HURIDOCS09: Geospatial Technologies for Human Rights

Lars Bromley from AAAS and I just participated in a panel on “Communicating Human Rights Information Through Technology” at the HURIDOCS conference in Geneva. I’ve been following Lars’ project on the use of Geospatial Technologies for Human Rights with great interest over the past two years and have posted several blogs on the topic here, here and here. I’ll be showcasing Lars’ work in the digital democracy course next week since the topic I’ll be leading the discussion on “Human Rights 2.0.”

Introduction

Lars uses satellite imagery to prove or monitor human rights violations. This includes looking for the follwoing:

  • Housing and infrastructure demolition and destruction;
  • New housing and infrastructure such as resulting from force relocation;
  • Natural resource extraction and defoliation;
  • Mass grave mapping.

There are five operational, high-resolution satellites in orbit. These typically have resolutions that range from 50 centimeters to one meter. Their positions can be tracked online via JSatTrak:

aaas1

There are three types of projects that can draw on satellite imagery in human rights contexts:

  1. Concise analysis of a single location;
  2. Large area surveys over long periods of time;
  3. Active monitoring using frequently acquired imagery.

Zimbabwe

Lars shared satellite imagery from two human rights projects. The first is of a farm in Zimbabwe which was destroyed as part of a voter-intimidation campaign. The picture below was taken in 2002 and cost $250 to purchase. A total of 870 structure were manually counted.

aaas2

Copyright 2009 DigitalGlobe. Produced by AAAS.

The satellite image below was taken in 2006 and cost $1,792:

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Copyright 2009 DigitalGlobe. Produced by AAAS.

Burma

The second project sought to identify burned villages in Burma. Some 70 locations of interest within Burma were compiled using information from local NGOs. The image below is of a village in Papun District taken in December 2006.

aaas41

Copyright 2009 DigitalGlobe. Produced by AAAS.

The satellite image below as taken in June 2007 after the Free Burma Rangers reported an incident of village burning in April.

aaas5

Copyright 2009 DigitalGlobe. Produced by AAAS.

Limitations

Lars is very upfront about the challenges of using satellite imagery to document and monitor human rights abuses. These include:

  • More recent satellite imagery is particularly expensive;
  • Images can take between 2 weeks to 6 months to order;
  • Competition between multiple clients for satellite images;
  • Satellite images tend to be range between 200 megabytes and 2 gigabytes;
  • Requires technical capacity;
  • Cloud interference is a pervasive issue;
  • Images are only snapshots in time;
  • Real time human rights violations have never been captured by satellite;
  • Satellites are owned by governments and companies which present ethical concerns.

Nevertheless, Lars is confident that real-time and rapid use of satellite imagery will be possible in the future.

Conclusion

Here are the key points from Lars’ presentation:

  • The field of geospatial technologies for human rights is still evolving;
  • Satellite imagery is most useful in proving destruction in remote areas;
  • Evidence from satellite imagery becomes more powerful when combined with field-data.

Patrick Philippe Meier

7 responses to “HURIDOCS09: Geospatial Technologies for Human Rights

  1. Great post, Patrick. The prices are indeed steep – I’m struck by the combination of traditional methods of reporting – ie the Free Burma Rangers traveling by foot through Karen state to gather information and possibly send it out via radio – and the high-tech satellite images. The end results are powerful images. I look forward to seeing how Lars’ project develops.

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  4. Yay!more people trying to nose into places where belong with,but with satelites now.

    Well,human rights will never stop expanding I guess.It will always be “oh we want this”,and then “we want that”.Not that surprising in an age of individualism but I guess thats just a consequence of advanced technology I guess.

    Ah,well human rights activists never stop until everybody lives in a utopia I guess.Maybe global warming isn’t such a bad issue after,it will certainly solve civilization once and for all,the civilization cant go on forever I guess,but we had a good run.

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  7. Reblogged this on wp2wp.

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