GIS and biological threats

April 7, 2016  - By

Longing for the good old days when we mostly worried about nukes

Years ago, Navy colleague Commander Stephen Rose drew a lot of attention at the Naval War College with his essay entitled “The Coming Explosion of Silent Weapons.” The essay was awarded both the Colbert Memorial Award and the Joint Chiefs of Staff Writing Prize. I never thought that 27 years later his paper would seem so timely and highlight the critical need for the geospatial work being done by the NIH (National Institutes of Health), CDC (Centers for Disease Control), DTRA (Defense Threat Reduction Agency), U.S. Army and others.

In his paper, Commander Rose reviewed emerging warfare technologies including chemical warfare, biological warfare, gene splicing, nano technology, remotely piloted vehicles (RPVs) and more. He compared the complexity and expense of a country trying to develop a nuclear capability compared to the relative ease and low cost of developing chemical and biological weapons, which were sort of a “poor man’s nuke.”

Although, years later, the countries named in the paper have not changed significantly: Iran, Iraq, Syria and Libya. You can read the full paper at the Naval War College website.


Worrisome at the time, most of us took comfort in the built-in deterrence that was intrinsic with chemical and, more so, biological weapons. It was a genie that with a slight change of wind direction could hurt friendly troops as easily as enemy troops. Even more problematic, biological agents could affect not only friendly troops but even the user’s families in their own home towns. So for the past 27 years we’ve whistled past the graveyard in the belief that no one would be crazy enough to use biologics.

Although we were Cold War enemies, I knew that my Soviet counterparts shared most of my values. They enjoyed life, loved their families, relished their vodka and just wanted to go home and perhaps work on their Dachas. Even Star Trek Klingons were philosophically not that different from either of us. Enter the 21st century, and now suicide bombing has become a virtue with cash rewards paid to the surviving family members and a path to heavenly pleasures for the bomber. This, of course, changes everything.

Congressional testimony by National Intelligence Director Clapper and others have pointed to a growing concern about chemical and biological attacks. Additionally, some terrorists are not intellectual lightweights. Recently, the former Iraq chemical and biological expert Sleiman Daoud al Afari was captured, and this week the number two man in ISIS, former physics professor Haji Imam, was killed. So is it just a matter of time before someone with the right knowledge, skills and relatively light resources builds a biologic that gets out of control?


Esri Federal GIS Medical Special Interest Group

During the recent Esri Federal GIS Conference in D.C., I attended a session concerning GIS and global responses to pandemics and biological threats. The session was moderated by Dr. Este Geraghty, MD, MS, MPH, CPH, FACP, GISP, who is Esri’s chief medical officer.

Although the discussion focused mostly on the Zika virus, much of the background information covered the geospatial aspects of the Ebola outbreak in Africa. According to one of the presenters, David Foster, a U.S. contractor and prior Air Force veteran who participated in the response, the world response was quick, but it was also a dizzying collection of government and non-government agencies with more than 80 different responding groups. Somewhat disconcerting was that no one was really in charge and communications was poor.

Dr. Geraghty was kind enough to do a video interview, primarily focused on the concerns of this article and the need for a strong geospatial monitoring and analysis capability.

One example: Early GIS at CDC

In 199 when I retired from the Navy and became the GIS manager of the Atlanta Regional Commission, we established the region’s first Esri ArcView Learning Center. A number of CDC doctors and staff members took our ArcView II classes. Six months later, I was humbled with what those early students had accomplished. They used the relatively basic ArcView II to map disease outbreaks domestically and worldwide. The maps provided a valuable visualization tool that helped with understanding complex outbreaks and how to combat their spread.

The growing need for more sophisticated spatial monitoring, analysis and display led to the creation of GRASP (Geospatial Research, Analysis and Services Program). CDC and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, Division of Toxicology and Human Health Sciences (ATSDR/DTHHS) worked to build the needed geospatial capability, and in 2013 Booz Allen Hamilton was awarded a competitive contract to build a unified and comprehensive GIS support system for CDC and ATSDR.

GRASP program specifics include:

  • GIS analysis, research and geospatial statistics.
  • GIS remote sensing imagery analysis.
  • Cartographic design and production.
  • GIS web/desktop/mobile application design, development and maintenance.
  • GIS shared service design, development and maintenance.
  • GIS database design, development, management and maintenance.
  • GPS data-gathering, training and support.
  • GIS systems integration.
  • GIS training.
  • GIS project management.

GRASP has grown into a sophisticated monitoring and analysis system. When a serious outbreak occurs, CDC responds like other emergency response organizations and stands up an Emergency Operations Center (EOC) in accordance with the National Incident Management System (NIMS). GRASP maps, imagery and visualizations help everyone understand the nature and scope of the threat by creating a common operational picture.

This capability is further enhanced with new Esri tools such as Insight, easy geocoding, big-data deep analysis, tools for activating response teams, as well as sharing and collaboration with other federal agency and resources such as GEOINT, HUMINT (human intelligence), SIGINT (signals intelligence) and social media.

Natural or man-caused, and who makes the call?

Getting back to Commander Rose’s paper, one is left with the following points to ponder. Following a conventional or nuclear attack, a country instantly knows three things: that it’s been attacked, when it was attacked and where it was attacked. As a result, the subject country stands a good chance of figuring out who did the attack.

Conversely, with a biological attack, a country may not know when or where the attack occurred, or if it was even an attack and not just a natural outbreak. This then becomes a tough decision for our analysts, because announcing a devastating outbreak as a biological attack could be tantamount to announcing a modern-day Pearl Harbor without the benefit of seeing burning ships or falling buildings. Additionally, the path from analysis to a definitive determination and by who may not be completely clear.

Existential threat?

So, are we in a Cornelian dilemma? Are we better off pulling back and lying low in hopes that “they” won’t hate us enough to initiate a suicidal attack that launches Armageddon? Or do we act preemptively with all our intelligence and military resources to beat down any group that shows the slightest inclination and potential to entertain this suicidal activity?

Some politicians have stated that although we lost more than 3,000 people during 9/11, it was a relatively small percentage loss in the grand scheme of things; that the U.S. is so big and so powerful that we don’t face an “existential threat.” So one would have to ask if the loss of 10, 20 or 50 percent of our population would be existential enough?

Complicating the issue, as some of my intel colleagues are fond of pointing out, is that if some actions we are currently taking or not taking seem to make no sense, it’s probably because you don’t know all the facts.

Regardless, our monitoring and analysis capability may be one of the most important activities being done by our geospatial community. Additionally, we need to make sure that our protective agencies get what they need to do the monitoring and analysis to keep us safe. My hope is that we really are doing what needs to be done and not just dreaming of the good ol’ days when all we had to worry about was a nuclear attack.

About the Author: Art Kalinski

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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