to place data in geographic context. GIS technology helps them do just that.
For example, a GIS can map opioid prescriptions by location to identify patterns of potential misuse. The resulting map sheds light on how the opioid epidemic affects counties across the nation. Geospatial intelligence analysts can interpret this data and make predictions based on it.
Geospatial intelligence analysts interpret imagery such as the following:
- Infrared (imagery that maps out heat energy)
- Full motion video (live video)
- Lidar (using lasers to generate 3D images)
- Synthetic aperture radar (imagery that visualizes terrain structure in 2D)
Imagery analysis allows geospatial intelligence analysts to identify types of terrain and determine the physical makeup of a location. They can:
- Monitor changes in shorelines to prevent coastal erosion
- Track floods or earthquakes to assess a natural disaster’s impact
- Map wildlife habitats and wetlands to protect natural resources
After analyzing imagery, geospatial intelligence analysts typically write reports on their findings and recommendations.
Other key duties of geospatial intelligence analysts
A geospatial intelligence analyst’s work typically involves creating maps. Geospatial intelligence analysts organize layers of collected data into visual forms. This often means integrating several maps that contain unique data to create a single map that displays overlapping information.
For example, a geospatial intelligence analyst may combine maps of a city’s traffic fatalities, high-traffic pedestrian zones, and high-traffic bike zones. This can show patterns of traffic fatalities in the city and their relationship to the other datasets. Governments can then use this information to inform city planning and potentially reduce accidents.
Additional responsibilities of geospatial intelligence analyst may include:
- Monitoring changes to natural physical features, such as ice cover, to understand the environment
- Organizing datasets of geospatial information to make them usable assets
- Using GIS software and other data sources to develop accurate maps
- Pulling relevant data from collected geospatial information and using it to answer questions
How to become a geospatial intelligence analyst
Individuals interested in the field can benefit from familiarizing themselves with the steps to becoming a geospatial intelligence analyst.
Step 1: Earn a bachelor’s degree
Geospatial intelligence analysts need at least an undergraduate degree. Earning a Bachelor of Science in Management Information Systems, for instance, can help aspiring geospatial intelligence analysts develop the math, technical, analytical, and communication skills critical to succeeding in the position.
In the military, pursuing the role has unique requirements. Military geospatial intelligence analysts need to complete eight-and-a-half weeks of basic military training. They then need to complete between 100 and 112 days of technical training.
Maryville University has expanded its management information systems program to include offerings in the geographic data field. The new curriculum includes Geospatial Analytics, a course designed to train students in GIS. The course explores methods for using data sources to create scenarios. Students also learn to use the web-based mapping software ArcGIS and gain familiarity with programs such as Tableau, PowerBI, and Microsoft SandDance.
Step 2: Gain work experience
Geospatial intelligence analysts with work experience in the GIS field are in demand. Many employers prefer candidates who have had the chance to apply their classroom knowledge to real-world situations. Work experience can also help individuals build their skills in creating maps and using geospatial technologies and devices.
Additionally, industries use geospatial intelligence in different ways, so analysts need work experience to develop that specialized knowledge. For example, geospatial intelligence analysts working for insurance companies will likely learn how to use geospatial data to assess risks, while analysts in agriculture may learn methods for using geospatial data to help farmers make strategic choices.
Step 3: Learn a programming language
While geospatial intelligence analysts can find work without knowing a programming language, learning one can prove very useful. Many GIS applications incorporate Python or other programming languages, which makes knowing them helpful. For example, knowledge of Python can allow geospatial intelligence analysts to customize ArcGIS or automate GIS workflows, saving time and improving efficiency.
Geospatial intelligence analyst salary
The median annual geospatial intelligence analyst salary is around $60,000, according to PayScale.com data as of October 2021. Salaries range between $42,000 and $98,000 a year. Several factors can account for pay differences, including the level of education, years of experience, industry, and job location.
According to PayScale.com, competencies that can increase a candidate’s earning potential include advanced geospatial intelligence skills and proficiency in SQL, a programming language for managing databases. PayScale.com also reports that geospatial intelligence analysts earn:
- 4% more than the national average in McLean, Virginia
- 6% more than the national average in Springfield, Virginia
- 3% more than the national average in Washington, D.C.
Rise to the top of an exciting field
Geospatial intelligence transforms how governments, utilities, transit systems, and private industry make decisions. As its applications grow, so does the demand for geospatial intelligence analysts.
Discover how Maryville University’s online Bachelor of Science in Management Information Systems helps aspiring geospatial intelligence analysts expand their expertise in geographical information systems and launch exciting careers.