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GTD Internship Sparks Interest in Geographic Information Systems


By, Betzalel Newman

Throughout the course of my internship with the Global Terrorism Database, two news stories I reviewed really stuck with me: an incident in which Iraqi police deactivated a suicide vest worn by an 8-year-old under a Chelsea football jersey and an attack in which explosives detonated at the holy sites of Jonah’s Tomb and the Great Al-Nuri Mosque. While tragic videos like these affected me deeply, what best describes my internship with the GTD: Incident Location and Geospatial Intelligence (GEOINT) team are the times I spent desperately searching for the locations of villages like Peroni, Afghanistan, Ouelessebougou, Mali, and Gowasarey, India. Whether navigating Google Earth or translating location names in Wikimapia, little compares to the unique satisfaction of finally discovering the latitude and longitude of a remote village you’ve been trying to locate for 15 minutes.

Prior to interning at START, I was primarily interested in international relations and U.S. foreign policy, which is where my academic and work experience had been focused. During my time at START, I broadened my understanding of global security by viewing it through a different lens. I was strictly analyzing the exact locations where terrorist attacks took place with little consideration for the context of broader political factors. Spending so much time looking at maps and satellite images of the places where terrorist attacks were occurring helped me to gain insight into patterns such as the types of buildings and neighborhoods that ISIL has destroyed in Mosul and across Iraq and Syria, or where Houthi rebels are based as they launch missiles into Saudi Arabia and what kind of sites they are targeting. In addition to my main work mapping the locations of terrorist incidents, START enabled me to learn the basics of ArcGIS and QGIS through training sessions and a textbook of tutorials.

I had used Google Earth before arriving at START, but I had no formal education or experience in geography and didn’t know what geospatial intelligence meant. Through geocoding and exposure to informational sessions on specific projects that demonstrated the application of GIS skills, I learned exactly how geospatial intelligence is practiced and applied in the policy world. Perhaps by using GTD location data to look at routes and highways that are frequently targeted in certain countries, aid convoys, which are often the target of attacks, could map out the safest routes to get to and from major cities. One of my colleagues presented a map he created demonstrating the most vulnerable routes on the border between North Korea and China based on geographic land data. Projects like these have given me an appreciation for the potential importance of the work I have done, and this internship has provided a spark of interest in geography that I hope to keep with me as I progress in my career.