Of Note

Leveraging GIS and Dynamic Dashboards to Enable Force Protection During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Leveraging GIS and Dynamic Dashboards to Enable Force Protection During the COVID-19 Pandemic

William Wright, Christopher Oxendine, Matthew O’Banion, Jakeb Prickett, and Krystle Harrell

Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering, United States Military Academy, West Point, NY USA

Commanders, planners, and decision makers are accustomed to and expect geographic support from their staff sections. The utility and availability of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) continue to expand and are becoming more accessible to organizations. GIS tools often begin with the simple visualization of data or the generation of maps; however, a well-trained geospatial support team can provide many additional products. A significant capability of modern GIS solutions is the support for near real time data visualization and interaction through web maps, mobile apps, and dynamic dashboards. In order to create these products a GIS team can collect data numerous ways to include surveys, online map services, mobile applications, and many others. The application and integration of these GIS tools support situational awareness, decision support planning, and informed decision making. This paper focuses on the United States Military Academy’s (USMA) ability to harness geospatial technologies during the COVID-19 response in the Spring of 2020 and discusses the best practices identified through the experience.

In early March of 2020, as the Corps of Cadets headed out on Spring break, COVID-19 was spreading across the world. At the time, little was known about the virus as most of the cases were in China. However, that situation changed drastically over the Corps’ Spring break. The situation in Europe was deteriorating and cases throughout the United States were identified. To minimize risk to the Corps of Cadets LTG Darryl A. Williams, the Superintendent of West Point, decided for the Corps of Cadets to return home instead of returning to West Point for classes. Initially the decision was for two weeks; however, he later decided to extend the time through the end of the semester.

In less than three days, the faculty transitioned/redesigned their courses from the traditional in person 18-student classrooms to a distance learning format. Concurrently, the initial Battle Update Briefings (BUB) and mission planning were being conducted to determine the appropriate courses of action (COAs) moving forward. In the first BUB, LTG Williams adamantly communicated the importance of having spatial awareness of the 8,000 Faculty, Staff, Coaches, Cadets, and Preparatory school students assigned to West Point. That mission fell on West Point’s Geospatial Information Science Program. Within the first week multiple key leaders and staff sections requested support.

Geospatial support varies greatly across different military installations. Some bases have Engineer teams called Geospatial Planning Cells (GPCs) whose mission is to provide leadership and planners various levels of geospatial support. Other bases have varying sized GIS shops often housed within the Department of Public Works (DPW). Many bases have no modern GIS support. West Point’s formal GIS support includes one civilian employee within DPW who manages all day-to-day operations in need of GIS technology. In addition, West Point has a Geospatial Information Science Academic Major program comprised of five faculty and a GIS Specialist. Upon request, the Geospatial Information Science program began work on developing the geospatial intelligence (GEOINT) required by West Point’s leadership.

Individuals with GIS experience can, without too much difficulty, create maps of where people are located given the appropriate data and software. The challenge in most cases is getting the required data. In this case, West Point’s G5 team developed a survey using Microsoft Forms1 and required all members of the organization to submit a daily response. The GIS team received the survey results from the G5 with information about each respondent to include name, email, city, state, zip code, country, and personnel category (i.e. Staff/Faculty, Cadet, and Cadet Candidate). Several personnel were located overseas and the survey was designed to effectively display this information. Given these data, an initial static map was produced using geocoding tools on ArcGIS Pro software.2 After geocoding the results of the survey, the software plotted 99% of the respondents correctly on the map. Of the other one percent, half had errors normally in the form of typos (e.g. abbreviating “West Point” as “WP”) in the survey form that prevented their points from being properly referenced. These errors required manual correction by the GIS team. In most cases, identifying the error was relatively easy by using one of the correctly entered fields such as city, state or zip code. The other 0.5% of respondents were not correctly plotted for different reasons. Another consideration for the leadership is how many people did not complete the survey and were not included in the dashboard. From the mapping perspective, we can say with confidence that 99.5% of the respondents were accurately mapped to their zip code.

Once a map is produced in ArcGIS Pro, the map can be shared in numerous ways. Recently, web maps and web applications have become much easier to produce. These are powerful tools that can be shared and setup for limited distribution. An example of this is the ARNORTH GPC’s site that grants access with a valid CAC card: 543rd GPC (ARNORTH) Operations Portal.4 During the COVID-19 pandemic, the populace at large became familiar with map dashboards from the John Hopkins University (JHU) COVID-19 dashboard. 5 Additionally, the NORAD NORTHCOM Commander was seen on various news networks with dashboards in the background (see figure 1). These dashboards are great for showing specific data and the included widgets or charts can be dynamically updated based on the current map view extent. This function is powerful for decision makers and planners. Take for example the desire to know how many cadets (or a specific year group of cadets) are within a certain distance of a specific airport if you are considering a C-130 or chartered flight back to West Point (figures 2 and 3). Given a geospatial dashboard, a planner can dynamically zoom in and out to an area and conduct the necessary analysis using this app. The GIS team created a series of these dashboards as shown in figures 2-4. Within 18 hours after the request for map support, the GIS team produced and shared a dashboard of all USMA personnel (figure 4). Over time, other requests came in and other dashboards and traditional maps were created. Perhaps the most powerful part of web maps and dashboard applications is the ability to pull in web service layers. The West Point team harnessed the JHU COVID layers, ARNORTH GPC’s COVID by county case layers, and other data simply by linking the webmaps to a URL.4, 5 As these entities update their data, the dashboard updates dynamically. The ability to harness these data in an automated and dynamic fashion provides decision makers with access to up-to-date GEOINT and allows GIS teams to focus on the data inputs specific to their organization.

We have discussed the power of GIS products to support situational awareness and planning using the COVID-19 pandemic as a case study. The following are recommended best practices for more efficiently collecting and visualizing data and integrating your GIS experts into decision planning and support. It is crucial to include your GIS team in the early stages of the planning process. Implementing a web-based survey that collects text-based city, state, and zip code information is an effective means of gathering the data for geocoding. However, developing the survey using the ESRI Survey 123 application provides a platform that uses a GPS/cellular network position if the survey is completed on a mobile phone or tablet or an IP address-based location if a conventional computer is used.3 In the case where these positioning methods fail, the user can also drag a pin on a map to provide their location. Since this is integrated into the GIS platform, the survey results are automatically positioned and updated on the web map and consequently on the dashboard as well. This process significantly improves the efficiency and accuracy of routine data integration and frees up time for the GIS team to conduct advanced spatial analyses in support of other planning efforts. Additionally, designing the survey to have specific attribute domains, or automatically populated drop downs, for fields like state and country resolves many data entry errors as discussed earlier in this article. Finally, adding webhooks in the survey provides a mechanism to automatically send an email to the location of choice when a respondent answers a question in a certain way. In this case, a respondent’s leadership is automatically informed if someone indicates they felt at risk or symptomatic of COVID-19.

This paper uses West Point’s mission planning response to the COVID-19 national emergency as a case study for incorporating GIS into the early stages of planning. Providing a capable GIS team with data can ensure receiving some level of map support; however, including them in the initial stages of planning can result in superior outcomes with regard to efficient data collection, increased information accuracy, and invaluable GEOINT derived from advanced spatial analyses.


The views expressed herein are those of the authors and do not reflect the position of the United States Military Academy, the Department of the Army, or the Department of Defense


LTC William Wright is an Academy Professor and Director of Geospatial Information Science Program at the United States Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. He received a Ph.D. from the University of Florida and specializes in GPS, LiDAR, and GIS. Prior to becoming an Academy Professor, he previously served as an Armor officer and Space Operations Officer.

COL Chris Oxendine is an Academy Professor and the Director for the Center of Environmental and Geographic Sciences at the United States Military Academy at West Point, NY. He received a Ph.D. from George Mason University and specializes in GIS analysis, modeling, visualization, and UAVs. Prior to serving as an Academy Professor, he served as a Military Police Officer and Space Operations Officer.

Jakeb Prickett is a GIS Specialist for the Geospatial Information Science Program at the United States Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. He received a M.S. in GIS Technology from the University of Arizona and is a Certified GIS Professional (GISP). He specializes in cartography, GIS analysis, and UAV photogrammetric surveying. Previous appointments include serving as a Physical Scientist (GIS) with the US Bureau of Reclamation and time as an Army Intelligence Non-Commissioned Officer.

CPT(P) Krystle Harrell is a Geospatial Information Science Instructor at the United States Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. She received a M.S. from Portland State University and specializes in Cartography and GIS. Prior to instructing at West Point, she served as Signal Officer.

Matt O’Banion is an Assistant Professor of Geospatial Information Science at the United States Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. He received a Ph.D. from Oregon State University and specializes in geomatics, LiDAR, and immersive visualization.


[1] Microsoft 365, 2020. Forms. Redmond, WA: Microsoft Corporation, 2020. Available at: https://forms.office.com/

[2] ESRI, 2020. ArcGIS Pro. Version 2.5.0. Redlands, CA: Environmental Systems Research Institute, Inc., 2020. Available at: https://www.esri.com/en-us/arcgis/products/arcgis-pro/overview

[3] ESRI 2020. Survey 1,2,3 for ArcGIS. Redlands, CA: Environmental Systems Research Institute, Inc., 2020. Available at: https://www.esri.com/en-us/arcgis/products/survey123/overview

[4] 543rd Geospatial Operations Cell (GPC), “Operations Portal”, 543rd Engineer Detachment (ARNORTH), 03 April 2020, retrieved from: https://agewebportal.erdc.dren.mil/portal/apps/MapSeries/index.html?appid=762aa427977441eaad235ffc118b5766 (CAC Required)

[5] Center for Systems Science and Engineering, “Coronavirus COVID-19 Global Cases”, Johns Hopkins University, 03 April 2020, retrieved from: https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/map.html

Figure 1: GEN O’Shaughnessy, Commander, U.S. Northern Command, speaking to national media with COVID-19 dashboards in the background

Figure 2: Dashboard showing West Point cadet locations and their proximity to US Air Force bases (all year groups).
Figure 3: Dashboard showing West Point cadet locations and their proximity to US Air Force bases (year group 2022)
Figure 4: Dashboard showing West Point personnel in relation to confirmed (JHU) COVID-19 cases.

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