Geospatial Technology Takes on COVID-19, Geopolitics & the Roots of Conflict

March 18, 2020

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Author’s Note: This article began as an overview of how GST applies to geopolitics. Since I began writing it, current events, instead, have shaped the narrative, leading to a broader discussion of conflict at multiple scales, how GST can be used to address both the proximal and root causes of conflict, and how GST can help solve, mitigate and, ideally, prevent conflict and tragedy.

No other conflict in recent months has dominated the news as much as COVID-19. This is not a conflict between people, but a conflict between people and a microscopic menace, with effects being felt from the global level to individual neighborhoods.

Epidemiology, the study of disease propagation, has long relied on maps, starting with John Snow’s iconic maps of the London cholera outbreak in 1854. These maps may have been the beginning of geographic analysis as we know it — overlaying seemingly disparate elements on a map to reveal previously unseen patterns. This legacy has continued. Today, COVID-19 is being mapped in real-time, from the global to local level. Almost every jurisdiction is using GST to map the spread of the virus and find ways to contain it.

Mapping factors of conflict

Conflict is driven by many factors, not the least of which is disease. The axiom is simple: People go away from the disease if they are mobile and aware enough to do so. That axiom extends to most human behavior: People want to get away from a dangerous place and go to a safer place. The result is an influx of people into the safe place, which almost inevitably causes conflict with people already living there.

The Council on Foreign Relations has built the Global Conflict Tracker, an interactive web map describing global conflicts. While focused on conflicts of interest to the U.S., it also offers insights into many other conflicts around the globe. Each point on the map takes the viewer to a new page, with statistical information and a narrative of the conflict. To date, there have been no documented cases of conflict directly related to COVID-19.

Mapping and preventing resource scarcity

Above all else, humans need food, water, shelter and safety for basic existence. When any of these resources become scarce, people move elsewhere to find them. That leads to conflict, and often to war. One of the most common causes of conflict is competition for resources, whether for sustenance or commercial profit.

But what if we could predict shortages such as those caused by mass migration, famine or drought, and do something before it becomes a crisis? Fortunately, GST has this capability. NASA is already using satellite imagery to predict food shortages and water scarcity.

 Author’s Note: There is no way I can delve into this topic without referencing Dr. Emilio Moran, my anthropology professor at Indiana University in the early 90s. Long before most of us were even aware of GIS, Dr. Moran was connecting anthropology and geography to map and mitigate resource scarcity.

 The breadth of Dr. Moran’s work is expansive and seminal, with his first paper published in 1981. His research covers migration, deforestation, resource use and many other topics, mainly in the Amazon Basin of South America. In this vast region, the interconnectivity between humans and their environment is at the crux of potential conflict.

 GST and warfare

War is terrible. Unfortunately, it is one of the constant elements of human existence, from prehistoric times to the present.

The use of maps in fighting wars is well documented. Long before GST, maps were used by antagonists at the tactical and strategic levels, and still are. Where are the best routes to move an army? Where are the enemy ships? Which way is the wind blowing, what will the tides be?

But maps can also be used to understand underlying tensions leading to war — and hopefully, prevent them.

Mapping current geopolitical conflicts

Although several years out of date, “The Geopolitics of 2017 in 4 Maps” illustrates how geography can bring to light geopolitics in a way that no tabular data or text can. The maps show the disparities in Russian regional economics, the true nations (as opposed to states) of the Middle East, China’s perspective on its maritime borders, and the rise of nationalism and populism in Europe.

Like the Global Conflict Tracker, these maps and their accompanying explanations reveal both the realities of global geopolitics and their underlying factors.

 The changing nature of war

 Since the middle of the 20th century, the nature of modern warfare has changed dramatically, from massive armies fighting each other on defined fronts to small-scale conflicts at the regional and local level.

In a fascinating, insightful and occasionally bizarre book published in 2011, “Winning Insurgent War,” Geoff Demarest goes into great detail about the many factors that lead to conflict, and how they can be mitigated. The 144 Sections, each of which is one to three pages long, cover topics as diverse as gender, “poop,” rule of law, water wars and, my favorite, “Why you should like Geography.”

Based on information from The Foreign Military Studies Office in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, U.S., the contents and messages of this 523-page tome (which includes a five-page index, a twelve-page bibliography, and ten pages of endnotes) is far beyond the scope of this article. I have been reading this book for over a year and it makes my head spin.

In almost every section, the author emphasizes GST and GIS specifically. The broad takeaway is that geographic knowledge and awareness are critical to resolving conflicts. Demarest doesn’t discuss technology specifically, nor does he offer any political opinions. Rather, he emphasizes the importance of having the best data possible at a very local level, of integrating these data, and making them digestible to decision-makers by painting a picture of conditions at the local and regional level.

It comes down to scale

Demarest’s concept of mapping every factor from water wells and crop cover to defensible terrain down to the county level, is of course, an ideal. It is a massive task, even for a small region. How would one decide where to start such an effort? In conflict zones, it seems obvious: Where the conflict is. But what lead to the conflict? What are the underlying factors? Should the map begin there?

The data is out there, available at the global scale, such as in the CIA World Factbook, Esri’s basemaps and their Living Atlas of the World. Nothing, though, is a substitute for people on the ground. Back in 1854, John Snow made his map by mapping individual households. Similarly, OpenStreetMap is focused on conflict areas, and can provide local-level data.

Why GST matters

We know that raising awareness is the key to helping leaders make informed decisions. Without the illustration of knowledge in a digestible form there can be no resolution, only reaction.

As geographers, we have a duty to present the best information available. This can be to governmental policy-makers or in the classroom.

To quote the late President and General Dwight D. Eisenhower: “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.”

Just today I said farewell to my students in Environmental Law and Policy. Some of them are double-majors in engineering, and all are required to take an introductory GIS course. Few, if any, will be pursuing a career in GIS, but it has opened their eyes to how GST can be applied to solving any problem, regardless of scale. These young men and women have a vision, and give me hope for the future.


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