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Diplomacy in Action

Geospatial Information Systems: Powerful Tools for Diplomacy and Development

Fact Sheet
Office of the Science and Technology Adviser
Washington, DC
March 9, 2009


Geospatial Information Systems (GIS) are an increasingly vital resource for national security, development, public health, the environment, and other aspects of foreign policy. A GIS integrates remotely sensed satellite or aerial imagery, Global Positioning System (GPS) information, and many other kinds of geographically referenced data, using mapping software to create a visually accessible display. For example, crop yields, prices, and socioeconomic data can all be factored into assessments of food security across a particular region. Policy makers are using such tools for:

  • Urban planning for transportation, water, energy, sanitation, land use and service delivery
  • Environmental monitoring of deforestation, desertification, illegal logging, land use and land cover
  • Natural resource management, including freshwater and marine ecosystems
  • Delineation and mapping of watersheds, resolving water disputes across international boundaries
  • Public health, mapping of disease transmission for prevention and treatment efforts
  • Emergency preparedness and disaster response
  • Monitoring and planning for effects of climate change
  • Monitoring human rights violations
  • Verifying arms control and nonproliferation treaties

Earthquake near Chengdu, China

On 12 May 2008, Sichuan Province in China was struck by a magnitude 7.9 earthquake, causing extensive damage to buildings and triggering massive landslides. At 11 AM EST on Thursday, May 15, 2008, the State Department’s Bureau of Oceans Environment and Science (OES) received a hand delivered official request from the government of the People’s Republic of China via their Embassy in Washington, D.C. for satellite imagery over the area struck by Chengdu earthquake. LandSat and other satellite imagery was immediately made available without restriction by the USG through the State Department’s Humanitarian Information Unit (HIU) in INR’s Office of the Geographer. On the right is a pair of images captured by Taiwan’s Formosat-2 satellite on the same day in 2006 and 2008, showing collapsed bridges and a lake forming as a result of landslides.

Famine Early Warning System Network (FEWS NET)

In the 1970s and ’80s, many relief operations couldn’t be mobilized in time to avert famines in Africa because it often takes months from the time food aid is approved before it is delivered. Decisions must be made before harvests are in and total food production is known. In 1985, USAID established the Famine Early Warning System (FEWS) to monitor signs of potential famine in vulnerable countries, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. FEWS NET ( integrates many kinds of information into a GIS to predict food insecurity: drought, food prices, climatic data, socioeconomic and livelihood data, and demographics. Analyses are done on different timescales, integrating multiyear trends, seasonal forecasts of climatic variables, and midseason harvest data. Some types of information, such as food prices must be collected on the ground and entered manually, while others are based on remote sensing, which can quantify such factors as rainfall and vegetation to estimate food production. FEWS NET disseminates information to both decision-makers and the public to stimulate efforts to prevent famine before it begins. Current FEWS NET maps show incipient famine conditions in the Horn of Africa.

Genocide in Sudan

In 2004, then Secretary of State Colin Powell delivered a formal finding of genocide in Darfur to Congress. Critical to the finding was the use of high resolution satellite imagery to document the destruction of villages in the region. The State Department’s Humanitarian Information Unit (HIU), together with the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency mapped the destruction of villages throughout Darfur. The results were used by Secretary Powell in his testimony to Congress, as well as to brief UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. To date, the HIU has documented the destruction of more than 2,600 villages in the Darfur region. INR’s Office of the Geographer and the HIU continue to produce maps showing the numbers and location of internally displaced refugees, track international humanitarian assistance and monitor the number and type of attacks and security incidents. This continual monitoring of the situation in a region where physical access is limited is useful both for relief logistics and policymaking, keeping pressure on Khartoum.

Water for Refugees in Africa

One of the most serious barriers to sustainable development is lack of water. Information about rainfall, water bodies, watersheds, and groundwater potential are crucial to the ability of developing countries to maintain water security. Last year, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization released an African Water Resource Database (, a GIS that integrates information on water bodies, watersheds, aquatic species, political boundaries, population, soils, climate, and other types of data. Water availability is also a critical need for refugee camps. The US Geological Survey, UNESCO, UNHCR and the private company Radar Technologies France worked together to devise a method of mapping groundwater potential in the region. The technique used elevation and slope data, optical satellite imagery containing information on geology and vegetation, and sand-penetrating radar. These data are combined in a GIS to generate a map of the groundwater potential in the region. Among the 740 wells drilled using the maps resulted, 95% were successful and subsequent refugee camps have been sited near the new wells.

Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS)

The Group on Earth Observations (GEO), a worldwide group of governments and organizations, was created in response to calls for global coordination of geospatial science efforts at the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development. GEO is creating a Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS, The goal of GEOSS is to coordinate data sharing and management by building on existing systems to address a wide range of development, economic, environmental, and public health issues. Through this international partnership, imagery, data, and applications will be made more easily accessible to help nations address the many global challenges for which earth observation is a key to solving.

Potential for GIS applications in the State Department and USAID

While the Office of the Geographer’s Geographic and Humanitarian Information Units (GUI and HIU) and USAID’s FEWS NET make extensive use of GIS to monitor developing and incipient crises, GIS has potential applications in a much wider range of both organizations’ activities. As noted by former DOS Science Fellow astrophysicist Dr. Carol Christian (see Foreign Service J, 1/07), GIS is useful for tracking diplomatic and foreign assistance activity worldwide. GIS’ ability to render complex outcomes visually accessible in a geographically referenced format will be increasingly important in tracking global health, agricultural and economic needs and interventions, as well as assessing outcomes of such interventions.

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