Category Archives: Satellite Imagery

Predicting the Future of Global Geospatial Information Management

The United Nations Committee of Experts on Global Information Management (GGIM) recently organized a meeting of thought-leaders and visionaries in the geo-spatial world to identify the future of this space over the next 5-10 years. These experts came up with some 80+ individual predictions. I’ve included some of the more interesting ones below.

  • The use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) as a tool for rapid geospatial data collection will increase.
  • 3D and even 4D geospatial information, incorporating time as the fourth dimension, will increase.
  • Technology will move faster than legal and governance structures.
  • The link between geospatial information and social media, plus other actor networks, will become more and more important.
  • Real-time info will enable more dynamic modeling & response to disasters.
  • Free and open source software will continue to grow as viable alternatives both in terms of software, and potentially in analysis and processing.
  • Geospatial computation will increasingly be non-human consumable in nature, with an increase in fully-automated decision systems.
  • Businesses and Governments will increasingly invest in tools and resources to manage Big Data. The technologies required for this will enable greater use of raw data feeds from sensors and other sources of data.
  • In ten years time it is likely that all smart phones will be able to film 360 degree 3D video at incredibly high resolution by today’s standards & wirelessly stream it in real time.
  • There will be a need for geospatial use governance in order to discern the real world from the virtual/modelled world in a 3D geospatial environ-ment.
  • Free and open access to data will become the norm and geospatial information will increasingly be seen as an essential public good.
  • Funding models to ensure full data coverage even in non-profitable areas will continue to be a challenge.
  • Rapid growth will lead to confusion and lack of clarity over data ownership, distribution rights, liabilities and other aspects.
  • In ten years, there will be a clear dividing line between winning and losing nations, dependent upon whether the appropriate legal and policy frameworks have been developed that enable a location-enabled society to flourish.
  • Some governments will use geospatial technology as a means to monitor or restrict the movements and personal interactions of their citizens. Individuals in these countries may be unwilling to use LBS or applications that require location for fear of this information being shared with authorities.
  • The deployment of sensors and the broader use of geospatial data within society will force public policy and law to move into a direction to protect the interests and rights of the people.
  • Spatial literacy will not be about learning GIS in schools but will be more centered on increasing spatial awareness and an understanding of the value of understanding place as context.
  • The role of National Mapping Agencies as an authoritative supplier of high quality data and of arbitrator of other geospatial data sources will continue to be crucial.
  • Monopolies held by National Mapping Agencies in some areas of specialized spatial data will be eroded completely.
  • More activities carried out by National Mapping Agencies will be outsourced and crowdsourced.
  • Crowdsourced data will push National Mapping Agencies towards niche markets.
  • National Mapping Agencies will be required to find new business models to provide simplified licenses and meet the demands for more free data from mapping agencies.
  • The integration of crowdsourced data with government data will increase over the next 5 to 10 years.
  • Crowdsourced content will decrease cost, improve accuracy and increase availability of rich geospatial information.
  •  There will be increased combining of imagery with crowdsourced data to create datasets that could not have been created affordably on their own.
  • Progress will be made on bridging the gap between authoritative data and crowdsourced data, moving towards true collaboration.
  • There will be an accelerated take-up of Volunteer Geographic Information over the next five years.
  • Within five years the level of detail on transport systems within OpenStreetMap will exceed virtually all other data sources & will be respected/used by major organisations & governments across the globe.
  • Community-based mapping will continue to grow.
  • There is unlikely to be a market for datasets like those currently sold to power navigation and location-based services solutions in 5 years, as they will have been superseded by crowdsourced datasets from OpenStreetMaps or other comparable initiatives.

Which trends have the experts missed? Do you think they’re completely off on any of the above? The full set of predictions on the future of global geospatial information management is available here as a PDF.

Imagery and Humanitarian Assistance: Gems, Errors and Omissions

The Center for Technology and National Security Policy based at National Defense University’s Institute for National Strategic Studies just published an 88-page report entitled “Constructive Convergence: Imagery and Humanitarian Assistance.” As noted by the author, “the goal of this paper is to illustrate to the technical community and interested humanitarian users the breadth of the tools and techniques now available for imagery collection, analysis, and distribution, and to provide brief recommendations with suggestions for next steps.” In addition, the report “presents a brief overview of the growing power of imagery, especially from volunteers and victims in disasters, and its place in emergency response. It also highlights an increasing technical convergence between professional and volunteer responders—and its limits.”

The study contains a number of really interesting gems, just a few errors and some surprising omissions. The point of this blog post is not to criticize but rather to provide constructive-and-hopefully-useful feedback should the report be updated in the future.

Lets begin with the important gems, excerpted below.

“The most serious issues overlooked involve liability protections by both the publishers and sources of imagery and its data. As far as our research shows there is no universally adopted Good Samaritan law that can protect volunteers who translate emergency help messages, map them, and distribute that map to response teams in the field.”

Whether a Good Samaritan law could ever realistically be universally adopted remains to be seen, but the point is that all of the official humanitarian data protection standards that I’ve reviewed thus far simply don’t take into account the rise of new digitally-empowered global volunteer networks (let alone the existence of social media). The good news is that some colleagues and I are working with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and a consor-tium of major humanitarian organizations to update existing data protection protocols to take some of these new factors into account. This new document will hopefully be made publicly available in October 2012.

“Mobile devices such as tablets and mobile phones are now the primary mode for both collecting and sharing information in a response effort. A January 2011 report published by the Mobile Computing Promotion Consortium of Japan surveyed users of smart phones. Of those who had smart phones, 55 percent used a map application, the third most common application after Web browsing and email.”

I find this absolutely fascinating and thus read the January 2011 report, which is where I found the graphic below.

“The rapid deployment of Cellular on Wheels [COW] is dramatically improving. The Alcatel-Lucent Light Radio is 300 grams (about 10 ounces) and stackable. It also consumes very little power, eliminating large generation and storage requirements. It is capable of operating by solar, wind and/or battery power. Each cube fits into the size of a human hand and is fully integrated with radio processing, antenna, transmission, and software management of frequency. The device can operate on multiple frequencies simultaneously and work with existing infrastructure.”

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“In Haiti, USSOUTHCOM found imagery, digital open source maps, and websites that hosted them (such as Ushahidi and OpenStreetMap) to occasionally be of greater value than their own assets.”

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“It is recommended that clearly defined and restricted use of specialized #hashtags be implemented using a common crisis taxonomy. For example:

#country + location + emergency code + supplemental data

The above example, if located in Washington, DC, U.S.A., would be published as:

#USAWashingtonDC911Trapped

The specialized use of #hashtags could be implemented in the same cultural manner as 911, 999, and other emergency phone number systems. Metadata using these tags would also be given priority when sent over the Internet through communication networks (landline, broadband Internet, or mobile text or data). Abuse of ratified emergency #hashtag’s would be a prosecutable offense. Implementing such as system could reduce the amount of data that crisis mappers and other response organizations need to monitor and improve the quality of data to be filtered. Other forms of #Hashtags syllabus can also be implemented such as:

#country + location + information code (411) + supplemental data
#country + location + water (H20) + supplemental data
#country + location + Fire (FD) + supplemental data”

I found this very interesting and relevant to this earlier blog post: “Calling 911: What Humanitarians Can Learn from 50 Years of Crowdsourcing.” Perhaps a reference to Tweak the Tweet would have been worthwhile.

I also had not come across some of the platforms used in response to the 2011 earthquake in New Zealand. But the report did an excellent job sharing these.

EQviewer.co.nz

Some errors that need correcting:

Open source mapping tools such as Google Earth use imagery as a foundation for layering field data.”

Google Earth is not an open source tool.

CrisisMappers.net, mentioned earlier, is a group of more than 1,600 volunteers that have been brought together by Patrick Meier and Jen Ziemke. It is the core of collaboration efforts that can be deployed anywhere in the world. CrisisMappers has established workshops and steering committees to set guidelines and standardize functions and capabilities for sites that deliver imagery and layered datasets. This group, which today consists of diverse and talented volunteers from all walks of life, might soon evolve into a professional volunteer organization of trusted capabilities and skill sets and they are worth watching.”

CrisisMappers is not a volunteer network or an organization that deploys in any formal sense of the word. The CrisisMappers website explains what the mission and purpose of this informal network is. The initiative has some 3,500 members.

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“Figure 16. How Ushahidi’s Volunteer Standby Task Force was Structured for Libya. Ushahidi’s platform success stems from its use by organized volunteers, each with skill sets that extract data from multiple sources for publication.”

The Standby Volunteer Task Force (SBTF) does not belong to Ushahidi, nor is the SBTF an Ushahidi project. A link to the SBTF website would have been appropriate. Also, the majority of applications of the Ushahidi platform have nothing to do with crises, or the SBTF, or any other large volunteer networks. The SBTF’s original success stems from organized volunteers who where well versed in the Ushahidi platform.

“Ushahidi accepts KML and KMZ if there is an agreement and technical assistance resources are available. An end user cannot on their own manipulate a Ushahidi portal as an individual, nor can external third party groups unless that group has an arrangement with the principal operators of the site. This offers new collaboration going forward. The majority of Ushahidi disaster portals are operated by volunteer organizations and not government agencies.”

The first sentence is unclear. If someone sets up an Ushahidi platform and they have KML/KMZ files that they want to upload, they can go ahead and do so. An end-user can do some manipulation of an Ushahidi portal and can also pull the Ushahidi data into their own platform (via the GeoRSS feed, for example). Thanks to the ESRI-Ushahidi plugin, they can then perform a range of more advanced GIS analysis. In terms of volunteers vs government agencies, indeed, it appears the former is leading the way vis-a-vis innovation.

Finally, below are some omissions and areas that I would have been very interested to learn more about. For some reason, the section on the Ushahidi deployment in New Zealand makes no reference to Ushahidi.

Staying on the topic of the earthquake in Christchurch, I was surprised to see no reference to the Tomnod deployment:

I had also hoped to read more about the use of drones (UAVs) in disaster response since these were used both in Haiti and Japan. What about the rise of DIY drones and balloon mapping? Finally, the report’s reference to Broadband Global Area Network (BGAN) doesn’t provide information on the range of costs associated with using BGANs in disasters.

In conclusion, the report is definitely an important contribution to the field of crisis mapping and should be required reading.

Stranger than Fiction: A Few Words About An Ethical Compass for Crisis Mapping

The good people at the Sudan Sentinel Project (SSP), housed at my former “alma matter,” the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI), have recently written this curious piece on crisis mapping and the need for an “ethical compass” in this new field. They made absolutely sure that I’d read the piece by directly messaging me via the @CrisisMappers twitter feed. Not to worry, good people, I read your masterpiece. Interestingly enough, it was published the day after my blog post reviewing IOM’s data protection standards.

To be honest, I was actually not going to spend any time writing up a response because the piece says absolutely nothing new and is hardly pro-active. Now, before any one spins and twists my words: the issues they raise are of paramount importance. But if the authors had actually taken the time to speak with their fellow colleagues at HHI, they would know that several of us participated in a brilliant workshop last year which addressed these very issues. Organized by World Vision, the workshop included representatives from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Care International, Oxfam GB, UN OCHA, UN Foundation, Standby Volunteer Task Force (SBTF), Ushahidi, the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI) and obviously Word Vision. There were several data protection experts at this workshop, which made the event one of the most important workshops I attended in all of 2011. So a big thanks again to Phoebe Wynn-Pope at World Vision for organizing.

We discussed in-depth issues surrounding Do No Harm, Informed Consent, Verification, Risk Mitigation, Ownership, Ethics and Communication, Impar-tiality, etc. As expected, the outcome of the workshop was the clear need for data protection standards that are applicable for the new digital context we operate in, i.e., a world of social media, crowdsourcing and volunteer geographical informa-tion. Our colleagues at the ICRC have since taken the lead on drafting protocols relevant to a data 2.0 world in which volunteer networks and disaster-affected communities are increasingly digital. We expect to review this latest draft in the coming weeks (after Oxfam GB has added their comments to the document). Incidentally, the summary report of the workshop organized by World Vision is available here (PDF) and highly recommended. It was also shared on the Crisis Mappers Google Group. By the way, my conversations with Phoebe about these and related issues began at this conference in November 2010, just a month after the SBTF launched.

I should confess the following: one of my personal pet peeves has to do with people stating the total obvious and calling for action but actually doing absolutely nothing else. Talk for talk’s sake just makes it seem like the authors of the article are simply looking for attention. Meanwhile, many of us are working on these new data protection challenges in our own time, as volunteers. And by the way, the SSP project is first and foremost focused on satellite imagery analysis and the Sudan, not on crowdsourcing or on social media. So they’re writing their piece as outsiders and, well, are hence less informed as a result—particularly since they didn’t do their homework.

Their limited knowledge of crisis mapping is blatantly obvious throughout the article. Not only do the authors not reference the World Vision workshop, which HHI itself attended, they also seem rather confused about the term “crisis mappers” which they keep using. This is somewhat unfortunate since the Crisis Mappers Network is an offshoot of HHI. Moreover, SSP participated and spoke at last year’s Crisis Mappers Conference—just a few months ago, in fact. One outcome of this conference was the launch of a dedicated Working Group on Security and Privacy, which will now become two groups, one addressing security issues and the other data protection. This information was shared on the Crisis Mappers Google Group and one of the authors is actually part of the Security Working Group.

To this end, one would have hoped, and indeed expected, that the authors would write a somewhat more informed piece about these issues. At the very least, they really ought to have documented some of the efforts to date in this innovative space. But they didn’t and unfortunately several statements they make in their article are, well… completely false and rather revealing at the same time. (Incidentally, the good people at SSP did their best to disuade the SBTF from launching a Satellite Team on the premise that only experts are qualified to tag satellite imagery; seems like they’re not interested in citizen science even though some experts I’ve spoken to have referred to SSP as citizen science).

In any case, the authors keep on referring to “crisis mappers this” and “crisis mappers that” throughout their article. But who exactly are they referring to? Who knows. On the one hand, there is the International Network of Crisis Mappers, which is a loose, decentralized, and informal network of some 3,500 members and 1,500 organizations spanning 150+ countries. Then there’s the Standby Volunteer Task Force (SBTF), a distributed, global network of 750+ volunteers who partner with established organizations to support live mapping efforts. And then, easily the largest and most decentralized “group” of all, are all those “anonymous” individuals around the world who launch their own maps using whatever technologies they wish and for whatever purposes they want. By the way, to define crisis mapping as mapping highly volatile and dangerous conflict situations is really far from being accurate either. Also, “equating” crisis mapping with crowdsourcing, which the authors seem to do, is further evidence that they are writing about a subject that they have very little understanding of. Crisis mapping is possible without crowdsourcing or social media. Who knew?

Clearly, the authors are confused. They appear to refer to “crisis mappers” as if the group were a legal entity, with funding, staff, administrative support and brick-and-mortar offices. Furthermore, and what the authors don’t seem to realize, is that much of what they write is actually true of the formal professional humanitarian sector vis-a-vis the need for new data protection standards. But the authors have obviously not done their homework, and again, this shows. They are also confused about the term “crisis mapping” when they refer to “crisis mapping data” which is actually nothing other than geo-referenced data. Finally, a number of paragraphs in the article have absolutely nothing to do with crisis mapping even though the authors seem insinuate otherwise. Also, some of the sensationalism that permeates the article is simply unnecessary and poor taste.

The fact of the matter is that the field of crisis mapping is maturing. When Dr. Jennifer Leaning and I co-founded and co-directed HHI’s Program on Crisis Mapping and Early Warning from 2007-2009, the project was very much an exploratory, applied-research program. When Dr. Jen Ziemke and I launched the Crisis Mappers Network in 2009, we were just at the beginning of a new experiment. The field has come a long way since and one of the consequences of rapid innovation is obviously the lack of any how-to-guide or manual. These certainly need to be written and are being written.

So, instead of  stating the obvious, repeating the obvious, calling for the obvious and making embarrassing factual errors in a public article (which, by the way, is also quite revealing of the underlying motives), perhaps the authors could actually have done some research and emailed the Crisis Mappers Google Group. Two of the authors also have my email address; one even has my private phone number; oh, and they could also have DM’d me on Twitter like they just did.

Crowdsourcing Satellite Imagery Analysis for UNHCR-Somalia: Latest Results


253,711

That is the total number of tags created by 168 volunteers after processing 3,909 satellite images in just five days. A quarter of a million tags in 120 hours; that’s more than 2,000 tags per hour. Wow. As mentioned in this earlier blog post, volunteers specifically tagged three different types of informal shelters to provide UNHCR with an estimate of the IDP population in the Afgooye Corridor. So what happens now?

Our colleagues at Tomnod are going to use their CrowdRank algorithm to triangulate the data. About 85% of 3,000+ images were analyzed by at least 3 volunteers. So the CrowdRank algorithm will determine which tags had the most consensus across volunteers. This built-in quality control mechanism is a distinct advantage of using micro-tasking platforms like Tomnod. The tags with the most consensus will then be pushed to a dedicated UNHCR Ushahidi platform for further analysis. This project represents an applied research & development initiative. In short, we certainly don’t have all the answers. This next phase is where the assessment and analysis begins.

In the meantime, I’ve been in touch with the EC’s Joint Research Center about running their automated shelter detection algorithm on the same set of satellite imagery. The purpose is to compare those results with the crowdsourced tags in order to improve both methodologies. Clearly, none of this would be possible without the imagery and  invaluable support from our colleagues at DigitalGlobe, so huge thanks to them.

And of course, there would be no project at all were it not for our incredible volunteers, the best “Mapsters” on the planet. Indeed, none of those 200,000+ tags would exist were it not for the combined effort between the Standby Volunteer Task Force (SBTF) and students from the American Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing (ASPRS); Columbia University’s New Media Task Force (NMTF) who were joined by students from the New School; the Geography Departments at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the University of Georgia, and George Mason University, and many other volunteers including humanitarian professionals from the United Nations and beyond.

As many already know, my colleague Shadrock Roberts played a pivotal role in this project. Shadrock is my fellow co-lead on the SBTF Satellite Team and he took the important initiative to draft the feature-key and rule-sets for this mission. He also answered numerous questions from many volunteers throughout past five days. Thank you, Shadrock!

It appears that word about this innovative project has gotten back to UNHCR’s Deputy High Commissioner, Professor Alexander Aleinikoff. Shadrock and I have just been invited to meet with him in Geneva on Monday, just before the 2011 International Conference of Crisis Mappers (ICCM 2011) kicks off. We’ll be sure to share with him how incredible this volunteer network is and we’ll definitely let all volunteers know how the meeting goes. Thanks again for being the best Mapsters around!

 

Crowdsourcing Satellite Imagery Tagging to Support UNHCR in Somalia

The Standby Volunteer Task Force (SBTF) recently launched a new team called the Satellite Imagery Team. This team has been activated twice within the past few months. The first was to carry out this trial run in Somalia and the second was in partnership with AI-USA for this human rights project in Syria. We’re now back in Somalia thanks to a new and promising partnership with UNHCR, DigitalGlobe, Tomnod, SBTF and Ushahidi.

The purpose of this joint project is to crowdsource the geolocation of shelters in Somalia’s Afgooye corridor. This resembles our first trial run initiative only this time we have developed formal and more specialized rule-set and feature-key in direct collaboration with our colleagues at UNHCR. As noted in this document, “Because access to the ground is difficult in Somalia, it is hard to know how many people, exactly, are affected and in what areas. By using satellite imagery to identify different types of housing/shelters, etc., we can make a better and more rapid population estimate of the number of people that live in these shelters. These estimates are important for logistics and planning purposes but are also important for understanding how the displaced population is moving and changing over time.” Hence the purpose of this project.

We’ll be tagging three different types of shelters: (1) Large permanent structures; (2) Temporary structures with a metal roof; and (3) Temporary shelters without a metal roof. Each of these shelter types is described in more details in the rule-set along with real satellite imagery examples—the feature key. The rule-set describes the shape, color, tone and clustering of the different shelter types. As per previous SBTF Satellite Team deployments, we will be using Tomnod’s excellent microtasking platform for satellite imagery analysis.

Over 100 members of the SBTF have joined the Satellite Team to support this project. One member of this team, Jamon, is an associate lecturer in the Geography Department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He teaches on a broad array of technologies and applications of Geographic Information Science, including GPS and  satellite imagery analysis. He got in touch today to propose offering this project for class credit to his 36 undergraduate students who he will supervise during the exercise.

In addition, my colleague and fellow Satellite Team coordinator at the SBTF, has recruited many graduate students who are members of the American Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing (ASPRS) to join the SBTF team on this project. The experience that these students bring to the team will be invaluable. Shadrock has also played a pivotal role in making this project happen: thanks to his extensive expertise in remote sensing and satellite imagery, he took the lead in developing the rule-set and feature-key in collaboration with UNHCR.

The project officially launches this Friday. The triangulated results will be pushed to a dedicated UNHCR Ushahidi map for review. This will allow UNCHR to add additional contextual data to the maps for further analysis. We also hope that our colleagues at the European Commission’s Joint Research Center (JRC) will run their automated shelter tagging algorithm on the satellite imagery for comparative analysis purposes. This will help us better understand the strengths and shortcomings of both approaches and more importantly provide us with insights on how to best improve each individually and in combination.

Combining Crowdsourced Satellite Imagery Analysis with Crisis Reporting: An Update on Syria

Members of the the Standby Volunteer Task Force (SBTF) Satellite Team are currently tagging the location of hundreds of Syrian tanks and other heavy mili-tary equipment on the Tomnod micro-tasking platform using very recent high-resolution satellite imagery provided by Digital Globe.

We’re focusing our efforts on the following three key cities in Syria as per the request of Amnesty International USA’s (AI-USA) Science for Human Rights Program.

For more background information on the project, please see the following links:

To recap, the purpose of this experimental pilot project is to determine whether satellite imagery analysis can be crowdsourced and triangulated to provide data that might help AI-USA corroborate numerous reports of human rights abuses they have been collecting from a multitude of other sources over the past few months. The point is to use the satellite tagging in combination with other data, not in isolation.
 
To this end, I’ve recommended that we take it one step further. The Syria Tracker Crowdmap has been operations for months. Why not launch an Ushahidiplatform that combines the triangulated features from the crowdsourced satellite imagery analysis with crowdsourced crisis reports from multiple sources?

The satellite imagery analyzed by the SBTF was taken in early September. We could grab the August and September crisis data from Syria Tracker and turn the satellite imagery analysis data into layers. For example, the “Military tag” which includes large military equipment like tanks and artillery could be uploaded to Ushahidi as a KML file. This would allow AI-USA and others to cross-reference their own reports, with those on Syria Tracker and then also place that analysis into context vis-a-vis the location of military equipment, large crowds and check-points over the same time period.

The advantage of adding these layers to an Ushahidi platform is that they could be updated and compared over time. For example, we could compare the location of Syrian tanks versus on-the-ground reports of shelling for the month of August, September, October, etc. Perhaps we could even track the repositioning of  some military equipment if we repeated this crowdsourcing initiative more frequently. Incidentally, President Eisenhower proposed this idea to the UN during the Cold War, see here.

In any case, this initiative is still very much experimental and there’s lots to learn. The SBTF Tech Team headed by Nigel McNie is looking to make the above integration happen, which I’m super excited about. I’d love to see closer integration with satellite imagery analysis data in future Ushahidi deployments that crowdsource crisis reporting from the field. Incidentally, we could scale this feature tagging approach to include hundreds if not thousands of volunteers.

In other news, my SBTF colleague Shadrock Roberts and I had a very positive conference call with UNHCR this week. The SBTF will be partnering with HCR on an official project to tag the location of informal shelters in the Afgooye corridor in the near future. Unlike our trial run from several weeks ago, we will have a far more developed and detailed rule-set & feature-key thanks to some very useful information that our colleagues at HCR have just shared with us. We’ll be adding the triangulated features from the imagery analysis to a dedicated UNHCR Ushahidi platform. We hope to run this project in October and possibly again in January so HCR can do some simple change detection using Ushahidi.

In parallel, we’re hoping to partner with the Joint Research Center (JRC), which has developed automated methods for shelter detection. Comparing crowdsourced feature tagging with an automated approach would provide yet more information to UNHCR to corroborate their assessments.

Help Crowdsource Satellite Imagery Analysis for Syria: Building a Library of Evidence

Update: Project featured on UK Guardian Blog! Also, for the latest on the project, please see this blog post.

This blog post follows from this previous one: “Syria – Crowdsourcing Satellite Imagery Analysis to Identify Mass Human Rights Violations.” As part of the first phase of this project, we are building a library of satellite images for features we want to tag using crowdsourcing.

In particular, we are looking to identify the following evidence using high-resolution satellite imagery:

  • Large military equipment
  • Large crowds
  • Checkpoints
The idea is to provide volunteers the Standby Volunteer Task Force (SBTF) Satellite Team with as much of road map as possible so they know exactly what they’re looking for in the  satellite imagery they’ll be tagging using the Tomnod system:

Here are some of the pictures we’ve been able to identify thanks to the help of my good colleague Christopher Albon:
I’ve placed these and other examples in this Google Doc which is open for comment. We need your help to provide us with other imagery depicting heavy Syrian military equipment, large crowds and checkpoints. Please provide links and screenshots of such imagery in this open and editable Google Doc.Here are some of the links that Chris already sent us for the above imagery:

 

Syria: Crowdsourcing Satellite Imagery Analysis to Identify Mass Human Rights Violations

Update: See this blog post for the latest. Also, our project was just featured on the UK Guardian Blog!

What if we crowdsourced satellite imagery analysis of key cities in Syria to identify evidence of mass human rights violations? This is precisely the question that my colleagues at Amnesty International USA’s Science for Human Rights Program asked me following this pilot project I coordinated for Somalia. AI-USA has done similar work in the past with their Eyes on Darfur project, which I blogged about here in 2008. But using micro-tasking with backend triangulation to crowdsource the analysis of high resolution satellite imagery for human rights purposes is definitely breaking new ground.

A staggering amount of new satellite imagery is produced every day; millions of square kilometers’ worth according to one knowledgeable colleague. This is a big data problem that needs mass human intervention until the software can catch up. I recently spoke with Professor Ryan Engstrom, the Director of the Spatial Analysis Lab at George Washington University, and he confirmed that automated algorithms for satellite imagery analysis still have a long, long way to go. So the answer for now has to be human-driven analysis.

But professional satellite imagery experts who have plenty of time to volunteer their skills are far and few between. The Satellite Sentinel Project (SSP), which I blogged about here, is composed of a very small team and a few interns. Their focus is limited to the Sudan and they are understandably very busy. My colleagues at AI-USA analyze satellite imagery for several conflicts, but this takes them far longer than they’d like and their small team is still constrained given the number of conflicts and vast amounts of imagery that could be analyzed. This explains why they’re interested in crowdsourcing.

Indeed, crowdsourcing imagery analysis has proven to be a workable solution in several other projects & sectors. The “crowd” can indeed scan and tag vast volumes of satellite imagery data when that imagery is “sliced and diced” for micro-tasking. This is what we did for the Somalia pilot project thanks to the Tomnod platform and the imagery provided by Digital Globe. The yellow triangles below denote the “sliced images” that individual volunteers from the Standby Task Force (SBTF) analyzed and tagged one at a time.

We plan do the same with high resolution satellite imagery of three key cities in Syria selected by the AI-USA team. The specific features we will look for and tag include: “Burnt and/or darkened building features,” “Roofs absent,” “Blocks on access roads,” “Military equipment in residential areas,” “Equipment/persons on top of buildings indicating potential sniper positions,” “Shelters composed of different materials than surrounding structures,” etc. SBTF volunteers will be provided with examples of what these features look like from a bird’s eye view and from ground level.

Like the Somalia project, only when a feature—say a missing roof—is tagged identically  by at least 3 volunteers will that location be sent to the AI-USA team for review. In addition, if volunteers are unsure about a particular feature they’re looking at, they’ll take a screenshot of said feature and share it on a dedicated Google Doc for the AI-USA team and other satellite imagery experts from the SBTF team to review. This feedback mechanism is key to ensure accurate tagging and inter-coder reliability. In addition, the screenshots shared will be used to build a larger library of features, i.e., what a missing roof looks like as well military equipment in residential areas, road blocks, etc. Volunteers will also be in touch with the AI-USA team via a dedicated Skype chat.

There will no doubt be a learning curve, but the sooner we climb that learning curve the better. Democratizing satellite imagery analysis is no easy task and one or two individuals have opined that what we’re trying to do can’t be done. That may be, but we won’t know unless we try. This is how innovation happens. We can hypothesize and talk all we want, but concrete results are what ultimately matters. And results are what can help us climb that learning curve. My hope, of course, is that democratizing satellite imagery analysis enables AI-USA to strengthen their advocacy campaigns and makes it harder for perpetrators to commit mass human rights violations.

SBTF volunteers will be carrying out the pilot project this month in collaboration with AI-USA, Tomnod and Digital Globe. How and when the results are shared publicly will be up to the AI-USA team as this will depend on what exactly is found. In the meantime, a big thanks to Digital Globe, Tomnod and SBTF volunteers for supporting the AI-USA team on this initiative.

If you’re interested in reading more about satellite imagery analysis, the following blog posts may also be of interest:

• Geo-Spatial Technologies for Human Rights
• Tracking Genocide by Remote Sensing
• Human Rights 2.0: Eyes on Darfur
• GIS Technology for Genocide Prevention
• Geo-Spatial Analysis for Global Security
• US Calls for UN Aerial Surveillance to Detect Preparations for Attacks
• Will Using ‘Live’ Satellite Imagery to Prevent War in the Sudan Actually Work?
• Satellite Imagery Analysis of Kenya’s Election Violence: Crisis Mapping by Fire
• Crisis Mapping Uganda: Combining Narratives and GIS to Study Genocide
• Crowdsourcing Satellite Imagery Analysis for Somalia: Results of Trial Run
• Genghis Khan, Borneo & Galaxies: Crowdsourcing Satellite Imagery Analysis
• OpenStreetMap’s New Micro-Tasking Platform for Satellite Imagery Tracing




OpenStreetMap’s New Micro-Tasking Platform for Satellite Imagery Tracing

The Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team’s (HOT) response to Haiti remains one of the most remarkable examples of what’s possible when volunteers, open source software and open data intersect. When the 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck on January 12th, 2010, the Google Map of downtown Port-au-Prince was simply too incomplete to be used for humanitarian response. Within days, however, several hundred volunteers from the OpenStreetMap (OSM) commu-nity used satellite imagery to trace roads, shelters and other important features to create the most detailed map of Haiti ever made.

OpenStreetMap – Project Haiti from ItoWorld on Vimeo.

The video animation above shows just how spectacular this initiative was. More than 1.4 million edits were made to the map during the first month following the earthquake. These individual edits are highlighted as bright flashes of light in the video. This detailed map went a long way to supporting the humanitarian community’s response in Haiti. In addition, the map enabled my colleagues and I at The Fletcher School to geo-locate reports from crowdsourced text messages from Mission 4636 on the Ushahidi Haiti Map.

HOT’s response was truly remarkable. They created wiki’s to facilitate mass collaboration such as this page on “What needs to be mapped?” They also used this “OSM Matrix” to depict which areas required more mapping:

The purpose of OSM’s new micro-tasking platform is to streamline mass and rapid collaboration on future satellite image tracing projects. I recently reached out to HOT’s Kate Chapman and Nicolas Chavent to get an overview of their new platform. After logging in using my OSM username and password, I can click through a list of various on-going projects. The one below relates to a very neat HOT project in Indonesia. As you can tell, the region that needs to be mapped on the right-hand side of the screen is divided into a grid.

After I click on “Take a task randomly”, the screen below appears, pointing me to one specific cell in the grid above. I then have the option of opening and editing this cell within JOSM, the standard interface for editing OpenStreetMap. I would then trace all roads and buildings in my square and submit the edit. (I was excited to also see a link to WalkingPapers which allows you to print out and annotate that cell using pen & paper and then digitize the result for import back into OSM).

There’s no doubt that this new Tasking Server will go a long way to coordinate and streamline future live tracing efforts such as for Somalia. For now, the team is mapping Somalia’s road network using their wiki approach. In the future, I hope that the platform will also enable basic feature tagging and back-end triangulation for quality assurance purposes—much like Tomnod. In the meantime, however, it’s important to note that OSM is far more than just a global open source map. OSM’s open data advocacy is imperative for disaster preparedness and response: open data saves lives.

Crowdsourcing Satellite Imagery Analysis for Somalia: Results of Trial Run

We’ve just completed our very first trial run of the Standby Task Volunteer Force (SBTF) Satellite Team. As mentioned in this blog post last week, the UN approached us a couple weeks ago to explore whether basic satellite imagery analysis for Somalia could be crowdsourced using a distributed mechanical turk approach. I had actually floated the idea in this blog post during the floods in Pakistan a year earlier. In any case, a colleague at Digital Globe (DG) read my post on Somalia and said: “Lets do it.”

So I reached out to Luke Barrington at Tomnod to set up distributed micro-tasking platform for Somalia. To learn more about Tomond’s neat technology, see this previous blog post. Within just a few days we had high resolution satellite imagery from DG and a dedicated crowdsourcing platform for imagery analysis, courtesy of Tomnod . All that was missing were some willing and able “mapsters” from the SBTF to tag the location of shelters in this imagery. So I sent out an email to the group and some 50 mapsters signed up within 48 hours. We ran our pilot from August 26th to August 30th. The idea here was to see what would go wrong (and right!) and thus learn as much as we could before doing this for real in the coming weeks.

It is worth emphasizing that the purpose of this trial run (and entire exercise) is not to replicate the kind of advanced and highly-skilled satellite imagery analysis that professionals already carry out.  This is not just about Somalia over the next few weeks and months. This is about Libya, Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, North Korea, Zimbabwe, Burma, etc. Professional satellite imagery experts who have plenty of time to volunteer their skills are far and few between. Meanwhile, a staggering amount of new satellite imagery is produced  every day; millions of square kilometers’ worth according to one knowledgeable colleague.

This is a big data problem that needs mass human intervention until the software can catch up. Moreover, crowdsourcing has proven to be a workable solution in many other projects and sectors. The “crowd” can indeed scan vast volumes of satellite imagery data and tag features of interest. A number of these crowds-ourcing platforms also have built-in quality assurance mechanisms that take into account the reliability of the taggers and tags. Tomnod’s CrowdRank algorithm, for example, only validates imagery analysis if a certain number of users have tagged the same image in exactly the same way. In our case, only shelters that get tagged identically by three SBTF mapsters get their locations sent to experts for review. The point here is not to replace the experts but to take some of the easier (but time-consuming) tasks off their shoulders so they can focus on applying their skill set to the harder stuff vis-a-vis imagery interpretation and analysis.

The purpose of this initial trial run was simply to give SBTF mapsters the chance to test drive the Tomnod platform and to provide feeback both on the technology and the work flows we put together. They were asked to tag a specific type of shelter in the imagery they received via the web-based Tomnod platform:

There’s much that we would do differently in the future but that was exactly the point of the trial run. We had hoped to receive a “crash course” in satellite imagery analysis from the Satellite Sentinel Project (SSP) team but our colleagues had hardly slept in days because of some very important analysis they were doing on the Sudan. So we did the best we could on our own. We do have several satellite imagery experts on the SBTF team though, so their input throughout the process was very helpful.

Our entire work flow along with comments and feedback on the trial run is available in this open and editable Google Doc. You’ll note the pages (and pages) of comments, questions and answers. This is gold and the entire point of the trial run. We definitely welcome additional feedback on our approach from anyone with experience in satellite imagery interpretation and analysis.

The result? SBTF mapsters analyzed a whopping 3,700+ individual images and tagged more than 9,400 shelters in the green-shaded area below. Known as the “Afgooye corridor,” this area marks the road between Mogadishu and Afgooye which, due to displacement from war and famine in the past year, has become one of the largest urban areas in Somalia. [Note, all screen shots come from Tomnod].

Last year, UNHCR used “satellite imaging both to estimate how many people are living there, and to give the corridor a concrete reality. The images of the camps have led the UN’s refugee agency to estimate that the number of people living in the Afgooye Corridor is a staggering 410,000. Previous estimates, in September 2009, had put the number at 366,000″ (1).

The yellow rectangles depict the 3,700+ individual images that SBTF volunteers individually analyzed for shelters: And here’s the output of 3 days’ worth of shelter tagging, 9,400+ tags:

Thanks to Tomnod’s CrowdRank algorithm, we were able to analyze consensus between mapsters and pull out the triangulated shelter locations. In total, we get 1,423 confirmed locations for the types of shelters described in our work flows. A first cursory glance at a handful (“random sample”) of these confirmed locations indicate they are spot on. As a next step, we could crowdsource (or SBTF-source, rather) the analysis of just these 1,423 images to triple check consensus. Incidentally, these 1,423 locations could easily be added to Google Earth or a password-protected Ushahidi map.

We’ve learned a lot during this trial run and Luke got really good feedback on how to improve their platform moving forward. The data collected should also help us provide targeted feedback to SBTF mapsters in the coming days so they can further refine their skills. On my end, I should have been a lot more specific and detailed on exactly what types of shelters qualified for tagging. As the Q&A section on the Google Doc shows, many mapsters weren’t exactly sure at first because my original guidelines were simply too vague. So moving forward, it’s clear that we’ll need a far more detailed “code book” with many more examples of the features to look for along with features that do not qualify. A colleague of mine suggested that we set up an interactive, online quiz that takes volunteers through a series of examples of what to tag and not to tag. Only when a volunteer answers all questions correctly do they move on to live tagging. I have no doubt whatsoever that this would significantly increase consensus in subsequent imagery analysis.

Please note: the analysis carried out in this trial run is not for humanitarian organizations or to improve situational awareness, it is simply for testing purposes only. The point was to try something new and in the process work out the kinks so when the UN is ready to provide us with official dedicated tasks we don’t have to scramble and climb the steep learning curve there and then.

In related news, the Humanitarian Open Street Map Team (HOT) provided SBTF mapsters with an introductory course on the OSM platform this past weekend. The HOT team has been working hard since the response to Haiti to develop an OSM Tasking Server that would allow them to micro-task the tracing of satellite imagery. They demo’d the platform to me last week and I’m very excited about this new tool in the OSM ecosystem. As soon as the system is ready for prime time, I’ll get access to the backend again and will write up a blog post specifically on the Tasking Server.