Two years ago, a class of UCLA undergrads pretty accurately predicted the the location where Osama Bin Laden was hiding out. The students, working under UCLA geography professors Thomas Gillespie and John Agnew, used geographical theories and GIS software to home in on the world's most wanted fugitive.
Science Insider explains:
According to a probabilistic model they created, there was an 89.9% chance that bin Laden was hiding out in a city less than 300 km from his last known location in Tora Bora: a region that included Abbottabad, Pakistan, where he was killed last night.
On top of this, they identified 26 "city islands" that they considered to be the highest probability hideouts. To be clear: the class identified the nearby city of Parachinar as being the most likely hideout.
Here's the kicker. Gillespie focus isn't national security or terrorism or intelligence or any sort of political geography. He works on ecosystems. Said Gillespie:
It’s not my thing to do this type of [terrorism] stuff. But the same theories we use to study endangered birds can be used to do this.
Gillespie's class focuses on using remote sensing from satellites to study ecosystems, and one common challenge is finding where endangered species would be located within an ecosystem. As a class exercise, Gillespie introduced the Bin Laden search. The students used a geographical theory called "island biogeography" to home in on what turned out to be Bin Laden's real hideout. Gillespie was so impressed by his students' work, they published the findings in the MIT International Review (PDF).
Now that his work is being celebrated by the intelligence community, will Gillespie be working with the FBI to track down more of our most wanted?
Nope. Says Gillespie:
Right now, I’m working on the dry forests of Hawaii where 45% of the trees are on the endangered species list. I’m far more interested in getting trees off the endangered species list.