Truth from Space: Satellite images help journalists and humanitarians

Fires in Brazil... from space. Source: Planet Labs

Fires in Brazil... from space. Source: Planet Labs

The Antares rocket explosion destroyed 26 satellites that were supposed to add to Planet Lab’s growing fleet in Earth orbit. Although the month ended badly, Planet Labs already has over 70 satellites in orbit. Fleets of satellites from Planet Labs and competitors like Skybox and DigitalGlobe take pictures of Earth daily. A growing number of journalists and humanitarian organizations use satellite images to uncover facts that would otherwise remain hidden. Here’s a recap of October’s satellite truth-seekers.

Mountaintop removal in the United States Source: Skybox Imaging

Mountaintop removal in the United States Source: Skybox Imaging

Settlement in a former minefield. Source: Skybox Imaging

Settlement in a former minefield. Source: Skybox Imaging

In October Google-owned Skybox announced their participation in Google Earth Outreach. Researchers and activists use Google Earth to monitor deforestation in Sumatra and the Amazon, track GPS-tagged elephants in Africa, help communities fight logging, and more. But the images Google provided might be as much as 3 years old. Skybox for Good promises to put near realtime images in the hands of projects that “save lives, protect the environment, promote education, and positively impact humanity.” Skybox has recruited a few groups into its pilot program. The Halo Trust uses satellite images to evaluate the recovery of regions where it helped clear land mines and other abandoned ordinance. SkyTruth and Appalachian Voices use satellite images to monitor mountaintop removal mining projects.

SkyTruth itself was an early pioneer of modern satellite activism. After the BP Deepwater Horizons oil spill, SkyTruth used satellite images to estimate the spread of oil and challenge the official estimates released by the US government and BP. Earth Island Journal featured SkyTruth in an October article that highlighted its work monitoring fracking sites and mountaintop removal mining operations. SkyTruth’s blog showed how satellite data can track barrier island erosion and derelict freighters.

Analysts at 38 North use techniques once exclusive to intelligence agencies. In October they discovered a new North Korean submarine and evidence of test stand for submarine-launched ballistic missiles.

Unosat, the United Nations Operational Satellite Applications Program, provides satellite imagery to relief and humanitarian organizations. In October Unosat analysts evaluated conditions around the Syrian town of Kobani in satellite images provided by DigitalGlobe. It documented extensive destruction, the movement of military forces, and the flow of refugees. Their analysis formed the basis of widespread reporting by the world media such as these reports from ITV and Mashable. Unosat also released satellite-based maps of refugees in Somalia and landcover in Ethiopia.

An example of the Satellite Sentinel Project's use of space imagery to document destruction in South Sudan. Source: Satellite Sentinel Project

An example of the Satellite Sentinel Project's use of space imagery to document destruction in South Sudan. Source: Satellite Sentinel Project

Source: Amazon

Source: Amazon

George Clooney founded the Satellite Sentinel Project after visiting a Sudanese refugee camp in 2010. In a world where paparazzi photographed his every move, Clooney wondered, how could atrocities could be committed with impunity. His solution was to  use space images to document Sudanese attacks on civilians in South Sudan. In October Newsweek published a 63-page ebook Clooney's War: South Sudan, humanitarian failure and celebrity [Amazon link]. The book, and a summary Newsweek article, blamed Clooney and other celebrities for pushing South Sudan into an independence it was ill-prepared for. The Daily Beast’s editor-in-chief John Avlon wrote a rebuttal pointing out that the international community stood by while the Sudanese government slaughtered its citizens in the south. Clooney’s fame may have helped South Sudan gain independence but it certainly wasn’t a cause of the country’s problems. In the meantime Clooney has expanded the Satellite Sentinel Project’s scope to monitor the criminal networks in Sudan, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Central African Republic that fund mass atrocities.

Satellite imagery can also be used to look at more subtle aspects of conflicts. Nasa scientist Jamon Van Den Hoek spoke with the Wisconsin Institute of Discovery in this October interview. Van Den Hoek studies the way “conflict ecology” drives the interaction between environment and conflict. Environmental conditions can drive societies towards conflict. Warfare in turn leaves its own mark on the environment. In a recent study he did for the New York Times’ coverage of the recent war in Gaza, Van Den Hoek used satellite images of trampled farmland to map troop movements.

The Sentinel Project used this image from space to document the destruction of a Baha'i cemetery in Iran. Source: Sentinel Project

The Sentinel Project used this image from space to document the destruction of a Baha'i cemetery in Iran. Source: Sentinel Project

SpaceUnited is a non-profit that raises money to buy space imagery on behalf of  humanitarian groups like the Sentinel Project (not related to Clooney’s group). In October the Sentinel Project posted satellite images of a destroyed Baha’i cemetery in Sarandaj, Iran. As part of its mission to prevent genocide, the Sentinel Project believes satellite images can provide early confirmation of atrocities and spur international action before they escalate. The images of Sarandaj providing supporting (though not conclusive) evidence for rumored attacks on the Baha’i community.

Tomnod runs crowdsourcing projects for humanitarian causes such as disaster recovery, search and rescue, and environmental monitoring. Over the past month Tomnod’s volunteers mapped the aftermath of Cyclone Hudhud in India and Hurricane Gonzalo in Bermuda. An on-going project asks the public to map the illegal fishing weirs that are decimating native fish stocks in the Persian Gulf.

Finally, a coalition of humanitarian organizations announced the Missing Maps Project. One of the obstacles to aid distribution is the poor quality of local maps. When it opens in November, the Missing Maps Project will crowdsource maps of the most vulnerable places in the developing world. Visitors to the Missing Maps website will trace the roads and structures they see in satellite images. Volunteers in-country will take the combined traces and label roads and buildings. The combination of online and on-the-spot maps will then go into the OpenStreetMap database.