Analog GIS: Planning for the Worst Case Scenario

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As science and technology continue to advance at incredible speeds, we adopt new ways to do menial tasks efficiently and expeditiously. So, when it comes to GIS, it only makes sense that we capitalize on newer technology to continue improving our capabilities and expand on what we can achieve with those GIS products. But we are not the only ones striving to do more with technology. Countries across the world have advanced their own capabilities and now compete to outdo one another, and we are no exception. There is no doubt in my mind that many consider competition as healthy for mankind’s progress, and I agree with this notion. However, from my experiences in the military, we need to consider what would happen if we do not have that technology available to us and map out how we would approach such a situation.

As a young Army Engineer Officer, I thought the way the military had integrated technology into combat operations was remarkable and on the leading edge. But as I became more familiar and involved with my unit and their daily operations, I realized how dependent we were on our computers and other digital tools. I first realized this when we were on our digital navigation tools when I instructed one of my team leaders to take the lead on a convoy to a location I pointed out on the map. My team leader admitted he did not take his compass with him because he did not believe our systems would short out. This realization only became more obvious during larger field exercises. Simulated electronic warfare has become a critical training event now that the electromagnetic spectrum has become saturated by users. The concern of being crippled by our own reliance on digital processes led to reformations in our training. Army units are now pivoting and taking a new but simple approach to combating our addiction to technology. Instead of training only on our electronic tools and gadgets, we are evaluated on our ability to operate on analog systems and processes. In doing so, we had to reinvent the way we did things as simple as creating PowerPoints or maps depicting battlefield movement.

Hand-drawn overlays to be placed on a basemap.
Hand-drawn overlays to be placed on a basemap.

So, what does any of this have to do with GIS? Do I think a foreign attack will target our electronic capabilities? Well, no, not quite. What I am trying to convey is that we need to define what analog GIS should look like. But GIS is inherently computer-based and would not exist without technology! Well, I do not think so. John Snow is credited with pioneering the field by mapping the correlation of a cholera outbreak with locally infected wells. This is what I imagine analog GIS looks like, just at a larger scale with more resources capable of producing similar results as to what we can do now. GIS databases exist online and on servers but what will we do when we do not have access? It is easy to input raster and vector data into QGIS or ArcGIS but what will we do when the power is out? When I ask these questions, I think of a perfect storm, so the likelihood is minimal but as I stated previously, we should always plan for the worst-case scenario. Does a GIS technician or analyst sit back and twiddle their thumbs? The answer is, of course not. They will still be able to create maps and layers, but they will be done with paper maps and acetate overlays. People will have to be the computational devices in a worst-case scenario.

This concept will likely only apply to certain organizations that will depend on real-time visualization of data. Let us say, for example, FEMA responds to a natural disaster and needs graphics but is unable to power any of its electronic assets. They are still expected to complete their objective but their maps that identify critically hit areas cannot be made. What system is in place to collect the data, store it, and manipulate it to produce the maps needed to act on? Simply answering a few hypothetical questions now for a hypothetical scenario can elevate the readiness of organizations that rely on GIS products and analysis.

During our field exercises with the Armored Brigade Combat Team, we would map products with engineer specific data to determine our best approach to a mission. On top of that, we had artillery data, intelligence products all on the base map that the operations cell used to depict the entire battlespace. When we switched to pure analog, we realized more resources were needed to get information in a timely manner and required the preproduction of regional maps. We created layers on overlays that allowed us to display the information we needed, though, at times, the information was not entirely accurate because we pulled the information from older publications and previous exercises that had generic data, not specific to our unit. Like all things that happen the first time, it was not a smooth implementation, but every subsequent exercise became easier once we had a system established. I propose organizations that rely on GIS to think through this scenario in order to make the necessary planning that will make that process smoother.

About the Author

Arturo Dominguez is currently stationed at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, participating in the Army’s Professional Development Program (PDP) through the University of Missouri Science and Technology.

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