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Safe and Secure: How GIS Has Revolutionized Our National Security Efforts

Every nation is faced with the essential task of protecting citizens, constantly working to protect citizens from hostile countries, organizations, mitigating effects of natural disasters and securing critical infrastructure. In doing so, nations can protect the unique way of life and cultural identities of their citizens. To help achieve these ends, many national security agencies have adopted GIS solutions. In doing so, they have achieved an improved way to assess risks, provide real-time situational awareness and recover quickly from events. National security and GIS is one of many topics that will be covered at the Esri Federal GIS Conference in February.

The Esri Federal GIS Conference will be a two day event, with the third day being the first ever Esri DC Developer Summit. The conference will also feature five immersion summits, educating the government community on the power of GIS. The immersion summits will focus on national security, natural resource management, health and human services, transportation and economic development, and global aid, development and conservation. Be sure to register for the conference here, it is FREE to all federal employees, NPOs, NGOs, and international organizations.

“When we think about national security, everyone is a stakeholder, but there are agencies that have more of the national security burden and responsibilities than others. When we look at the primary organizations and agencies [providing national security], they revolve around protecting the population, critical infrastructure, the economy, and an organizations or agencies borders,” said Russ Johnson, Director, Public Safety and Homeland/National Security, Esri.

In the world of national security, there is an unprecedented need for real-time and accurate information to be delivered to stakeholders, and GIS has become the premier solution for agencies. GIS is able to harness the power of mobile, cloud and big data into a single framework. As Johnson notes, “GIS becomes the fabric to create interoperability to be able to give you a logical common denominator that you can look at and quickly understand.” GIS has moved far beyond a simple desktop analytic tool.

GIS as a Platform for National Security

For the national security community, GIS allows users to gain increased awareness of vulnerabilities and more context to situations as they unfold. This kind of intelligence allows decision makers to react in a more efficient manner. Today, GIS has become a platform for innovation for national security professionals, bringing to life geographic data into one, complete data infrastructure.

Johnson provided two different components of the GIS as a platform. The first element is for the traditional user, who is conducting heavy analysis, cleaning data, and doing statistical modeling within a GIS system to support a specific mission need. The second element is from people who may not even know they are using GIS. This is a new development for the GIS community, as technology has evolved, GIS has moved beyond a desktop client, and into new departments who now require more thorough spatial analysis. “The second part of the platform is the ability to provide information, either through straight kinds of maps or other applications, where the end users are not operators, and may not even know what GIS is. Now they have access to information and data to support decision-making, for whatever their role is,” said Johnson.

Thinking about the complexity of national security measures, it’s so important to be able to collaborate across agencies and divisions to achieve operational objectives. Johnson provided a great example, how ports can leverage GIS for increased safety and security. Ports are a great study to show the value of GIS, as all the stakeholders hold an important piece to the puzzle. With the GIS platform, and all the information different units are feeding into the system, administrators can receive very specific views and take a holistic view to manage the port. It also provides situational awareness for all users, and to first responders if they must intervene during an emergency.

To provide some context to this example, consider the Port of San Diego, which is a 6,000 acre facility. The San Diego Port Authority is responsible for the port, park concessionaires, two marine terminals and a cruise ship terminal in San Diego Bay. And if you think the San Diego is big, it doesn’t even reach the top 10 in a recent article by the Daily Mail, as Shanghai, Singapore and Hong Kong take the top three spots. Ports are a good example of showing the power of GIS, as they involve seamless intersection of facilities management, big data, mobile, automation and visualization to give stakeholders a complete view of the systems.

It’s clear that ports are unbelievable complex, and with the internet of things, nearly every item can be tracked and monitored, creating infinite data points and things to measure. For instance, if you want to automate when a vessel is arriving, or potentially getting to close to something, you can leverage GIS to create rule based upon geo-triggers, automatically alerting staff that something is wrong and some kind of action needs to be made.

Yet, there is so much happening beyond just a vessel entering the port. “When you think about all these things happening, not just within the port, but outside the port, law enforcement, public safety, and those populations that might be affected by an event, then you begin to expand the GIS capability into those departments so you are all on a common song sheet, if you will,” said Johnson.

The port is another example of the ability to leverage technology in new ways, another example would be video. Imagine if the same port was using a video surveillance system, the port could then use video to monitor in real-time through GIS, layering in other important data sets and information. Even within the GIS system, users could adjust the camera angle, providing even more context to what’s happening within the port.

The Way Forward for Agencies

Although GIS has truly evolved over the years, Johnson was clear to note that continued education is needed for government agencies. “GIS has changed so much, and our goal is to provide a capability to support any mission, any place, any time, on any device, for people who are not trained in GIS, I still think we have a long way to go for people to understand what that means, so we have a lot of education work to do,” said Johnson.

Another challenge faced by GIS professionals, is the challenge of data security. We’ve seen data security as a challenge for many agencies. “We do have the ability today to build systems that fit behind the firewall that protect peoples data, but can also reach out into the cloud and access other data to enrich what you already have, continuing to find that prescription, of being able to deploy behind the firewall, but providing access to open data and other systems that support the mission, but do not compromise peoples concerns over security is a big challenge.”
Across the globe, agencies have worked around security challenges and used GIS to drive new and innovative approaches to reaching mission objectives. You can learn about dozens of these examples at the Esri Federal GIS Conference. I’ve been the last two years, and it’s a great chance to meet some of your peers in government and witness the power of GIS for government.

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Esri was founded in 1969, it realized even then that geographic information system (GIS) technology could make a difference in society. GIS helps people to solve problems at local, regional, national, and global scales. Access maps and apps at ArcGIS.com. Be sure to check out all the
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