The story of GIS at DHS: An alphabet soup of progress

August 14, 2019  - By and

Read the first part of this series: The story of GIS at DHS: From Manhattan to Katrina.

The Geospatial Management Office (GMO) is the designated coordinator of geospatial activities throughout the core of the Department of Homeland Security headquarters and its component agencies.

Part I described how and why the GMO was formed and some of the early activities when resources were limited and expectations were low. Following the devastation along the Gulf States from Hurricane Katrina, the efforts to coordinate and empower the GMO gained focus and energy.

Image: USDHS

Image: USDHS

Needed: Better coordination

The magnitude of devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina, the uneven response and the inability for all levels of government to act in a unified manner prominently showed the gaping hole in the nation’s geospatial coordination mechanisms. The irony in this lack of coordinated government action, and the blame placed on President Bush’s administration, was that the lack of a geographic framework had been identified as a vulnerability since the late 1800s following the Civil War and never fully addressed.

A patchwork of Executive Orders and other stop-gap actions were in place, but action was needed by the Legislative Branch to finally address this, and, as is too often the case, it took a major disaster to cut through the politics and make this happen, resulting in the Geospatial Data Act. For a more in depth analysis of the Geospatial Data Act read the November 2018 Geospatial Solutions article “Geospatial Data Act Will Bring Huge Changes to America and the World.”


Hurricane Katrina had a sobering influence on federal agencies, providing renewed focus to find new ways to share information, and communicate openly and effectively using a common standard and language.

Dan Cotter, director of the GMO from 2005 through 2007, understood this challenge. Following his predecessor, Ryan Cast (the first director of the GMO), Cotter furthered the relationship with the Federal Geographic Data Committee (FGDC), establishing a Homeland Security Working Group with several sub-groups to advance DHS’s mission. Heavy lifting began on the symbol standards, data model and the U.S. National Grid (USNG).

This collaborative effort was furthered when the GMO secured funding for the first agency-wide enterprise license agreement (ELA) with Esri for GIS applications, training and services. The ELA reduced the cost and administrative difficulties surrounding procurement of GIS software. This dramatically increased the number of GIS practitioners seeking to partner with DHS, FEMA and the GMO.

Cotter was tapped to be the DHS chief technological officer in March 2007, passing leadership to Jeff Booth, who advanced the portfolio and led significant efforts to optimize the geospatial toolset of DHS while migrating it into the federal data-center environment.

Establishing a culture of trust does not come easy in bureaucracies, and this was no different for DHS. Being a relatively new agency, agility and eagerness were key traits, especially with a very fast-paced and high-stakes environment. People would volunteer to take on requested tasks, but that blurred the lines of responsibility.

The launch of GeoCONOPS

The HSE GeoCONOPS is a strategic roadmap to understand and improve the coordination of geospatial activities across the entire spectrum of the Nation. Updated on July 22, 2019, (Graphic:

The HSE GeoCONOPS is a strategic roadmap to understand and improve the coordination of geospatial activities across the entire spectrum of the Nation. Updated on July 22, 2019, (Graphic:

The FGDC and other working groups helped make introductions for the DHS GMO, which furthered the need to clarify each department’s role in the bigger geospatial picture. Defining these various operational roles and responsibilities led to the creation of the Geospatial Concept of Operations, or GeoCONOPS.

GeoCONOPS was a multi-year initiative, and is a playbook for a range of disaster-related events. Though initially limited to the disaster response and FEMA’s mission, GeoCONOPS was a structured community effort to clarify the types and timing of critical geospatial data and analysis needed in a disaster and continues to grow to address other DHS mission areas.

GeoCONOPS was initially published annually as a book, but changes were made too often and it is now only maintained as a website. GeoCONOPS describes the use of geospatial technology in the five mission areas of DHS:

  • Prevent
  • Protect
  • Mitigate
  • Respond
  • Recover

It also contains a curated inventory of geospatial resources available to the homeland security enterprise. The final version of the book (v.6, 2015) is available for download. Though often seen as a product, it is likely that the process behind the GeoCONOPS development was of equal or more value as it helped to define the lanes and build much-needed trust among the federal geospatial actors.

Cover of HSE GeoCONOPS resource book, v.4. (Image:

Cover of HSE GeoCONOPS resource book, v.4. (Image:

Through this effective collaboration model, the GMO benefitted from other significant advances elsewhere in the agency and the broader geospatial community. The development of the Homeland Security Information Network (HSIN) delivered value as a portal for the exchange of information and geospatial products on a common operating network among DHS member partners. If there is a major event taking place, such as political conventions, the Super Bowl, or the Boston Marathon, HSIN is sure to be part of the event’s command and control.

Its value was further proven by leveraging HSIN’s user-authentication capability, providing a trusted access-control mechanism for HSIN and other web-hosted geospatial capabilities. These access controls greatly reduced the deployment burden on the Geospatial Information Infrastructure (GII), which is an on-premises version of Esri’s ArcGIS Online suite.

The GII allows for trusted partners to gain access to hosted data, create working groups, and develop and share maps and geospatial applications. The GII also provides access to customized Common Operational Picture (COP) applications providing geospatial situational awareness for a number of operational partners.

These COPs are a result of their own evolutionary pathway, leveraging technology developed by and for the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (Palenterra) and through a first-generation viewer called the Infrastructure Critical Asset Viewer (iCAV). Now, with the tools in the GII, highly customized COPs and dashboards are developed for specific events and incidents and shared on an as-needed basis with the full range of stakeholders.

Where NGA and DHS intersect

DHS’s development of a national geospatial dataset put NGA and DHS on intersecting paths. The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) only focused on foreign threats and supporting the warfighter, but after the attacks of September 11, 2001, homeland defense was added to its mission.

NGA’s proven success internationally allowed it to quickly focus on acquiring and developing the best available sources of data. This conventional mission for NGA led to the formation of a new stakeholder group; hence, the creation of the Homeland Foundation Level Data (HIFLD) committee, which developed the first national dataset designed for homeland security and critical infrastructure protection, the Homeland Security Infrastructure Program (HSIP).

Having been initiated in the intelligence community, HSIP’s distribution was strictly limited, which inhibited its adoption across the mission space. To broaden its use, plans were developed to migrate all or much of the program to DHS and to shift the burden of restriction from the need-to-justify sharing to the need-to-justify restricting. With this new emphasis on sharing and openness, HSIP evolved to the current HIFLD Open and HIFLD Secure versions.

The GMO solidified its mission and purpose with the elements of community, transparency, security, technology and data falling into place. Through the leadership of the former GMO directors, the foundation they laid established the GMO as a respected and strong advocate throughout the agency and its partners, from local governments up to the federal level, becoming known as the Homeland Security Enterprise (HSE).

The HSE established a very real link extending from the on-scene first responder to the White House. By the time David Alexander, Ph.D., passed the baton to David Lilley in 2016, the GMO could deliver on its promises and was ready to expand outward. Lilley focused on realigning efforts to match DHS’s policy supporting National Special Security Events (NSSE) and community outreach through its network of 78 fusion centers.

Shortly after Lilley departed DHS, Hurricane Harvey’s torrential downpours and historic deluge began. Acting Director Michael Donnelly agreed to an innovative HIFLD solution to support FEMA operations to help mitigate the flood of data and requests that typically accompanies events of this magnitude.

Hurricane Harvey was Donnelly’s initiation. Following this and storms that followed, Donnelly focused on steadily maturing the GMO through deliberate outreach efforts and strengthening partnerships, building on outreach to regional fusion centers and non-traditional mission areas such as cybersecurity.

While not typically an operational player, the DHS Geospatial Management Office has become a trusted partner to those on the front lines, providing expertise, data, insights and architecture. The GMO is a foundational resource for operators, elevating their capabilities as a force multiplier.

While we can only hope against another cataclysmic natural disaster or major attack, when one does occur, the nation’s geospatial community is better prepared to respond to and recover from whatever comes.

As the saying goes, the better one strives to become, the greater becomes one’s enemies; so, as threats continue to evolve, our investments into geospatial technologies and critical infrastructure will pay dividends now and in the future helping to secure America’s safety here and abroad.

Remember, next time you are watching a large, national level sports game or a big storm approaching, know that others are watching, too. Behind the scenes another game is being played — one with much higher stakes. The players, you’ll not see, and the names, you’ll never know, but safety is their mission and GIS one of their primary tools.

Nate Smith — co-author and main contributor because of his work with the GMO — gave the following presentation to GeoDC, Washington, D.C.’s, geospatial community of interest on GeoCONOPS.


An inspiration for this article was to recognize the DHS GMO and its partners for their growth and utility as demonstrated during Hurricane Harvey, on the assumption that it was not otherwise acknowledged by the community. Well, awkwardly, in between this two-part drama, recognition did come from the Federal Geographic Data Committee in the form of the 2018 Doug D. Nebert National Spatial Data Infrastructure (NSDI) Champion of the Year Award.

Here is a great podcast by NGA’s Geointeresting about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Nate Smith has worked at the confluence of geospatial information and disaster management in both the domestic (U.S.) and international domains since 1992. He has been an innovator and pioneer in this discipline through his work supporting USAID’s Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance, FEMA’s GIS Solutions Branch and the DHS Geospatial Management Office.

He refined his knowledge of requirements through work as an emergency first responder and international humanitarian, and has shared his knowledge and experience through courses delivered at a number of Universities. His background includes deployments to disaster locations around the world in support of operations and coordination efforts for events ranging from insect infestation to conflicts.

He is currently an independent consultant affiliated with the Florida International University Extreme Events Institute and FIU’s Academy for International Disaster Preparedness. He earned a BA in Geography from UMBC and a Masters in Urban and Regional Planning from Virginia Tech.


DHS Geospatial Management Office

GeoCONOPS Manual (version 5, PDF)

National Geospatial Intelligence Agency

Department of Homeland Security

The GeoCONOPS Operations spaceship graphic

About the Author: Nate Smith

Nate Smith is an independent consultant who has worked for over 25 years advancing the adoption of geospatial technology to disaster management, humanitarian response and natural disaster risk reduction.