Flash Info

The COLIBRI Geoportal: a mapping tool for enforcement

By the COLIBRI Project team, WCO Secretariat

At the start of 2019, in partnership with the European Union, the WCO Secretariat launched the COLIBRI Project to help administrations responsible for enforcement in Latin America, the Caribbean and West Africa to implement effective controls in general aviation. General aviation covers all civil aviation other than commercial activities (sports and leisure aviation, private aviation, business aviation and aerial work).

Behind the project lies the recognition that the law enforcement authorities find it very difficult to carry out effective controls on small aircraft and detect the unlawful use of aircraft, owing to a serious lack of expertise. This is in addition to an absence of high-quality data on this particular segment of aviation and on existing clandestine infrastructures, such as isolated airstrips and secondary aerodromes – the kind of data that enable a thorough risk assessment of both the means of transport and the territory.

As the designers of the project, we therefore planned to develop a capacity building programme dedicated exclusively to general aviation and to create and provide to the beneficiary administrations a mapping tool (Geoportal) using the new information and communication technologies (mobile application) alongside a global database of small private aircraft.

A presentation of the Geoportal was given in the pages of this magazine a few months ago, when we were still in the development phase. Now that this phase is over, the intention of this article is to provide a more detailed account of the functionalities of this tool and how it is used.

An international database dedicated to general aviation

The objective of the COLIBRI Geoportal is to bring together in one place data relevant to the effective surveillance of movements by general aviation. It therefore includes a database containing:

  • the data sheets giving the registration and characteristics of aircraft operating within the territory. Aircraft registered with the various national civil aviation agencies are already included in the COLIBRI database. Any aircraft not included may be added by the operator who comes across it. The objective over time is to obtain a comprehensive, reliable database on all aircraft operating within a territory, which would be accessible to all the countries taking part in the Project;
  • sundry documents, including, in particular, the civil aviation codes. These documents are filed by country and can be viewed only by users from the country concerned;
  • the four types of forms – on observations, runways, seizures and controls – that operators in the field can complete. This information is geolocalized, and access to it is limited to national level.

The forms are filled in by “ground operators” or field officers using a mobile application. Among the fields of the “runway” form are location (the location of the telephone if it is connected to a network), the designation of the runway, the aerodrome (drop-down list based on the IATA code), the status of the runway (closed, in service, abandoned) and its measurements (length, altitude, direction). The fields of the “observation” form include the country, the airport, the runway, the registration of the aircraft, the place and the information collected itself. The “seizures” form contains similar fields and fields concerning the details of the goods seized: quantity, value, detection method, nature, etc. The same applies to the “control” form, which describes the type of control carried out. Photos can be added to all the different types of forms.

Operators can use the application in places that are not covered by a telecommunications network and send the form once a connection has been made. A form can be saved and reopened in case of need, for example to complete or amend a field, as long as the form has not been sent to the COLIBRI database.

The objective of the database is to provide a means to track the history of controls on an aircraft from its registration, at national level at least, and to geolocalize a series of events.

The Geoportal, a tool for geolocalization and assistance in the organization of controls

A map viewer presents all of the data entered into the database, overlaid on a base map. Users can zoom in on a particular area, such as an aerodrome, and use filters that let them choose precisely which information to display and the available base maps. This tool is intended primarily for security services with mobile patrols.

The information reported in the forms is, therefore, not as detailed as that given by the seizure reports of the Customs Enforcement Network (CEN), which makes available to Members of the WCO, for consultation, a central repository of information relating to enforcement. Here, we are concerned with offering the opportunity to create maps from base maps, and from information and events from the database.

As regards the Geoportal, users will be able to choose between several base maps:

  • OpenStreetMap, an online geographical database managed by a foundation incorporated in England, crowdsourced and published under an open licence. Anyone who has created an account on the database website can contribute. Members of the satellite imagery community and bodies like land registries have also offered their data to the platform. By clicking on an object or a “spatialized vector datum” of the map, created by one of these bodies or by an individual, the user can find out who produced it and when.
  • The images generated every five days by the Sentinel‑2 satellite constellation that forms the space element of the European Union’s Copernicus Programme. The satellites offer different layers of information by subject area, such as agriculture or forests, for example. It will not be possible to view a territory in real time, but, on the other hand, analysts will be able to appreciate the dynamics by comparing images taken over time. In some countries, the available images date back as far as 2015.

Aware of the importance of providing Members’ analysts with a tool already including information on runways and aerodromes, so that it would be useful from the first day of its deployment, the project designers developed a database on aerodromes and runways covering the 13 countries participating in the Project. The sources used were mainly open sources, such as those of the national civil aviation agencies, OurAirports, OpenStreetMap, ICAO and IATA. There were too many data; choices had to be made, and priority was given to certain sources that were more reliable or more comprehensive than others, the criteria being the origin of the information, its relevance (mandatory information fields), the volume of data, their structure and usability.

Users also have measurement tools for calculating a distance or a surface area and creating vector objects to pinpoint an event (runways, observations, controls or seizures). For example, if the maps show a field without a runway, but an operator has evidence that there is a runway there, the operator can add a vector object to the map and attach photos and descriptions.

The users of the Geoportal will, therefore, be able to view both public geographical data and events relating to controls, observations or seizures which, for their part, will be reported by users in the field using the mobile application. A colour and an icon have been attributed to each type of form, and filters will be available so that the user can choose which type of information should be displayed on the map and highlight aspects of it by adjusting the intensity of the icon’s colour (transparency). The area displayed on the screen can be printed and a description or a note can be added.

The layers of information created by a Customs administration are accessible only to that administration and are recorded only in the COLIBRI database. In other words, the events reported in country X cannot be viewed by country Y, which gives the tool an important guarantee of confidentiality, as requested by the beneficiary administrations.

One source widely used by aircraft surveillance services could not be integrated into the Geoportal: Flightradar24. This application makes it possible to track, in real time, all aircraft equipped with ADS-B (Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast) that are in flight or about to take off. Analysts are invited to compare the two data sources. The mobile application, moreover, provides a link to Flightradar24.

Training designed to achieve optimum utilization of the tool’s functionalities

Exhaustive training, not only on the functionalities of the tools, but also on the way in which they were designed, has been delivered to the national representatives of the countries participating in the COLIBRI Project who will, in turn, be responsible for training their peers. Much of the information provided during this training is covered in this article.

For the Secretariat of the WCO, the key concern was to ensure that the users of the tool are well aware of what an open information source is and to review the recommended practices for the use of these sources. Among other issues discussed were the criteria by which the quality of the data is determined and the questions that should be addressed before using open information source.

Support of the WCO Secretariat

The Geoportal consists of a new technology that is both intuitive and easy to use. By employing the new information and communication technologies that are used daily by the general public, it marks a new chapter in the surveillance and control of general aviation. It is now up to the countries participating in the Project to make the commitment and provide the resources needed to develop their database. The more data there are in the database, the more useful it will be to the analysts of the administrations responsible for combating organized crime in general and the fraudulent use of this mode of transport in particular.

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