The Origins of High Resolution Civilian Satellite Imaging - Part 3: The End Users

February 21, 2013

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In the same way as there are several organizations interested in providing and accessing relevant accurate satellite based information there are several key human rights focused organizations pertaining to the abuses of human rights occurring in many ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ conflicts across the globe. These Human Rights organizations are led by the work of UNITAR, (United Nations Institute for Training and Research), with considerable experience in use of satellite imagery as an information source during both conflict situations and during natural disasters. UNITAR’s mission is to deliver innovative training and to equip its sister UN agencies and various Member States with applied research on knowledge systems. Since inception in 1965 UNITAR has built sustainable partnerships acquiring unique expertise and accumulating experience and knowledge to fulfill this mandate. UNOSAT is the Operational Satellite Applications Program of UNITAR dedicated entirely to researching and applying solutions in Geospatial Information Systems (GIS), navigation and geopositioning. UNOSAT has had twelve years of this successful program, launched in 2000 as an initial project, which developed into a mature UN service with global outreach supported by a network of partners worldwide. UNOSAT, currently led by Einar Bjorgo, a contributor to this volume, has provided over 1000 maps and analyses, downloads with UNOSAT tasked in over 200 emergencies and conflicts. UNOSAT has covered all types of disasters: natural and man-made, small and large, (on average some 35 events each year), from Ecuador and the Pakistan floods of 2010, to the Haiti Earthquake and South Ossetia conflict in Georgia, providing training and capacity development to Member States, UN agencies, NGOs, and other international organizations. A Space Charter provides free satellite imagery to authorized users and the UN during major natural and technological disasters. Approximately 1/3 of satellite imagery used by UNOSAT is provided through the Space Charter, with other sources, commercial, free, scientific, and the US Dept State. However, not all of the imagery is to the same resolution level as that provided by satellites already discussed such as Ikonos, and Quickbird etc. and the majority of applications use Landsat data.

Many of these imaged sites, whether disasters are of natural or man-made origin, are often inaccessible, and where man-made, perpetrators do not want their activities visible to the media. Hence the potential value of satellite imagery to mitigate against the ‘guilty’ and to monitor reports of violations of human rights. The value of satellite imagery is split into various stages: No crisis signals visible, Emerging risk, Imminent risk, Crisis, Post-crisis, Recovery and Development Planning, which put more simply: before a crisis (for early warning), during a crisis (for crisis monitoring), and after a crisis (to hold perpetrators) accountable for their abuse, as first set out by Willum.
Before a crisis satellite imagery can be used for regular monitoring to seek crisis prevention, and realistically, if ongoing and world-wide, establishes baseline conditions prior to both natural and man-made disasters. Information gathering on ‘nucleating’ small-scale human rights abuses may help to put pressure on various ‘responsible’ persons and help prevent wider scale abuses and massacres. As such satellite imagery monitoring and other human rights abuse sources must work together synergistically to have a preventative effect so that potential perpetrators think twice about committing such acts if they realise they are being scrutinised. Internationally, information from satellite imagery and other sources can be used to inform the public and if necessary, human rights organizations and the news media (including the internet) as tools to create a public opinion in favour of outside intervention, as was the case in Libya during the Arab Spring of 2011. A further advantage of enabling human rights groups to access satellite imagery is that motivated public interest group are much more likely to move more quickly than a government in making pictures of massacres available, and attempting to do something about them.
During a crisis NGOs and Inter Governmental Organizations (IGOs) outside governments, and amongst the less informed members of the population in the countries in question benefits the public in the affected countries to be better informed, and the political platform of the ‘guilty’ eroded- although this enters the debate of who has a legitimate right, and what constitutes a legitimate right to promote and effect regime change. Furthermore when a crisis is in full swing, the news media is often interested in information and documentation for its news bulletins, and satellite imagery, by nature a highly visible format used to create mapping of key resources etc. for the aid worker, well placed to illustrate the situation. As it is normally difficult to access areas of military conflict or ethnic cleansing, the value of satellite imagery during a crisis is much enhanced, especially if compared with imagery from before a crisis.
After a crisis, archive imagery can again be used as a tool for war crimes investigators of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in their search for evidence of war crimes, such as ethnic cleansing or mass executions, similar to those committed in Bosnia. Identifying crimes and perpetrators is not only key for legal purposes, but helps ‘set the record straight’, a key factor in order to discount misinformation that miscreant regimes may put across to the wider international community to mask their activities.
Besides the United Nations there have been a considerable number of key studies conducted by the Geospatial Technologies and Human Rights section of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), currently headed by Dr. Susan Wolfinbarger, also contributing to this volume, in many places such as: Burma, Chad, Sudan, Lebanon, Eritrea, Ethiopia, and, North Korea, amongst others. The AAAS Science and Human Rights Program (SHRP), with major funding from the MacArthur Foundation and support from the Open Society Institute, is currently working to expand the applications of geospatial technologies to human rights issues through its Geospatial Technologies and Human Rights Project. Such HR activities are conducted where possible in synergy of activities with other organizations, especially contacts who can help verify sources on the ground, which is of course an extremely dangerous undertaking. There is also a flow of staff between these organizations, such as the AAAS and UNITAR which helps foster best practice and the sharing of key skills.
More recently satellite imaging projects have been funded by HR organizations themselves such as Amnesty International’s funding of the Eyes on Sudan, Eyes on Pakistan and Eyes on Nigeria campaigns, to not only promote large scale abuses to a wider audience via the Internet and traditional news media outlets, but to put governments on notice that their activities are being watched. Progress is now rapid, even within last year there have been further ‘public imaging’ developments with a consortia of wealthy concerned individuals including Hollywood film stars such as George Clooney who have helped support the Satellite Sentinel Project, enabling the continuation of human rights violation monitoring, especially of the Sudanese trapped in the Nuba Mountains who have suffered much in an ongoing genocide campaign waged against them, at best under the watching eyes of the Khartoum regime, with the dropping of bombs, use of anti-personnel devices and the operation of helicopter gunships. 
Many other individual workers involved with human rights, with limited access to financial budgets to purchase satellite imagery, have fortunately been able to access the GeoEye Foundation’s archive of high resolution satellite imagery. In March 2007 GeoEye announced the formation of the GeoEye Foundation, with the specific goal to advance excellence in university teaching of geospatial information technologies to aid humanitarian and environmental research studies including: climate change, and to foster the innovation and growth of the next-generation of geospatial technology professionals. This GeoEye Foundation satellite imagery archive of over 278 Million square kilometers of map-accurate imagery has already proven to be an important data source for GeoEye’s beneficiaries, of which this author is one. The GeoEye Foundation is currently managed by an outside advisory Board of Directors and a committee comprised of key GeoEye employees, supported by a capable but small team of dedicated professionals. Requests for archive satellite imagery are reviewed by the Advisory Committee and considered on merit. It is obvious that as we have only had the technological ability to image at the 1 meter level for the last decade there are still large tracts of the earth unimaged as yet and so in many cases baseline ‘before’ imagery is unavailable to compare changes at the latest highest resolution levels. Nonetheless, it is clear that the high accuracy provided by high resolution satellite imagery will have a growing role to play in humanitarian, environment, and wildlife conservation in our increasingly inter-dependent twenty first century global community.
Editor's Note: Read  Part 1 and Part 2.
Reprinted with permission by Chris Lavers, author of “Recent Developments in Remote Sensingfor Human Disaster Management and Mitigation- Natural and Man-made 2013 - Spotlight on Africa.”
Images Courtesey of UNOSAT, Licensed under Creative Commons

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