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DoD Agency Offers Public Geospatial Intel to Help Ebola Fight

By Cheryl Pellerin DoD News, Defense Media Activity

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WASHINGTON, November 24, 2014 — In a contribution to the Defense Department’s fight against West Africa’s deadly Ebola virus disease outbreak, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency has launched its first public website of unclassified geospatial intelligence data.

NGA’s mission in support of national security is to visually depict and assess situations on the ground using satellite imagery and other geographically referenced information.

The public website, covering the West African countries affected by the Ebola outbreak, is a new venture for the necessarily secretive intelligence organization. Still, NGA has for years provided geographical intelligence to first responders during most major natural disasters.

“My group regularly supports humanitarian assistance and disaster relief efforts, as well as special security events that are driven by the FBI,” Timothy J. Peplaw, director of the NGA Readiness, Response and Recovery Office, told DoD News during a recent interview.

Supporting the Disaster Supporters

“NGA is not necessarily in the business of providing unclassified data,” he added, “but my customer set is very open, so my group is the one exception where we have to provide unclassified data and products to people who support these disasters.”

The office always works through a lead federal agency, Peplaw explained.

During wildfires, earthquakes or hurricanes, that agency is FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency. For the Ebola support, Peplaw’s office works through the State Department. For special security events such as the presidential address or the Super Bowl, it's the FBI or the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

“My group has in the past supported these events through unclassified means,” he said, “but it's usually not through the World Wide Web and unclassified. It's usually through things like data encryption or special access with a need to know.”

Unclassified NGA Ebola Website

For the Ebola Support website, there is no NGA control, Peplaw said, because his office wants its data and products to be available to a variety of users, especially nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs, who need help in their work in West Africa -- organizations such as Doctors Without Borders and the United Nations’ World Food Program.

But the general public can use it, nongovernmental organizations can use it, and even foreign countries can use it, he said, adding that some recent website statistics indicated that people from 77 foreign countries had accessed the site.

“We have a partnership with the State Department through the World Wide Human Geography Data Working Group, formed in 2011 to focus on the need for human geography global foundation data as a basis better understanding cultures, activities and attitudes , Peplaw said. “Through that partnership, we have access to a wide variety of unclassified publicly available data. So NGA pulls that data together and offers it up as a service.”

Readiness, Response and Recovery

The Readiness, Response and Recovery Office provides data and products and makes them available as a service using an online common operating environment called ArcGIS from a California-based company called Esri. Products include map atlases that Peplaw describes as maps and commercial imagery rolled into one.

The service part, Peplaw added, includes atlas maps that have different kinds of layers of data that users can turn on and turn off, based on their needs.

“Let's say that I'm an NGO working with people who are out at the Ebola treatment units, and we're trying to figure out how to get a patient from a local hospital to one of these units,” he said. The NGO might want to see transportation data, medical facilities, Ebola treatment units and other data layers related to transporting that patient from a hospital to an Ebola treatment unit, he explained.

Other Practical Uses of Geospatial Data

Another practical use of the website might be to determine helicopter landing zones, Peplaw said.

“Let's say that we have to transport a critical patient via helicopter to an Ebola treatment unit,” he said. “I can go in as a user and turn on and off these different layers, so for a helicopter landing zone I'd be interested in terrain [and] in critical infrastructure so I can see if there are power lines in the area, and I can see if there are roads to get to that helicopter landing zone.”

Latest and Greatest Data

The other service aspect of the website is that it’s live, Peplaw said. “That means that as we, NGA, get different layers of data or updates to that data, we update it in real time,” he explained. “Whenever [users] access it, that's the latest and greatest data that's out there.”

NGA has an analyst in Monrovia deployed with the 101st Airborne Division to support the Army, but the analyst also is helping the Liberian government update the country’s essential maps through its Institute of Statistics and Geoinformation Services. Other countries in the region, Peplaw said, will be able to benefit from the public data available on the NGA Ebola Support site.

The widespread nature of the Ebola outbreak has been a technical and workforce challenge for the NGA office, he added.

“Usually when we support these kinds of things, it's in a very concentrated area, and this is spread throughout several countries in western Africa. The challenge is to provide geospatial intelligence support over a huge swath of land,” Peplaw said.

NGA, WWW and the Future

The NGA office’s foray onto the World Wide Web will take the agency in new directions in several ways moving forward.

“I think it means we spread ourselves globally,” Peplaw said. “Our expertise is really in natural disasters and special security events, but now all of a sudden we're involved in a health issue, so I think [the direction] is only limited by the imagination.

“We can do so much with our data,” he continued, “and pushing [it] out there as a service I think really gets it into a different domain. … It's hard to say really where this is going to go in another five years, but it certainly isn't going away.”

(Follow Cheryl Pellerin on Twitter: @PellerinDoDNews)