The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency and US Ebola Response in West Africa

On October 23 the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, responsible for US map and satellite intelligence announced that it had created a declassified map page in order to

assist U.S. and international relief efforts to combat the spread of the Ebola virus disease, providing unprecedented online access to its unclassified geospatial intelligence in support of lead federal agencies and partners.

The press release (including typos) continues by explaining some history of the NGA’s role in previous disasters, including Hurricane Katrina, the 2010 Haiti earthquake, Hurricane Sandy and Typhoon Haiyan.  Of course the part that I found interesting was the part about Amazon web services hosting the platform, given their work with the CIA in cloud computing. (see also here and here)

The dynamic site, which uses Esri’s ArcGIS Platform hosted in the cloud by Amazon Web Services – both publically available services – features various base maps that provide foundational context for users, who will then have the ability to visually overlay public NGA data, as well as ingest open-source data.

“This has the potential of being a global incident,” said Tim Peplaw, GEOINT mission manager for NGA’s Integrated Working Group – Readiness, Response and Recovery, or IWG-R3, which provides GEOINT support to humanitarian assistance and disaster relief activities.

NGA’s role in the Ebola crisis has been in step with many other global events that have required the agency’s disaster support, including Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the Haiti earthquake in 2010, Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and Typhoon Haiyan in 2013, said Peplaw. The difference this time is the size of the affected area.

“We are looking at multiple locations and we are trying to provide support,” said Peplaw. “It’s not single-threaded. It’s not just one event taking place, it’s happening on the entire western part of the continent.”

The combined size of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone is 165,625 square miles, or roughly three times the size of Louisiana and 15 times the size of Haiti. Other countries like Nigeria, which has been minimally affected, or other neighboring countries, may be at risk in the future, adding to the scope of the problem.

The Ebola support page features the map, web app, map journal and a link to other products from NGA, but only for Liberia and Guinea, not Sierra Leone, the second hardest hit country.  There are even cases in the Democratic Republic of Congo unrelated to the larger outbreak in West Africa according to the CDC. The map contains a choice of 9 base maps (satellite, topographic, streets,) and data overlays of more than 80 metrics with explanatory notes including employment, education, borders, tunnels, smuggling routes, Conflict Events in Liberia (2004-2014) internet cafes and many more topics including the very important Liberia Ebola Treatment Units as of October 21, including units that are operational, under construction, site surveyed and to be determined (TBD).  The map journal features several points across West Africa, where users can click on the map and download a regional atlas containing statistical data on the city.

(See here for intelligence summaries of the United States’ Ebola response, Operation United Assistance, coordinated through US Africa Command.)

While NGA is on Twitter (since 2011) and while there have been some tweets about the Ebola map, there doesn’t appear to be widespread notice, and I have seen no coverage so far in the mainstream news, besides some copy and pastes of the press releases like I did above to some extent, see this and this as examples.

This comes as NGA has a brand new Director, and as increased scrutiny has been focused on the NSA since the Snowden leaks last year as well as routine scrutiny of the CIA and FBI and their roles in national security and the battle over privacy and accountability of their current and past operations both at home and abroad, for example CIA arming rebels and FBI “justified” shootings.  There are 16 intelligence agencies with other smaller organizations of security and tactical military specialties.

According to a recent article the NGA is more transparent because of it’s work in maps and is becoming a more prominent figure in the intelligence structure, evidenced by the fact that it’s current Director’s most recent job was compiling Obama’s daily intelligence briefs.  NGA’s role is also growing towards leading integration among the intelligence agencies.

NGA has taken a lead role in the broader intelligence community’s technology-integration plan—known as ICITE—and in spearheading activity-based intelligence, the agency’s bid to harness the power of big data.

There are also a few stories about NGA from recent history (its role in killing of bin Laden) and Cold War history (during the Cuban Missile Crisis) as well as current news from the St Louis branch.

It was also announced in September that NGA would help strategic planning for global warming resilience in Africa, Mexico and Latin America.

Releasing Powerful New Data to Enable Planning for Resilience
To empower local authorities to better plan for the impacts of severe environmental changes such as drought, glacial retreat, flooding, landslides, coastal storm surges, agricultural stresses, and challenges concerning public health, today the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the National Geospatial-intelligence Agency (NGA), and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), as part of an ongoing commitment to open data and international data sharing through the inter-governmental Group on Earth Observations, will release a collection of higher-resolution elevation datasets for Africa. Datasets covering other global regions will be made available within one year, with the next release of data providing more accurate elevation information for Mexico, Central and South America, and the Caribbean. Until now, elevation data for Africa were freely and publicly available only at 90-meter resolution. The datasets being released today, and during the course of the next year—which are based on data collected by sensors designed by an international partnership and carried on the U.S. Space Shuttle—resolve to 30-meters and will be used worldwide to improve environmental monitoring, climate change research including sea-level rise impact assessments, and local decision support. These datasets are being made available via a user-friendly interface on USGS’s Earth Explorer website. With a commitment from the Secure World Foundation, and in collaboration with the Committee on Earth Observation Satellites, USGS, NOAA, and NASA plan to offer online training and regional workshops to further enable users to take advantage of these data resources.
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