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Online Learning Helps EM Teams Make Maps That Matter

Penn State’s online geospatial intelligence program gives managers hands-on experience leveraging spatial tools and data to determine how to deploy first responders to hard-hit areas.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – As Hurricane Dorian made landfall on Grand Bahama Island in 2019 and wildfires engulfed California in 2018, emergency teams were busy creating plans to best respond and provide relief to those affected by the disasters.

Many homes on the Bahama islands were destroyed, displacing tens of thousands of people, and extreme flooding washed out roadways, covered the coastlines and shut down the airport. More than 100,000 acres of California land burned for days, forcing thousands of residents to evacuate as the wildfires quickly spread into neighborhoods, causing trees and powerlines to fall and impact roads, blocking evacuees into extreme traffic jams.

During both of these disasters and their subsequent effects, federal, state and local emergency management teams devised their relief plans using geospatial intelligence: satellite imagery of the Earth that is analyzed to track both natural and human movements over space and time.

Through Penn State’s master’s degree program, emergency managers can learn how to use geospatial intelligence when responding to natural disasters and other emergencies. The degree, a Master of Professional Studies in Homeland Security with Geospatial Intelligence (GEOINT) option, is offered through Penn State World Campus, the university’s online campus.

“GEOINT allows emergency management teams to compare social media feeds, drone video and satellite images of an area before and after a disaster has struck,” said Dr. Gregory Thomas, the head of Penn State’s geospatial intelligence programs. “They can then analyze this information to see which areas are most affected and where to send first responders.”

Thomas has 26 years of experience in the intelligence and analytical field of law enforcement and now serves as the assistant director of Geospatial Intelligence Programs, which are offered online in partnership with the Penn State College of Earth and Mineral Sciences.

Historically, GEOINT imagery was created and used in military and national defense sectors to monitor an adversary’s movements, strengths and weaknesses, said Thomas. But thanks to advances in computer software technology that allow it to handle big data, such as georeferenced social media and vast amounts of earth images, geographic information systems have been adopted by emergency management, public safety, homeland security, and other domestic authorities.

Katherine Melton, a 2018 graduate of the master’s degree program, is a GIS Analyst for a city government in Texas, and her work often relates to matters of public safety.

“GIS personnel and GIS tools are vital resources that can help mitigate incidents and emergency situations as well as be instrumental in supporting first responders and emergency management personnel involved in recovery and preparation efforts,” said Melton.

The main course work in Penn State’s master’s degree program consists of 33 credits which are composed of three core courses that are part of the homeland security program at Penn State, four courses that are required for the geospatial intelligence option, and three electives.

The core homeland security courses cover policies and programs of homeland security administration; social and ethical issues of homeland security; and violence, threats, terror and insurgency.

For the required geospatial intelligence courses, students will explore imagery and elevation data in GIS applications; use GIS to solve problems; learn the geographic foundations of geospatial intelligence; and apply advanced analytic methods.

Lastly, students can tailor the program to their interests by choosing three electives from a list of over 30 online courses, most of which focus on geospatial technology, applications, and analysis.

Students can also complete a certificate in geospatial intelligence analytics. The 13 credits may be applied toward the master’s degree.

Through the curriculum, students will be taught to analyze all types of data from social media feeds, drone videos and satellite images. Using this data, student will then develop strategies to prevent an incident from occurring, prepare for an incident that may occur or quickly respond to an incident that has occurred.

Prior to graduation, students will be able to put their skills to use through a three-credit capstone experience. After working closely with an adviser, students will use GIS and other technology to analyze an event, giving them the chance to gain real-world experience on a topic that is relevant to their career goals.

A benefit of Penn State’s online master’s degree program is that experts in a variety of fields in geospatial intelligence from across the country can teach the courses. World Campus students can expect to learn from instructors with experience working for the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, the military, law enforcement and more.

Courses are also taught by the GIS faculty in Penn State’s highly ranked Department of Geography.

Despite the technical nature of GEOINT, Penn State aims to provide students with a well-rounded education that puts the emphasis on student development rather than technology.

“We are looking at the individual who performs the analysis of the information,” said Thomas. “Our focus is on the analyst who is using that data and making sense of that data.”

Students in the well-respected program will be taught analytical skills and techniques that can be applied in the various fields requiring GEOINT analysts, opening the door to competitive careers.

Melton relayed her current and future success in the field to the analytical skills she learned through World Campus, and the experience she gained using high-level imagery software in her classes.

“On a daily basis, I'm creating, maintaining, updating, and providing spatial services, data, and products to the public and city employees,” Melton said.

“Without such skills, I may not have been the best candidate for this position. I’m proud I was able to meet the challenge and succeed.”

For more information about this online graduate program, please visit the Master of Professional Studies in Homeland Security - Geospatial Intelligence Option website.