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GeoQ: Robust homeland security tools for first responders

November 5, 2015  - By 2 Comments
Art Kalinski, GISP

Art Kalinski, GISP

When I was the GIS manager of the Atlanta Regional Commission, the most rewarding and important work we did was geospatial support for our first responders. The culmination of this effort was creation of a portable GIS that we could set up in the field on short notice anywhere in the region to provide situational awareness for first responders.

The system consisted of two laptops, external hard drives, a HP “E”-size plotter, foam-board laminator and an LCD projector — all housed in a portable tent. We used ArcInfo and ArcView to build and overlay vector data on ortho/oblique aerial imagery to aid visualization.

We found that police and firefighters especially liked our large laminated plots of imagery overlaid with street data, because the aerial images were easy to understand and the GIS data provided needed location references. The hard-copy plots required no computer and could be marked up with grease pencils.



Helping in our small way, we provided the same kind of large plots of New Orleans to the Louisiana National Guard days after Hurricane Katrina hit. We later learned that the plots were used by National Guard headquarters to keep track of search-and-rescue efforts by marking up neighborhood blocks with grease pencils and recording search results. They crossed off buildings that had been searched and recorded urban rescue information such as who did the search, and the date and number of live or deceased bodies found. The hard-copy plots were a low-tech embodiment of higher tech GIS data and imagery.


Nine years later, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) developed a similar but higher tech and more robust system called GeoQ.

GeoQ: Geographic Work Queueing and Tasking System

GeoQ is an open-source geographic tasking and management system that facilitates collection and display of diverse geographic and geographically tagged data across large areas to provide situational awareness for all involved. As needed, the large areas can be broken down into small grid squares and assigned to teams or team members for detailed analysis or tasking.

The system is designed to be very transparent so all involved can view the workflow and assist as needed, while avoiding duplication of effort. This NGA video is a well done and rapid overview of GeoQ.

GeoQ software was developed by NGA and the MITRE Corporation to leverage NGA tools and data to the benefit of Homeland Security personnel. In 2013, the leadership at NGA made a gutsy decision to share some of their unclassified geospatial tools with the nation’s first responders through GitHub, an open-source software developers’ online collaboration environment. With more than 2 million participating programmers, GitHub hosts more software source code than any other single service in the world.

GeoQ was the first NGA product shared through GitHub, and was in keeping with a change in philosophy at NGA to take advantage of feedback and improvements generated by the huge and diverse talent pool available through GitHub. NGA was the first intelligence agency to share some of its work in this open-source environment, and the results have been extremely beneficial to all involved.

The Huntsville Connection

With more than 70 geospatial firms and agencies, Huntsville, Ala., has always been an early adopter of geospatial technology. Several years ago it was again a Huntsville team that developed a first-ever Google Earth Enterprise-based emergency response system called Virtual Alabama. The system was so effective that eight other states adopted the model. Work was underway to build a national version when Google announced the phasing out of Google Earth Enterprise. We now know that Google was not motivated to build authoritative geospatial systems, but was focused on building products and services that attracted customers so it could accomplish its primary business of selling advertising.

Fortunately, the work of the Virtual Alabama team was not wasted. Team members became experts regarding first-responder operations and their unique situational awareness requirements. They learned that first responders needed much more than just a GIS. The best analogy I can think of is that one could use PowerPoint as a word processor, but that wouldn’t be a very efficient system. Likewise, MS Word could be used for presentations, but not as elegantly as PowerPoint. The same holds true for rapid dissemination, communication and perception of a common operational picture. Geospatial tools and analysis are part of situational awareness, but the work flow and many components are different, not necessarily spatial and need to be assembled and processed at their own pace.

The timing was almost perfect, since GeoQ was released as Google Earth Enterprise was being phased out. Huntsville again seized the opportunity to build on its experience, and GEOHuntsville became a prime GeoQ testbed. I recently met with Chris Johnson, one of the early Virtual Alabama leaders and president of A Visual Edge, Inc., a Huntsville geospatial firm. She demonstrated GeoQ and Huntsville’s role in advancing the technology.

GitHub has a very thorough description of GeoHuntsville, a non-profit 501c6, and its role with NGA to test and share lessons learned through a “Blueprint for Safety” pilot project involving other cities to improve rapid disaster response. The sharing of lessons learned, code sets and documentation through the multi-city collaboration is called “Exemplar City.”

Another aspect of the Blueprint for Safety is support of rapid sensor deployment in support of first responders through common standards. Sort of a “plug-and-play” for complex devices. (See the GeoQ projects page and the OpenSensorHub.)

There is quite an extensive collection of material on GitHub regarding GeoQ and other NGA, projects including support of FEMA and GeoQ technical specifications. NGA doesn’t directly support these efforts, with legal language such as “NGA assumes no responsibility for the use of the software by any parties, and makes no guarantees, expressed or implied, about the software quality, reliability, or any other characteristic.” Still, NGA is behind the creation of the software and is working on other tools and support that will expand the capabilities. Participation of both GeoHuntsville and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) bodes well for future use, since I don’t envision the same situation we ran into with Google and Virtual Alabama/USA.

Update on What3Words

In February, I wrote about what3words. The simple what3words system is now available as a locator, accessible via the Esri ArcGIS platform.

Art Kalinski

About the Author:

A career Naval Officer, Art Kalinski established the Navy’s first geographic information system (GIS) in the mid-1980s. Completing a post-graduate degree in GIS at the University of North Carolina, he was the Atlanta Regional Commission GIS Manager from 1993 to 2007. He pioneered the use of oblique imagery for public safety and participated in numerous disaster-response actions including GIS/imagery support of the National Guard during Hurricane Katrina; the Urban Area Security Initiative; a NIMS-based field exercise in Atlanta; and a fully manned hardware-equipped joint disaster response exercise in New York City. Kalinski retired early from ARC to join Pictometry International to direct military projects using oblique imagery, which led to him joining SPGlobal Inc. He has written articles for numerous geospatial publications, and authors a monthly column for the GeoIntelligence Insider e-newsletter aimed at federal GIS users.

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