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NGA supports Ebola crisis

By Paul Frommelt, Office of Corporate Communications
Pathfinder Magazine
December 1, 2014

In response to the needs of lead federal agencies and partners fighting the Ebola virus disease, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency on Oct. 23 began providing unprecedented online access to its unclassified geospatial intelligence products and services through a public-facing website dedicated to the crisis.

The site uses Esri’s ArcGIS platform and is hosted in the cloud by Amazon Web Services — both publicly available services — and features various base maps that provide foundational context for users who can visually overlay data from NGA and other sources, said Steven Alness, of NGA’s Xperience directorate.

In its role as geographer for the Department of Defense, NGA’s latest efforts are in step with other global events that have required the agency’s disaster support, including Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the Haiti earthquake in 2010, Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and Typhoon Haiyan in 2013, said Tim Peplaw, GEOINT mission manager for NGA’s Integrated Working Group - Readiness, Response and Recovery, or IWG-R3, which provides GEOINT support to humanitarian assistance and disaster relief activities.

“This has the potential of being a global incident,” said Peplaw. “We are looking at multiple locations and we are trying to provide support. It’s not single threaded. It’s not just one event taking place, it’s happening on the entire western part of the [Africa] continent.” The dynamic site allows NGA to update it as soon as new information is available, said Alness.

“As we expose the data, we want it to be used, useful and usable,” said Alness.

Maintaining the information at the unclassified level helps ensure it can serve a greater number of users, said Martin Cox, national geospatial-intelligence officer for Africa and NGA issues manager for the Ebola crisis. Nongovernmental organizations using the information on the front lines of the Ebola fight have limited or no access to classified material.

“If we don’t keep it unclassified, the majority of the people who are working in the field will not be able to access the information that they may need to help bring this epidemic to a close,” said Cox.

Among the first data the agency has released are geospatial layers relevant to the Ebola outbreak in Guinea, including cultural places and structures, and communication, electric power and ground transportation infrastructure, said Cox.

This data will allow users to see Ebola cases by province and the locations of emergency treatment units, said an IWG-R3 analyst. Users can determine from the data distances between transportation hubs, like airports, and the closest emergency treatment unit.

In contrast to the traditional static products NGA has provided relief workers during other events, the dynamic nature of the new website allows for continuous updates as new information comes in, said the analyst.

The effort is in line with NGA’s focus on putting knowledge directly into the hands of users, and though out of the norm for an intelligence agency, is the right thing to do, said Cox.

“If [people using our products] are trying to do good, why would we not want to help?” said Cox.


Though the affected area is already extremely large, infection rates in West Africa are predicted to grow exponentially larger, said Cox. The combined size of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone is 165,625 square miles, or roughly three times the size of Louisiana and 15 times the size of Haiti. Other neighboring countries, like Nigeria, which has been minimally affected, may be at risk in the future, adding to the scope of the problem.

The current outbreak is believed to have begun late last year, but it wasn’t until March that NGA analysts working with the National Center for Medical Intelligence at Fort Detrick, Maryland, began receiving questions from government customers related to Ebola’s spread, said Cox.

“At that point, nobody really had the understanding that this was going to explode the way that it has through the region,” said Cox. “Everybody was surprised by just how quickly it got really bad.”

In July, NGA established a working group to support the DOD, federal agencies and international organizations responding to the Ebola crisis, said Cox. This includes providing situational awareness on how difficult terrain, socio-cultural issues and sparse infrastructure affect the spread of Ebola in the region.

Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone all rank near the bottom in measurements of life expectancy, education and standards of living across the globe, according to the United Nations Development Programme’s Human Development report. Liberia ranks 175th out of 187 countries on the report, Guinea is ranked 179th, and Sierra Leone 183rd.

“These are three of the least developed countries on the face of the Earth,” said Cox, adding that Sierra Leone and Liberia are still recovering from brutal civil wars.

The poor transportation infrastructure within these countries is especially apparent during the rainy season between late April and early October, when rivers swell, dense vegetation blocks access and dirt roads turn to mud, said Cox.

So, in early October, when a U.S. Army master sergeant stationed in the Liberian capital of Monrovia needed to reach a remote village by helicopter, he called NGA to help, said Cox. The Army was supporting a flight of U.N. personnel trying to assess Ebola’s effects on a village in an extremely rural part of the country, quite a distance from Monrovia.

The Army had two coordinates and a general description of a village that might have a soccer field, said Cox. In less than four hours — and a few hours before the helicopter was to take off — NGA provided graphics using commercial imagery that showed both locations and a soccer field large enough to land a helicopter.

NGA received a call the next day from the master sergeant, saying the pilot would have never found the place if not for NGA’s graphics, said Cox.


NGA also deployed a geospatial analyst to Liberia with the U.S. Army's 101st Airborne Division from Fort Campbell, Kentucky, as part of Operation United Assistance.

“We send people forward to be able to provide GEOINT support for our force in the field,” said Cox. “We are able to send these people with the proper equipment and the data sets and commercial imagery that they need to be able to do their job.”

A member of the U.S. Army's NGA support team with the 101st since June, the NGA analyst was initially tapped to provide rear echelon support to the operations rather than deploy with the division, he said. Instead, he was sent to Liberia with the team to provide hands-on GEOINT support. “If I’m going to be supporting, I would rather do it from Liberia and get the requirements directly rather than via telephone or email,” said the analyst, who has previously deployed with NGA.

The forward-deployed analyst’s primary focus is ensuring that the 101st has access to NGA data and analysis products and ensuring NGA knowledge gets to the right people, he said. The analyst ensures the unit’s requests for information are properly vetted and sent to the appropriate divisions within NGA. The analyst also produces maps and contributes data layers to the Army’s common operational picture, powered by Google Earth.

The analyst knows the risks associated with traveling to Africa to fight the deadly disease, he said. Before traveling to Liberia, the 101st went through intensive training on the risk of Ebola infection, including a breakdown of the symptoms and prevention techniques. He also learned of other diseases more likely to be contracted, like malaria and yellow fever, and preventative measures for them.

NGA’s direct support is vital to the relief efforts, especially the support to customers unfamiliar with GEOINT, said the analyst.

“They understand geospatial engineering and they understand imagery analysis, but for them, the two don’t work well together,” said the analyst. “I know how the two work together. NGA provides a perspective of how you can work geospatial and imagery together and have a better overall product.”


The current Ebola outbreak is unprecedented in its size and complexity and, unfortunately, the end is nowhere in sight, said Cox.

NGA analysts are trying to determine why the virus has not spread to neighboring countries, said Cox. One theory is that the poor transportation infrastructure hampering relief efforts is also slowing the spread of the disease.

“What kind of constraints on movement might there be because of the impact of the rainy season upon roads and the dense vegetation among the borders?” said Cox. “As the dry season hits, are we going to see the disease spread into neighboring Ivory Coast, Mali or Senegal?”

NGA recently provided a product to a senior policymaker seeking to answer how terrain constraints affect the spread of the virus, said Cox. NGA has been tasked to update it in the next month.

For now, Cox and his team are focused on one number — 42, he said. That’s the number of days it takes for two incubation cycles to pass. If no new Ebola case occurs during that time, officials can declare an end to the outbreak.

“There’s a lot of people working a lot of long hours to bring this to a successful conclusion,” said Cox. “We keep hoping we can start counting from 42, but unfortunately, we are nowhere near that in this region.”

Sidebar: Largest and most complex Ebola outbreak

In 1976, the first Ebola virus disease appeared in Zaire — now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo — in a village near the Ebola River. The outbreak killed 280 people. According to study published by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, the initial cause of the outbreak was contaminated needles at the Yambuku Mission Hospital.

The identification of the cause and immediate closure of the hospital, along with changes in community behavior — including modifying burial habits to reduce the risk of contracting the disease from the deceased, fortunately limited the scope of an outbreak, the study said.

Ebola causes severe acute illness with sudden onset of fever, malaise, vomiting, diarrhea and external bleeding, according to the American Public Health Association. Ebola can be transmitted through direct contact with blood, feces, or sweat, through sexual contact, or by the unprotected handling of contaminated corpses, infected animals, or animal carcasses, according to the APHA and International Society of Infectious Diseases. There is no specific treatment or vaccine for Ebola infection, although, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, experimental vaccines and treatments for Ebola are under development. Recovery depends on good supportive care and the patient’s immune response.

Since discovery of the virus, there have been more than 30 separate outbreaks of Ebola. None have been more destructive than the current outbreak, according to the World Health Organization. The current outbreak in West Africa is the “largest and most complex Ebola outbreak” since its initial discovery and has killed more than all of the others combined.

Sidebar: Father of modern epidemiology

NGA's role in stopping the current Ebola outbreak is not the first time that mapping a data visualization was used to stop the spread of a disease.

In the waning weeks of the summer of 1854, a devastating outbreak of the deadly cholera disease hit Broad Street in the Soho district of London. Over the course of three days in early September, 127 people died. By Sept. 10, there were more than 500 victims.

Cholera is “an acute diarrhoeal infection caused by ingestion of food or water contaminated with the bacterium Vibrio cholera,” according to the World Health Organization. If left untreated, the disease — which causes extreme dehydration due to vomiting and diarrhea — can kill within hours.

But what is accepted as scientific fact — that the disease is spread by ingesting contaminated food and water — was dismissed by physicians at the time. Many believed that cholera was spread by miasma — a theory with origins in ancient Greece. Meaning “pollution” or “bad air,” the popular miasmic theory postulated that the disease was airborne, spread by contaminated gases rising from sewers, swamps and open graves.

When the Broad Street cholera outbreak hit, Dr. John Snow began developing a strategy to fight the spread of the disease. Snow, a well-known anesthesiologist who lived nearby, had a long history with the deadly disease, dating back to the summer of 1831. As an 18-year-old physician’s apprentice in Newcastle upon Tyne, he spent the latter half of 1831 and early the next year helping treat cholera patients until the epidemic ended in February of the following year.

Snow again came in contact with the disease 17 years later, when another outbreak struck London. This time, the experienced doctor took a holistic approach and began tracking the spread of the outbreak rather than treating individual patients.

During the course of his interviews, Snow discovered that most of the victims first reported digestive problems, which is consistent with a disease that ingested through food and water, rather than inhaled — as the proponents of the miasma theory believed. This caused Snow to turn his attention to the city’s water supply. In an effort to rally the medical community to this new theory, he published a pamphlet entitled “On the Mode of Communication of Cholera.”

Unfortunately, without proof, Snow’s pamphlet did little to persuade his colleagues. It wasn’t until the Broad Street cholera outbreak that Snow turned to mapping and data visualization to stop the disease in its tracks.

When the outbreak hit Soho, Snow immediately turned his attention to the Broad Street pump. He hypothesized that the well under the pump was being contaminated by the sewer pipes in the area. To prove his theory, he took a map and plotted the cases of cholera in the vicinity. The overwhelming majority of the cases were in close proximity to the Broad Street pump. The handle of the pump was removed and the outbreak quickly ended.

Thanks to his pioneering efforts in identifying the biological cause of the disease and its geographic source, Snow is considered one of the fathers of modern epidemiology, the study of the distribution and detriments of disease in human population.