Engineer's Early Fascination with Geography and Language Evident in MITRE's Georeferencing Toolkit
MITRE's Marc Ubaldino says software that collects, tags and organizes data geographically can help analysts identify global trends.
World events don't happen in a vacuum. In hindsight, many signals foretold the events of the Arab Spring, economic demonstrations in the United States and Europe, and upheavals in Africa. Often, years after a major event, analysts and scholars research the seemingly unrelated clues that put those events in context.
MITRE's Marc Ubaldino, a systems engineer specializing in geospatial intelligence, tapped his lifelong interest in geography and foreign languages to lead a team that developed a toolkit for mapping almost any data geographically. The process and framework, called Event Horizon, digests data in a way that enables intelligence analysts to ask, "What just happened in this area?" and "What is the history of that area?" in a geographic manner.
A Winning Framework for Data Organization
"I've always been interested in geography and ancient history, since I was in grade school," he says. "I had a knack for drawing and loved looking at maps, because they help us understand how the world has changed over time."
As a systems engineer, Ubaldino saw how harvesting data in a way that tags and organizes it geographically could aid analysts studying any area of the world. The geo-tagged data could enable a variety of analysts to study the effects of famine, migration, climate, or political change using raw data almost as well as using structured data in databases. The concept has been around for a while, but there are more tools and data sets to work with that make this feasible.
(Video) Marc Ubaldino talks about MITRE's Georeferencing Toolkit.
As a member of the Event Horizon team, Ubaldino participated in developing a suite of georeferencing software tools that enable analysts to harvest and organize data from a variety of sources. He focused on geocoding text based on the places named in that text. The team built the toolkit using software already available to most geospatial analysts.
"Georeferencing [aka geocoding] means collecting everything you know about a place in a way that can drive geospatial analysis," he says. Event Horizon assigns a map location to all the data it collects. When an analyst wants to study an area—a whole country, a region, or a concentrated population center—the software suite mines archives of documents, spreadsheets, and databases for information. A geoprocessing team then packages the findings to deliver them to the analyst.
"To do it on a worldwide scale, we had to develop tools and methodology from scratch," he says. "It's a very concise toolkit. Event Horizon can geocode data for any geography, any country. Alternatives would have had higher acquisition cost, complexity, and sustainment costs among other aspects.
"Any interpretation is up to the analysts, but without data on a map, they're left with simple keyword searches."
Because of the breadth of sources from which analysts draw information, Event Horizon can provide information about a broad area or a focused target. "The analyst can say, 'Tell me about where and when,' and we can send a geographic rendering of select data to support his analysis."
The Language of Systems Engineering
Ubaldino started his MITRE career 17 years ago. The Natick, Mass., native inherited his love of languages from his father, a Spanish teacher. He earned a bachelor's degree in biomedical engineering at Boston University in 1994 and took a job in the same place where he had done co-op work as part of his major. At a job fair, however, he began a dialogue with MITRE representatives.
"MITRE seemed like it would be a good fit," he recalls. "The project work sounded creative and interesting. This opportunity for creativity is one of the things that has kept me here. Plus, MITRE works in the public interest, and I like that."
From a practical standpoint, Ubaldino adds, "MITRE has also been a good place to further develop my software skills."
One of his early assignments at MITRE involved developing ways to organize broad data to support news media monitoring for world events of interest. That work evolved into Project Argus, which mapped public health events globally, enabling officials to assess the likelihood of diseases spreading in less-developed parts of the world. Ubaldino continues along these lines working within MITRE's Smart Power research portfolio, where he works with engineering tools for sentiment analysis—summarizing opinions and viewpoints that are expressed in writing.
All of this became a foundation for his current work in geospatial intelligence and language technology. He says his MITRE career illustrates the breadth of the organization's research and development, and the opportunity that exists for people with varied educational and professional backgrounds and imagination.
An Engineer's Creative Outlet
MITRE also provided Ubaldino with an opportunity for educational advancement. He earned a master's degree in systems engineering through a collaborative MITRE-Johns Hopkins University program. He was among the first group to complete the joint program, graduating in 2006.
On a more personal note, Ubaldino plays bass for the Boston-area band Elsewhere. The band's website describes Elsewhere as combining "the energy and raw angst of punk with the ambition and creativity of progressive rock."
"We've played on dozens and dozens of stages for dozens and dozens of people," he laughs, reflecting on a music career that began in high school.
—by Molly Manchenton
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