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Google and George Clooney Aim Satellites at Sudan, Become “Anti-Genocide Paparazzi”

Ahead of an early January referendum, the two partners, along with Harvard and the United Nations, want Sudanese rebels to know that they are being watched.

Garang maousoleum

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George Clooney is joining Google, the Harvard Humanitarian
Initiative, and the United Nations in an effort called the Satellite
Sentinel Project
to monitor violence and human rights violations in
Sudan as the country prepares to vote on January 9 on whether or not to
split into two nations–North and South Sudan.

The explicit goal of the partnership is deterrence–Clooney and his partners want to make sure that Sudan does not erupt in another civil war. Some small pockets of violence have already been reported and the employment of satellites is meant to give war-mongers on the ground the message that the world is watching and genocide will not be tolerated.

Clooney’s interest in Sudan is not new–back in 2007 he was featured
in the documentary film, Darfur Now, co-produced by actor Don Cheadle. And he has maintained his interest in the embattled country since then, paying a recent visit amidst preparations for the upcoming referendum.

The partnership pulls on the diverse strengths of the participating
organizations–Clooney and his organization, Not On Our Watch, add
star power–not to mention awareness power–and the United Nations Institute for
Training and Research Operational Satellite Applications Programme
(UNOSAT) will collect and analyze the satellite images. The
Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, meanwhile, will provide field research and Google
is setting up a web platform to provide public access to information
with the goal of pressuring public officials. (We profiled an
independent, Ushahidi-backed voting monitoring project just a couple of weeks
ago–carried out by a Sudan-born Texan.)

UNOSAT has done this before–in fact it is their mission to snap
satellite images in cases of such disaster, but in the case of Sudan
they’ve more or less been on standby to see what happens and will
start snapping satellite images as soon as they receive requests from
their field staff and partner organizations to do so. “It’s a good thing that we haven’t yet had to take many images in Sudan,” Lars Bromley of UNOSAT tells Fast Company.

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So the idea is not entirely Clooney’s alone (despite what a Time magazine article suggests). I had spoken to UNOSAT several weeks ago, prior to the announcement of
Clooney’s project, and, for them, this is essentially routine work.

But there is one difference this time around. It’s Clooney who has
hired the satellites. That means there is more freedom to snap away in
whatever geographical areas and on whatever basis the group wants, as opposed to the
U.N., which has certain rules and guidelines to work within. Specifically, Clooney will monitor the movement of troops, whereas
UNOSAT’s primary–and most flexible–prerogative is the monitoring of
natural disasters, not man-made ones.

“We are the anti-genocide paparazzi,” Clooney told Time. “We want them
to enjoy the level of celebrity attention that I usually get. If you
know your actions are going to be covered, you tend to behave much
differently than when you operate in a vacuum.”

The project as a whole is a multi-layered approach and the programming and monitoring capabilities of multiple crisis mapping tools, websites, and organizations are being pulled together. The work of the Sudan Vote Monitor–who we profiled earlier this month–will soon be incorporated and the Google mapping component was actually built off the work of two Pakistani-British entrepreneurs who built LOCAL, a monitoring site for the Pakistan floods.

“What is new and transforming is the concept of leveraging Google Map Maker into a public human rights and human security early warning system to stop a war before it starts,” Jonathan Hutson of the Enough Project, another partner, tells Fast Company.

“We’d like to engage the worldwide, volunteer community of Google power mappers,” adds Hutson, “and combine their efforts with on-the-ground field reports from the Enough Project and crowd-sourced, crisis response information from groups like Ushahidi, analyze it, add context and concise clear calls to action, and publish it all on a public platform to detect and deter war crimes, including potential genocide.”

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We’ll post more details here as we get them, so check back soon.

Related Story: Ahumanright.org Aims to Buy Commercial Satellite for the World’s Poor

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[Image copyright 2010 DigitalGlobe. Produced by UNITAR-UNOSAT]

About the author

Jenara is an overseas reporter for Fast Company and a freelance writer/producer in Asia, regularly on CNNGo, and a graduate of Harvard and UC Berkeley.

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