By Leo Dillon
Geography is more than maps; it is a discipline that examines change of a wide variety of topics over space and time. This interdisciplinary perspective is the principle that guides the work of the Office of the Geographer and Global Issues (GGI) in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR), analyzing a host of cross-cutting topics and providing subject matter expertise on 21st-century global challenges. GGI is responsible not only for geographic issues, but also for a broad spectrum of global issues, and its employees have a range of expertise. GGI employs not only geographers, but also scientists and other subject-matter experts. GGI analysts serve as the Department’s brain trust on various global threats to national security—from climate change to infectious diseases, from wildlife trafficking to humanitarian and refugee crises. GGI’s analysts and fellows are at the forefront of addressing a multitude of global challenges related to health, food security, the environment and civilian space.
Whether authoring national intelligence estimates on human trafficking, documenting human rights violations in Syria, or charting the humanitarian dimensions of Ebola in Africa, GGI’s expert analyses support the full range of the Department’s foreign policy missions. Recently, the office designed and supervised a rigorous field survey documenting atrocities committed against Rohingya refugees forced to flee Burma. GGI authored the Department of State report based on the survey and briefed its findings to the Burmese government prior to its publication.
Among the unique functions of the office is its role as the Executive Agent for U.S. information sharing with international war crimes tribunals and its housing of the Humanitarian Information Unit (HIU). As the Executive Agent, the office provides information—including translations, maps and selected imagery products—to the tribunals to assist in identifying and bringing to justice those responsible for war crimes and atrocities. The HIU is designed to promote information sharing across government agencies and provide visually and analytically compelling maps and infographics for U.S. government decision makers, as well as to intergovernmental and NGO partners, to respond to complex emergencies and rapid-onset disasters worldwide. The HIU also manages a number of special projects including the Secondary Cities Initiative, which fosters partnerships with local governments, universities and NGOs to map and gain a better understanding of rapidly growing urban areas. Another project the HIU manages is MapGive, which empowers digital mapping volunteers to use satellite imagery to create high-quality geographic data that aids in humanitarian relief responses worldwide.
GGI’s boundary and sovereignty analysts regularly advise policymakers on the geography and history of territorial disputes, using records and documents from the past 100 years. GGI analysts also work with maritime claims—particularly in policy-sensitive areas like the South China Sea and the Arctic Ocean—and advise the U.S. Navy on political maritime geography to ensure operational safety of naval fleets. At the request of foreign governments and the U.N., GGI lends its expertise to aid international boundary negotiations.
GGI is also involved in determining foreign place names and is the US government’s authority on how international boundaries are represented on government maps. GGI chairs the Foreign Names Committee of the U.S. Board on Geographic Names, standardizing foreign place names and advising policymakers on sensitive geographic name issues. Recently, GGI’s boundary experts worked with government partners to complete a 15-year effort to build and make freely available worldwide, a set of accurate, detailed digital international boundaries. This publically accessible dataset is widely used; in fact, most international boundaries in Google Maps and Google Earth have been generated by GGI.
Since its origins in the 1920s, mapping has been a fundamental component of GGI duties. The office’s cartographers produce hundreds of maps a year in support of the entire Department. These include maps to enhance INR’s written analyses; to illustrate the efforts of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS; to explain the complexity of energy infrastructure throughout Eurasia; to map new maritime transportation corridors in the Arctic; and to visualize the secretary of state’s briefing materials. There is also the ubiquitous foreign post map—the U.S. Department of State Facilities and Areas of Jurisdiction—that is found on the walls of many Department offices, both domestic and overseas.
Geography is about the interconnectedness of the world. “Geography in the 21st century is more and more about understanding the human element,” said Dr. Lee Schwartz, the geographer of the Department of State and GGI office director. “Geography today is using the power of visualization and new participatory mapping tools to increase our understanding of the changing relationships between humans and their physical, social and political environment.”
The functions and responsibilities of the Office of the Geographer and Global Issues are fittingly diverse and increasingly relevant. GGI keeps geography in the forefront of its global perspective, seeking to guide the world of U.S. diplomacy and foreign policy with its maps, infographics and scientific, data-based analysis.
Leo Dillon is the chief of GGI’s Geographic Information Unit.