Geospatial technologies using satellite imagery, internet-integrated mapping or GPS aren’t just for spyware – these days they are employed to detect, map and analyse human rights violations to help NGOs like Amnesty International. Using widely available tools such as Google Earth, Lars Bromley, director of the Geospatial Technologies and Human Rights Project of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), has been digitally capturing atrocities against civilians in Darfur, Zimbabwe, North Korea, the Gaza Strip and Burma. He tells PingMag all about geospatial technologies.
Written by Verena
What was the aim of the Geospatial Technologies and Human Rights Project when it was funded in December 2005?
We were in part inspired by a US government review of Darfur satellite imagery that occurred roughly at that time. However, other issues were just as concerning and for the most part I was struck by how little mapping and geospatial technologies seemed to be in use on these issues by NGOs.
And what geospatial technologies do you use exactly?
We have used a lot of satellite imagery other than the high-resolution imagery, to look at fires and deforestation. We also look at the use of GPS, GPS-enabled cell phones, satellite phones, and things like that. Mapping is a big part of what we do, which is assisted and enabled by software called Geographic Information Systems (GIS.) In the future we want to use radar satellites, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs,) citizen-camera networks and more.
The bulk of the work we did on Darfur was to show that the Government of Sudan was carrying out military operations against civilians since early 2005. They claimed to have stopped such activities at the end of 2004. That imagery was presented to Amnesty International and then made into their Eyes On Darfur web site. That work also taught us a lot about mapping and image acquisition in the region, which also helped us in Burma and elsewhere. At present, we are looking at reports of recent attacks in Darfur to assess the size and scale of them.
Moreover, what could the images of Zimbabwe tell about the ongoing repression you presented in 2006?
These are strong images that show how entire towns can be wiped out by a national government for political reasons. The images are currently part of an African Union court case presented by the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights.
Then last autumn, in the case of Burma, you worked with mainly three groups – one of them being the Free Burma Rangers – that provided the information about actions on the ground. First, they point you towards certain spots or incidents. What happens then?
This is the core challenge of this sort of work. Occasionally we get reports with GPS coordinates included, but most often we get a village name or area and perhaps an administrative district. This requires us to do research on each attack event to try to determine actual coordinates. In most cases, places like Burma and Darfur have very poor or old reference maps, so it can take a while to find coordinates. But once we have them, I search satellite imagery archives from two companies (GeoEye and DigitalGlobe) to locate potentially useful information. If necessary and if I can afford it, I will request that the satellite acquires a new image of a location. But that is expensive so I can’t always do it.
… the AAAS info stated that the price for one picture is at around $2,000 or more. Who pays for that?
The cost for a new satellite image is roughly $2,000, while an archival image can be as cheap as $250. At present we use our MacArthur Foundation funds for this, and have used a grant from Open Society Institute as well. For our Darfur work, the funds came from the Save Darfur Coalition via Amnesty International.
I see. What happens next? How long does it take until you receive the first images?
We can get archival images very quickly, within a few days. New images from the satellite can take months if clouds and competition are heavy, though occasionally we do get them within a week.
So it’s a matter of chance as well. How many images, old and new, do you need for an analysis of one area?
If we are looking at one village, it’s possible we can tell what happened from one image – if it was acquired soon after an attack. Most often, we need two or more. However, it is important to understand that most of the information about an attack comes from the on-the-ground information, like from Free Burma Rangers. The imagery just serves to corroborate that reporting.
How much time does the mapping and analysis take?
This depends on how big the conflict and area is that we are assessing, and how many images we acquire. Both the Darfur and Burma work is the product of months of labour by myself and staff. Things we take a look at are military and police build ups; fires; road, dam, pipeline, mine construction; hidden graves and mass graves; deforestation and defoliation, and more.
And you can tell quite a lot from the sharpness of the images: we were fascinated by the high-res imagery from the QuickBird satellite of DigitalGlobe, allowing a coverage of two square feet per pixel. How precise can you be with this resolution?
This allows us to see details that are relevant to our work, we can see small houses, fencing, footpaths, crop types, and vehicles. We occasionally see cows, and if the shadows are right we can see the shadows that people are casting. Regarding vehicles, we can tell the difference between cars and trucks, military and civilian (usually,) and details like that.
We also want to know about the tools: I can’t believe that you use simply Google Earth for information layering and the Google regionator code, among other mapping software! What potential do you see in information mapping and its wider usage through these openly available tools?
We use Google Earth for some of the public presentation of our results. In other cases, we prefer to embed images in web pages using other, like Virtual Earth. Often, our partners are in remote places, so we simply print large maps and images and mail them – it depends entirely on what works best for the partners. Regarding wider usage by interested persons, that is good if it results in positive action or knowledge on their part. If people just use these tools to look at examples of violence, then frankly I think they are using it as a form of entertainment and that discourages me.
Very true. Political regimes can surely use the same as well… Where do you see its dangers?
The dangerous uses of these technologies are well explored, I am sure. Unsavoury militaries can get the imagery to plan attacks if they wish, as can gangs and criminals. However, they often have much more relevant intelligence that comes from local sources in the area, so they may not need such abstract tools as satellite imagery. These tools work especially well for Western NGOs since they do not have the same sort of direct access.
Since the analysis of imagery has such a strong potential in very clearly showing human rights violations after they’ve occured – what needs to be enhanced to be able to act earlier?
There need to be more commercial satellites of better quality, so I can more quickly get images. I need a bigger budget, so I can always get an image as soon as possible. Once we have those simple things, the satellite observations will happen much more quickly. However, as for acting, that is a bigger question: the NGOs we work with are quite powerless in real power terms. They can goad governments and the UN to act but that doesn’t happen quickly. I wish we could do more to act!
The Burma human rights violation as represented by an increase in refugee camps: Mae La Oon refugee camp in Thailand, before image taken in November, 2002. A few structures… © 2007 GeoEye
… expanded to hundreds of clusters. After image from February, 2005. An estimated 154,000 refugees crossed the Thai border as of 2006. © 2006 DigitalGlobe Inc.
Personally, when you look at the pictures without analysing – what are your feelings about the Earth’s surface?
Satellite imagery is always very alluring and beautiful to me, I love the detail that it delivers at both high and low resolutions. However, the things we are looking for in these images are so heartbreaking: destruction of homes, prison camps, large scale deforestation, and other things. You rarely forget that, and in general it leaves me with a quiet rage regarding evil men.
Is there one that was especially moving for you?
I think my favourites in terms of their possible effectiveness are the ones of Porta Farm, Zimbabwe, and then a set depicting an April 2007 attack in Burma. The Burma images were a big challenge and stroke of luck to acquire, since clouds were heavy at that time. We got a shot of the village through a brief gap in the clouds, and saw the charred remains of people’s homes.
Moving, indeed, to see those atrocities so very clearly. Thank you, Lars Bromley of the Geospatial Technologies and Human Rights Project!
See more detailed pics at AAAS. Also, if you have Google Earth installed, have a look at the project’s Karen State Layers. And get more info over at Eyes On Darfur and Amnesty International.