Fast Company

Satellites for Good: The NGO's Ultimate Tool

Satellites for human rights monitoring predates Google and George Clooney--but they are paving the way for what one UN expert calls "the only purely objective assessment of what has happened on the ground."

satellite image

The growing "satellite for good" field saw a breakthrough today as George Clooney and Google, along with Harvard and the United Nations, teamed up to hire commercial satellites to monitor violence ahead of Sudan's upcoming referendum in early January. And earlier this week, Ahumanright.org announced plans to buy a commercial satellite to provide Internet to the world's poor, effectively empowering the world's poor with a powerful tool: access to information.

But the use of satellites to advance the cause of human rights is not new. In 2003, a Human Rights Watch consultant had the idea of monitoring home demolitions with satellites, and that's when satellites became a tool for NGOs and human rights organizations. Today, according to the United Nations' Lars Bromley, satellites are being used to monitor abuses in six core areas: 1) to identify shell craters 2) burned houses 3) large military equipment 4) damaged agricultural fields 5) mass graves and 6) expanding cemeteries (ad hoc burials and graveyards).

When Bromley started working in the field in 2005, satellites were used to monitor destroyed villages in Darfur--and that's when satellite imagery and information changed everything. Today, Bromley leads geospatial efforts for human rights monitoring at the UN Institute for Training and Research Operational Satellite Applications Programme (UNOSAT), the same entity that partnered with Google and Clooney.

"What really has changed," says Bromley, "is the number and quality of the satellites. When we first started doing this it was like using a telegraph. Now, there's a much richer and more recent archive. And when we hear of attacks, we can task a satellite much faster than we were able to a few years ago."

The satellites in use by organizations such as the United Nations are high-resolution satellites with 60-centimeter resolution. The first ever commercial high-resolution satellite went up in 1999 and became operational by 2000. And NGOs for the most part only make use of commercial satellites. Government satellites deal with classified imagery and are hence off limits to the outside world.

Generally speaking, satellites in use by NGOs cannot pick up on "inter-personal" events, such as rape and person-to-person violence. So what the UN does is pick up on landscape changes that hint at human rights violations--an expanding cemetery, a burned down village, and the presence of large military equipment, for example. (Or in the case of this year's Kyrgyzstan riots--the satellites picked up on massive SOS signs, as seen above.)

While cost is an issue for smaller NGOs, the main players utilizing satellites are the UN, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International, often supported by the Science and Human Rights Program at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). And what those major players do is share jpegs of their imagery with the smaller NGOs, since forking out $100,000 on Darfur monitoring, for example, is not exactly within their budgets. (See here for a comprehensive listing of UNOSAT satellite imagery.)

But as additional players enter the scene, such as China and India, the hope is that costs will decrease so that even more NGOs have access to critical satellite imagery and information.

As Bromley puts it, "Satellites are the only purely objective assessment of what has happened on the ground, so they add another tool to our toolbox."

Related Story: Google and George Clooney Aim Satellites at Sudan, Become "Anti-Genocide Paparazzi"

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[Images: Cameroon bridge crossing and SOS signals in Osh, Kyrgyzstan, copyright 2010 DigitalGlobe. Produced by UNITAR-UNOSAT]

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