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Geospatial intelligence

Geospatial intelligence

Geospatial intelligence is the exploitation and analysis of geospatial imagery and information.

Geospatial intelligence (GEOINT) provides intelligence about activity on earth, through the exploitation and analysis of imagery and geospatial information that describes, assesses, and visually depicts physical features and geographically referenced activities on Earth.


Geospatial intelligence and related tradecraft were traditionally confined to the United States government and related military powers. The term and its related functions were created by an agency within the US government in 2005 for defense analytics, geospatial intelligence, and government data analytics. The features and responsibilities of GEOINT are contained within the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, a department within the United States Department of Defense.

In a 2005 memo, Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. James R. Clapper, then director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, defined GEOINT:

GEOINT encompasses all aspects of imagery and geospatial information and services. It includes, but is not limited to, the analysis of literal imagery; geospatial data; and information technically derived from the processing, exploitation, literal, and non-literal analysis of spectral, spatial, and temporal fused products. These types of data can be collected on stationary and moving targets by electro-optical, synthetic aperture radar (SAR), related sensor programs, and non-technical means (to include geospatial information acquired by personnel in the field).

GEOINT has played a role in military operations and the broader context of human security operations for decades. This includes providing intelligence used in resolving the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 and helping facilitate negotiations that ended the Bosnian War in 1992.

Improved technology

GEOINT has since grown out of its uses in military specific applications and expanded to the academic and commercial worlds. With this expansion has also come an evolution of new technologies and product packages to expand the applications possible of GEOINT.

New applications of GEOINT based on technology

New technology

Data stewardship

Self-service geospatial intelligence products that provide curated geospatial intelligence information and datasets from other apps and sources, while providing a key data stewardship role. And, going forward, the ability to manage data at large volumes will continue to be a key issue in GEOINT.

Geospatial data platforms

Open geospatial data platforms have been used by DARPA, which has hoped the technology can help solve hunger through a $7.2 million project awarded to Descartes Labs, which uses a geographical data repository through sensors, satellite imagery, and data from 75 different partners. The company has developed projects including the following: a platform to help farmers share information to help regions protect crop yields and prevent scarcity, a food security risk index, and a fish distribution system for optimizing delivery to regions affected by drought.

Interoperability for GEOINT applications and data

The use of GIS has been an intelligence avenue for resolving conflicts, protecting troops, assessing risks, and gaining information about enemy operations. An important change in the way military uses GEOINT was the adoption of the object-based production framework, which focuses on assembling data around specific issues rather than tasking analysts with collecting information from different sources; this allows analysts to spend more time developing intelligence and insights rather than with data management.

Machine learning

With an increased role of machine learning, geospatial data can be collected faster, where previously the collection of this data has been manual and time-intensive work, especially where the landscapes and structures can change drastically and rapidly. The use of machine learning has helped GEOINT map changes in terrain, structures, and making disaster response projects more efficient and more effective. This technology has proved a useful resource in response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.

Use cases
Humanitarian aid

GEOINT products have been used for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief missions. Whether derived from satellite, aircraft, unmanned aerial vehicles, or ground views, imagery offers event confirmation and impact, early assessment, and a foundation on which to initiate response planning. These actions can include using GEOINT to help understand how a refugee camp is operating and to monitor the situation and better deliver humanitarian assistance, as well as collect information such as number for refugees, their provenance, the presence of any paramilitary activity, and the possibility of attacks.

General crime and security surveillance

GEOINT and related products are used on a wide range of topics relevant for general crime and international security issues, including border control, terrorism, piracy, illegal cropping, or cross-border state disputes. This can include treaty verification as GEOINT offers a non-intrusive means of treaty monitoring and a way of avoiding on-ground dangerous situations. In a case such as piracy and coastal analysis, GEOINT can track piracy events for off-shore vessel activity and the analysis of inland pirate infrastructure in order to deter, prevent, or repress acts of piracy on shipping vessels.

Critical infrastructure

GEOINT can be used to monitor at-risk elements, such as dams, water treatment facilities, oil fields, pipelines, pumping stations, airports, highways, and governmental buildings. At-risk elements can include systems and assets, either physical or virtual, that the destruction of would have a negative impact on security, health, or safety of a nation or group of nations. GEOINT systems can follow possible threats, whether natural or human-induced, and offer mapping in order to provide new perspectives for risk management and decision making. GEOINT can also offer threat analysis and vulnerability analysis at sites. Whether the threats are natural or human, GEOINT can provide context and data in order to help protect against threats of vulnerabilities or provide a vulnerability scale in order to understand possible vulnerable infrastructure points.

Contingency planning

Contingency planning can contain procedures and specifics for actions and for controls for sudden and unforeseen situations. The goal of contingency planning is to diminish the probability of consequences of emergencies through prevention of fatalities of injuries, reduction of damage to infrastructure, and increased resumption of normal operations. For these operations, GEOINT can make a full description of the vulnerable areas, asses potential extension of a disaster, and evaluate the necessary measures that can mitigate or neutralize the restrictions to normal emergency procedures.

Military capabilities

With GEOINT's beginnings in military operations, the use cases for military capabilities of GEOINT are wide and varied. These can include remote sensing for military analysis, such as the assessment of military capabilities, punctual analysis of deployed forces, and the assessment of military infrastructure—such as military camps, airfields, naval bases, and missile sites. This can also be extended to elements related to paramilitary activity. GEOINT can also be used during conflict for battle damage assessment, in order to understand the physical and functional damage of an attack and the possible impact on civilian casualties versus the impact on urban guerilla fighters. GEOINT can also be utilized in conjunction with radar imagery in order to monitor night-time activity and reduce the possibility of surprise attacks.

Geospatial intelligence companies


Further Resources


4 Uses of Geospatial Intelligence


April 15, 2021

Geospatial Intelligence Becomes A Focus Of Military And Economic Competition

Loren Thompson


December 11, 2020

National System for Geospatial Intelligence

Robert B. Murrett


September 2006

Understanding GEOINT | Geo Owl | Geospatial Intelligence


What is Geospatial Intelligence (GEOINT)? Definition and FAQs | OmniSci



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