Crisis Response Using GeoEye Satellite Imagery

By Scott Herman

Just past midnight on March 11, 2011, I was in my Virginia office working with a colleague in Tokyo. As we were chatting online about our project, my friend in Japan began to feel the earth shake violently beneath her. She said, “Scott, I think this is serious, and it’s bigger than anything I have experienced here. We’re evacuating. I’ll contact you soon if I can …” It was clear that something big was happening in Japan, and our team at GeoEye needed to get to work immediately.  GeoEye began mobilizing to respond to the crisis within minutes.

For the next several days, the GeoEye team operated in “crisis mode” and spent many long days and sleepless nights collecting, analyzing and sharing high resolution satellite imagery of Japan to support humanitarian assistance and disaster response efforts. In the following weeks and months, GeoEye continued to monitor the country to provide insight and understanding in the aftermath of the most powerful earthquake and tsunami the world had ever seen. We repeatedly photographed the entire eastern seaboard of Japan and shared the high-resolution satellite imagery with a wide range of government agencies, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), commercial companies, and the press and media.

In a massive crisis like the one Japan faced last spring, government officials, first responders and national security personnel are desperately searching for ground truth. That is, they need to know the reality and totality of a situation. The commercial satellite industry has evolved from simply surveying the planet to providing decision makers with the insight and intelligence they need to craft the best path out of chaos. New satellite collections capture an image of what exists today and archived imagery provides the “before” view of a place. Both are critical to help decision makers get to the truth and make the most impactful and effective decisions.

Since the 1999 launch of IKONOS, GeoEye has elevated insight and provided secure, timely and accurate location information, providing clarity during chaotic times. With an archive of more than half a billion square kilometers of imagery and a high collection capacity, our company is constantly informing customers of how the world is changing.

The flooding of Pakistan’s Indus River Valley in 2010 afforded the opportunity to apply our new Web services technology, EyeQ, to deliver imagery in bandwidth-constrained environments. NGOs and governments needed current imagery for first responders on the ground. Previously, it was common practice in the industry to ship DVDs or disk drives with imagery products. We then moved to a file-transfer protocol system that, while an improvement, was simply not fast enough. In rapidly changing situations, crisis managers need near current imagery as fast as possible.

Extensive flooding in Pakistan provided a means to apply new technology to an old problem. With approximately one-fifth of the country’s total land area underwater, satellite imagery was vital to rescue operations. Imagery was acquired over this vast area and quickly and easily provided before-and-after analysis of inaccessible areas. With this critical information, governmental and international aid agencies could efficiently and accurately plan their response.  This crisis ushered in a new way of providing disaster relief to hard-to-reach communities. In 2011, we responded to over 40 different crises, both geopolitical events and natural disasters, including the Egyptian revolution, Yemen protests, Mississippi and Missouri River flooding, and more.

The online Web services platform is changing the paradigm for how users can access commercial imagery. Now, they can grab imagery and pan and zoom over entire territories without the need to download large files. Streaming crisis imagery is enabled via cloud computing, which provides quick access anytime, anywhere, including mobile devices. Anyone who has been in the midst of a disaster can tell you how important this capability is in order to send resources to the most heavily affected areas.

An easy user experience is essential when disseminating imagery to warfighters and crisis responders who may not be sophisticated GIS users.  Commercial imagery is only useful if the emergency response teams can access the information they need when they need it. First responders, rescue crews and national security personnel do not have the time to learn complicated software interfaces. Today, to view commercial imagery, the user simply needs to know how to use a Web browser. The “before” and “after” shots are ready immediately. It is this low-technology barrier to access that makes such a system effective. The future of geospatial imagery will rely on Web-based dissemination mechanisms to become even faster and more responsive for more users.

The added benefit of a simplified user experience is that the clients can use their expertise to create derived products themselves and distribute imagery to a broader audience. Often, their products add an extra level of depth that heightens the collective understanding of the crisis.

This technology has had a profound impact in newsrooms. As the reach of social media expands, our product has become a premier medium for quickly and accurately explaining current events. After Japan’s earthquake and tsunami, the New York Times created a front page interactive feature that conveyed the enormous devastation. This became the most shared feature on Facebook in 2011.

One of the unique advantages of commercial imagery is its unclassified nature, which gives users the ability to share information across organizations to reach larger audiences. This is most useful during military operations, because government-produced imagery is highly classified. Commercial imagery allows allies, aid agencies and NGOs to, quite literally, be on the same page. It would be more difficult to carry out operations like the NATO effort in Libya without the ease of sharing unclassified commercial imagery.

While maps and imagery are essential to creating a strong foundation layer, analytics is altering how we respond to and understand a crisis, as well. New technology has opened enormous data streams that can be overlaid on this accurate imagery foundation to provide an added layer of intelligence and insight about potential outcomes of disasters, crimes and unrest.

GeoEye Analytics and other analytic institutions, such as IHS Jane’s, use our imagery to create quick reaction analysis that can be shared broadly. During the Libyan unrest, Jane’s provided a compelling visual report about the border with Tunisia’s refugee encampments and Libyan chokepoints. As a result, we were able to share the refugee analysis with U.S. and NATO forces to give commanders better insight into the growing humanitarian crisis at the borders.

In addition to post-event analysis, GeoEye has pioneered predictive analytics to help prepare for crisis or geopolitical events. During the floods in North Dakota last summer, FEMA laid out vital structures, such as schools, hospitals and berms to determine which areas were most heavily affected. As a result, it could better manage its response after the waters subsided by allocating limited resources more efficiently. Similarly, the Virginia Fusion Center used analytics to predict (before) and identify (after) areas that sustained the most damage from Hurricane Irene, again, allowing authorities to most efficiently allocate resources in response.

Predictive analytics can also be used to help find and capture criminals hiding in inaccessible terrain. Joseph Kony received a tremendous amount of attention recently as the charitable organization Invisible Children raised awareness about the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in Africa. GeoEye has worked with groups like Invisible Children and Resolve to help predict LRA attacks on refugee encampments. By examining population density and environmental factors to determine probable LRA locations, remotely sensed data have been able to help identify communities that are likely targets for future attacks.

Earth observation satellites have imaged the majority of the landmass on Earth to give mankind a unique perspective of our relationship to the rest of its inhabitants, yet we have only scratched the surface of the problems we can solve through mapping and analysis. So long as there is change to which humans need to respond, such as hurricanes, tornadoes, wars and conflict, accessible, shareable geospatial mapping will remain a vital component of crisis response. The geospatial revolution has only just begun.

Published Monday, June 4th, 2012

Written by Scott Herman

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