Can a UMW student help counter terrorism attacks from across the globe using classroom technology? The answer just might be yes – and it’s all part of Katie Keplinger’s MSGA thesis.
One of 32 students in the Master of Science in Geospatial Analysis program, Keplinger uses satellite pixels to match fires in Nigeria with a terrorist events database and track possible attacks by the extreme terrorist group Boko Haram. Tackling a real-world issue with an innovative approach, the project could provide a practical way of responding to terrorism attacks, decreasing response times and increasing available aid.
Well-known for burning villages, Boko Haram was named the second deadliest terrorist group in 2015 by the Institute for Economics and Peace’s 2016 Global Terrorism Index, killing 5,478 people that year with three quarters of the deaths in Nigeria. Unfortunately, events like these are usually reported much later than they occur or underreported when they happen in isolated areas.
“If the only means of reporting are several days later when someone makes it to a refugee camp, that’s not exactly helpful,” said Keplinger, a Harrisburg, Virginia, native and 2016 graduate of James Madison University. “We need better reporting to know where fires are happening in real time so we can direct aid to the areas in need.”
That’s where Keplinger’s research comes in. Since satellite fire detections are available daily, her project tests whether these reports could be a reliable way of identifying terrorist attacks and triggering a response on the ground.
Working closely with her advisor, Assistant Professor of Geography Marco Millones, Keplinger used geospatial methods and software to process a time-series of satellite imagery and overlay it with data from the Global Terrorism Database. However, despite finding 281 terrorist events in the study period that involved Boko Haram, there was minimal correlation with the fire maps.
“Katie’s project is challenging because fires occur in Nigeria due to many factors other than terrorist attacks and because, by technical design or measurement error, satellites may miss fires that are too small or not hot enough,” said Millones. “Her project will provide a methodological guide on how to tackle the issues involved in these creative yet challenging questions.”
Confronting the project’s challenges head-on, Keplinger took the research one step further, dividing Nigeria into districts for more detailed analytics. The extra effort paid off, resulting in increased reported terrorism activity in the areas with abnormally high fire detection – something she revealed as she defended her thesis on Friday, Sept. 22.
“If nothing else, we’ve learned that more research on this topic is warranted,” she said. “This could be a practical way of identifying terrorist fires in remote regions and providing aid in real-time.”