Home Crisis Management Haiti Earthquake: The Role of Geospatial Intelligence During Response
Haiti Earthquake: The Role of Geospatial Intelligence During Response

Haiti Earthquake: The Role of Geospatial Intelligence During Response


By Liam O’Brien, faculty member, Intelligence Studies at American Military University

Six years ago on January 12, 2010, a 7.0 magnitude earthquake hit Haiti. The devastation was extensive: It destroyed 75 percent of the nation’s schools as well as government offices, medical buildings, and other public infrastructure. More than 1.5 million people were displaced from their homes, and more than 220,000 people died and 300,000 were injured.

Role of NGA

Within hours of the Haiti earthquake, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) set up a Crisis Action Team (CAT) and consolidated response oversight for geospatial intelligence (GEOINT) efforts. The CAT worked to ensure that all geospatial intelligence efforts conducted by NGA, as well as the greater National System for Geospatial Intelligence and the Allied System for Geospatial Intelligence, were coordinated and aligned to provide geospatial intelligence analytics and services in an integrated, collaborative, and effective manner.

[Related Article: Emergency and Disaster Response: Is the U.S. Better at It Now?]

NGA staff in St. Louis and Washington, D.C., along with the NGA support teams at the U.S. Southern Command, helped provide immediate assessments. Within the first two days of the Haiti earthquake, they produced assessments of damage to critical infrastructure, conducted optimal travel-routes analysis for first responders, and provided a variety of up-to-date situational awareness products using a combination of government satellite imagery, commercial imagery (much of it provided at no cost by GeoEye and Digital Globe under the International Charter on Space and Major Disasters), and geospatial data.

Members of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division work in their Port-au-Prince command post as part of Operation Unified Response. (U.S. Army photo by Combat Photographer Master Sgt. Martin Cervantez/Released)

NGA personnel were also deployed in the support effort. A geospatial intelligence team was sent to Port-au-Prince to provide on-site GEOINT support and the NGA Domestic Mobile Integrated Geospatial-Intelligence System with a team of geospatial analysts were dispatched to the U.S. Southern Command in Miami to provide augmented, on-site geospatial intelligence.

U.S. Southern Command led the massive U.S. military relief effort under Operation Unified Response that involved 17 ships, over 100 aircraft and, at its height, 17,000 personnel deployed in and around Haiti. President Obama designated the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) as the lead federal agency for the U.S. humanitarian response and committed more than $500 million in supplies, grants, and direct support.

Over the next few weeks, NGA created geospatial intelligence products from a wide-range of geospatial information sources and delivered a wide range of geospatial intelligence products. Geotechnical modeling of slope, geology, historical weather trends, soil and vegetation were conducted to understand potential flooding and landslides, and helped decision-makers determine the optimal placement of displaced persons camps and medical facilities.

Cutting-edge Lidar technology, providing high-resolution elevation data, was quickly deployed to collect data, which was then used to help locate earthquake debris piles and understand the growth of displaced persons camps and food distribution locations. Unmanned aerial vehicles collected video that was analyzed to monitor food distribution sites for signs of unrest and to keep the response community away from any dangerous areas.

Up-to-date governmental and commercial imagery was used to create situational awareness products that focused on medical supply deliveries to maximize resources. NGA also provided security support information to track crime, secure food distribution sites, and monitor signs of mass migration. NGA’s international geospatial intelligence partners in Canada and the U.K. provided critical foundational geospatial intelligence by providing quick production and dissemination of topographic maps and updated nautical charts.

Challenges in Information Sharing

A major thrust of NGA support was finding ways to make its information available to the widest possible range of response and recovery groups and agencies. This required overcoming legal and policy issues to develop dissemination rules for unclassified, releasable intelligence, a process that has been difficult to achieve within an intelligence agency accustomed to secrecy. It is an ongoing process, as NGA is responsible for the dual, and at times competing, roles of protecting classified sources and methods, and providing actionable intelligence to mission partners.

[Related Article: Integrating Drones into Disaster Response Operations]

Since the devastating Haiti earthquake, NGA has found more ways to increase its sharing of critical disaster response and recovery geospatial intelligence with a wider range of U.S., foreign partner, and NGO communities.

The Rise of Social Media and Volunteered Mapping

Another of the major outcomes of the Haiti geospatial support was the emergence of social networking tools, the maturation of volunteer mapping, and the spread of common portals for information sharing.

[Related Article: How Crowdsourcing Can Benefit Disaster Operations]

SMS texting and social media sites like Twitter played a significant role in providing emergency assistance. Members of the Haitian diaspora volunteered to translate messages and tweets from Haitians affected by the earthquake into English, and the open-mapping, crowd-sourcing site Ushahidi posted messages linked to mapped locations, thereby providing near real-time information to first responders.

The volunteer mapping community truly came into its own during the crisis. The most extraordinary example of the power of crowd-sourced, volunteer mapping was the success in mapping Port-au-Prince and environs in just a few short days. For example, the OpenStreetMap project rapidly created a map of the capital, which can be viewed in a short YouTube video, showing a timeline of open mapping data over the capital, leading up to, and just after, the earthquake. The rate of mapping from this disaster is truly remarkable.

With so many governmental, NGO, and volunteer organizations providing geospatially referenced information and data about Haiti, it immediately became clear that distribution had become one of the major limitations in sharing data. An NGA-produced map of working hospital sites may be needed by a wide range of responders, but how does the map get to those responders who need it the most?

Many online geographic-based information sharing solutions were used in the effort. A short list includes the U.S. Southern Command’s All Partners Access Network, CrisisMappers, OpenStreetMap, and Ushahidi. The data was getting out, but the time needed to research all of the sites became a time-resource problem, one that remains to this day.

Lessons Learned From Haiti Earthquake

A major lesson learned by NGA from the Haiti earthquake is not only that national intelligence can play an important role in helping the international community in rapid response humanitarian efforts, but also how to quickly provide geospatial intelligence and data to the widest range of support organizations in an open and easily accessible platform, which is key to saving lives.

The NGA continues to improve its process and apply hard-won humanitarian assistance lessons learned. On April 25, 2015, when an earthquake hit Nepal, causing more than 8,000 deaths, the agency’s open and public website, which hosted unclassified geospatial intelligence data, products and services, was up and running within 24 hours, providing services and information that took far longer to compile and present during the Haiti response. Here you can see the Nepal earthquake website and associated support content.

The geospatial response to the Haiti relief effort was a seminal event in NGA’s history. NGA’s historic successes in providing geospatial intelligence in support of the nation’s security objectives was broadened and partially redefined by its participation in this international humanitarian relief effort. Its massive, proactive participation in the Haiti earthquake response helped NGA leaders move beyond its traditional, overreliance on highly classified sources of information, to unlock the vast potential of unclassified, community-produced geospatial intelligence. The current NGA Director, Robert Cardillo, now speaks of the power of leveraging the agency’s governmental, industry, academic, volunteer, and international partners to enhance its geospatial intelligence mission. According to Cardillo, this new power is created by the many and “it is open, participatory and peer-driven.”

About the Author: On January 12, 2010, Liam O’Brien was a member of the Defense Intelligence Senior Executive Service at NGA, serving as the National System for Geospatial Intelligence, Operations Executive for the Americas, which included executive leadership and oversight to the NGA Haiti Earthquake CAT. He is currently a faculty member in the Intelligence Studies program at American Military University.


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