Can This Unique Conservation Drone Be Used for Disaster Response?

I had the distinct honor of both keynoting & judging the outstanding Drones for Good Challenge in Dubai last week (see my live reports). Teams from all around the world came to the UAE to compete. Some of the drones that took to the sky were truly remarkable. The winner of the National Prize, for example, was the Wadi Drone built by the NYU Abu Dhabi Team who took home the one million Dirham reward ($273,000). While designed to support important conservation efforts in the region, the novel solution afforded by this innovative drone could also be used to support humanitarian relief efforts.

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The ultralight Wadi Drone can fly for 1.5 hours across some 40km of the Wadi Wurayah National Park, which is the “UAE’s first mountain protected national park. The drone collects data from 120 camera traps that capture images of wild animals at the park” (1). Thanks to Wadi Drone, rangers no longer have to hike through the park (often facing temperatures upwards of 45 degrees Celsius) to manually collect the SD cards from each of the 120 cameras scattered across the area. Instead, the drone simply flies over the cameras and uploads the pictures directly to an onboard memory card. To date, these cameras have enabled park rangers and conservationists to identify more than 800 specifies, such as foxes, wildcats and lynxes.

What if we used the Wadi Drone to collect relevant data from humanitarian base camps in the field during disasters? Connectivity and bandwidth can often be an issue in these situations. Could we use a version of the Wadi Drone to collect data on damage assessments, resulting needs, etc., along with pictures directly from the field? Laptops and/or smartphones could simply be retrofitted to push relevant data to the drone flying overhead, which would then return to HQ where (hopefully) a more solid Wifi or 3G/4G connection is available.

Am I completely off here, or is this something worth exploring? I hope my more seasoned humanitarian colleagues will chime with some of their thoughts. Is there a role for data-carrying drones in the humanitarian space? Keep in mind that drones are not immune to Moore’s Law.

Remote Sensing Satellites and the Regulation of Violence in Areas of Limited Statehood

In 1985, American intelligence analyst Samuel Loring Morison was charged with espionage after leaking this satellite image of a Soviet shipyard:

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And here’s a satellite image of the same shipyard today, free & publicly available via Google Earth:

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Thus begins colleague Steven Livingston’s intriguing new study entitled Remote Sensing Satellites and the Regulation of Violence in Areas of Limited Statehood. “These two images illustrate the extraordinary changes in remote sensing that have occurred since 2000, the year the first high-resolution, commercially owned and operated satellite images became available. Images that were once shrouded in state secrecy are now available to anyone possessing a computer and internet connection, sometimes even at no cost.”

Steven “considers the implications of this development for governance in areas of limited statehood.” In other words, he “explores digitally enabled collective action in areas of limited statehood” in order to answer the following question: how might remote sensing “strengthen the efforts to hold those responsible for egregious acts of violence against civil populations to greater account”?

Areas of Limited Statehood

An area of limited statehood is a “place, policy arena, or period of time when the governance capacity of the state is unrealized or faltering.” To this end, “Governance can be defined as initiatives intended to provide public goods and to create and enforce binding rules.” I find it fascinating that Steven treats “governance as an analog to collective action, a term more common to political economics.” Using the lens of limited statehood also “disentangles governance from government (or the state). This is especially important to the discussion of remote sensing satellites and their role in mitigating some of the harsher effects of limited statehood.”

In sum, “rather than a dichotomous variable, as references to failed states imply, state governance capacity is more accurately conceptualized as running along a continuum: from failed states at one end to fully consolidated states at the other.” To this end, “What might appear to be a fully consolidated state according to gross indicators might in fact be a quite limited state according to sectorial, social or even spatial grounds.” This is also true of the Global North. Take natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina, for example. Disasters can, and do, “degrade the governance capacity of a state in the affected region.”

Now, the term “limited governance” does not imply the total lack of governance. “Governance might instead come from alternative sources,” writes Steven, such as NGOs, clans and even gangs. “Most often, governance is provided by a mix of modalities […],” which is “particularly important when considering the role of technology as a sort of governance force multiplier.” Evidently, “Leveraging technology lowers the organizational burden historically associated with the provisioning of public goods. By lowering communication and collaboration costs, information and communication technology facilitates organizing without formal organizations, such as states.” To this end, “Rather than building organizations to achieve a public good, digital technologies are used to organize collective actions intended to provide a public good, even in the absence of the state. It involves a shift from a noun (organizations) to a verb (organizing).”

Remote Sensing Satellites

Some covert satellites are hard to keep out of the public eye. “The low-earth orbit and size of government satellites make them fairly easy to spot, a fact that has created a hobby: satellite tracking.” These hobbyists are able to track govern-ment satellites and to calculate their orbits; thus deducing certain features and even purpose of said satellites. What is less well known, however, are the “capabilities of the sensors or camera carried onboard.”

The three important metrics associated with remote sensing satellites are spatial resolution, spectral resolution and temporal resolution. Please see Steven’s study (pages 12-14) for a detailed description of each. “In short, ‘seeing’ involves much more data than is typically associated in popular imagination with satellite images.” Furthermore, “Spatial resolution alone may not matter as much as other technical characteristics. What is analytically possible with 30-centimeter resolution imagery may not outweigh what can be accomplished with a one-meter spatial resolution satellite with a high temporal resolution.” (Steven also provides an informative summary on the emergence of the commercial remote sensing sector including micro-satellites in pages 14-18).

The Regulation of Violence

Can non-state actors use ICTs to “alter the behavior of state actors who have or are using force […] to violate broadly recognized norms”? Clearly one element of this question relates to the possibility of verifying such abuse (although this in no way implies that state behaviors will change as a consequence). “Where the state is too weak [or unwilling] to hold its own security forces to account and to monitor, investigate, and verify the nature of their conduct, nonstate actors fill at least some of the void. Nonstate actors offer a functional equivalency to a consolidated state’s oversight functions.”

Steven highlights a number of projects that seek to use satellite imagery for the above stated purposes. These include projects by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, AAAS and the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative’s (HHI) Satellite Sentinel Project. These projects demonstrate that monitoring & verifying state-sanctioned violence is certainly feasible via satellite imagery. I noted as much here and here back in 2008. And I’ve had several conversations over the years with colleagues at Amnesty, AAAS and the Sentinel Project on the impact of their work on state behavior. There are reasons to be optimistic even if many (most?) of these reasons cannot be made public.

There are also reasons to be concerned as per recent conversations I’ve had with Harvard’s Sentinel Project. The latter readily admit that behavior change in no way implies that said change is a positive one, i.e., the cessation of violence. States who learn of projects that use remote sensing satellites to document the mass atrocities they are committing (or complicit in) may accelerate their slaughter and/or change strategies by taking more covert measures.

There is of course the possibility of positive behavior change; one in which “Transnational Advocacy Networks” are able to “mobilize information strategic-ally to help create new issues and categories and to persuade, pressure, and gain leverage over much more powerful organizations and governments […],” who subsequently change their behaviors to align with international norms and practices. While fraught with the conundrums of “proving” direct causality, the conversations I’ve had with some of the leading advocacy networks engaged in these networks leave me hopeful.

In conclusion

Satellite imagery—once the sole purview of intelligence agencies—is increasingly accessible to these advocacy networks who can use said imagery to map unregulated state violence. To this end, “States no longer enjoy a mono-poly on the synoptic view of earth from space. […] Nonstate actors, from corporations to nongovernmental organizations and community groups now have access to the means of ordering a disorderly world on their own terms.”

The extent to which this loss of monopoly is positively affecting state behavior is unclear (or not fully public). Either way, and while obvious, transparency in no way implies accountability. Documenting state atrocities does not automatically end or prevent them—a point clearly lost on a number of conflict early warning “experts” who overlooked this issue in the 1990s and 2000s. Prevention is political; and political will is not an icon on the computer screen that one can turn on with a double-click of the mouse.

In addition to the above, Steven and I have also been exploring the question of UAVs within the context of limited statehood and the regulation of violence for a future book we’re hoping to co-author. While NGOs and community groups are in no position to operate or own a satellite (typical price tag is $300 million), they can absolutely own and operate a $500 UAV. Just in the past few months, I’ve had 3 major human rights organization contact me for guidance on the use of UAVs for human rights monitoring. How all this eventually plays out will hopefully feature in our future book.

Aerial Imagery Analysis: Combining Crowdsourcing and Artificial Intelligence

MicroMappers combines crowdsourcing and artificial intelligence to make sense of “Big Data” for Social Good. Why artificial intelligence (AI)? Because regular crowdsourcing alone is no match for Big Data. The MicroMappers platform can already be used to crowdsource the search for relevant tweets as well as pictures, videos, text messages, aerial imagery and soon satellite imagery. The next step is therefore to add artificial intelligence to this crowdsourced filtering platform. We have already done this with tweets and SMS. So we’re now turning our attention to aerial and satellite imagery.

Our very first deployment of MicroMappers for aerial imagery analysis was in Africa for this wildlife protection project. We crowdsourced the search for wild animals in partnership with rangers from the Kuzikus Wildlife Reserve based in Namibia. We were very pleased with the results, and so were the rangers. As one of them noted: “I am impressed with the results. There are at times when the crowd found animals that I had missed!” We were also pleased that our efforts caught the attention of CNN. As noted in that CNN report, our plan for this pilot was to use crowdsourcing to find the wildlife and to then combine the results with artificial intelligence to develop a set of algorithms that can automatically find wild animals in the future.

To do this, we partnered with a wonderful team of graduate students at EPFL, the well known polytechnique in Lausanne, Switzerland. While these students were pressed for time due to a number of deadlines, they were nevertheless able to deliver some interesting results. Their applied, computer vision research is particularly useful given our ultimate aim: to create an algorithm that can learn to detect features of interest in aerial and satellite imagery in near real-time (as we’re interested in applying this to disaster response and other time-sensitive events). For now, however, we need to walk before we can run. This means carrying out the tasks of crowdsourcing and artificial intelligence in two (not-yet-integrated) steps.

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As the EPFL students rightly note in their preliminary study, the use of thermal imaging (heat detection) to automatically identify wildlife in the bush is some-what problematic since “the temperature difference between animals and ground is much lower in savannah […].” This explains why the research team used the results of our crowdsourcing efforts instead. More specifically, they focused on automatically detecting the shadows of gazelles and ostriches by using an object based support vector machine (SVM). The whole process is summarized below.

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The above method produces results like the one below (click to enlarge). The circles represents the objects used to train the machine learning classifier. The discerning reader will note that the algorithm has correctly identified all the gazelles save for one instance in which two gazelles were standing close together were identified as one gazelle. But no other objects were mislabeled as a gazelle. In other words, EPFL’s gazelle algorithm is very accurate. “Hence the classifier could be used to reduce the number of objects to assess manually and make the search for gazelles faster.” Ostriches, on the other hand, proved more difficult to automatically detect. But the students are convinced that this could be improved if they had more time.

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In conclusion, more work certainly needs to be done, but I am pleased by these preliminary and encouraging results. In addition, the students at EPFL kindly shared some concrete features that we can implement on the MicroMappers side to improve the crowdsourced results for the purposes of developing automated algorithms in the future. So a big thank you to Briant, Millet and Rey for taking the time to carry out the above research. My team and I at QCRI very much look forward to continuing our collaboration with them and colleagues at EPFL.

In the meantime, more on all this in my new bookDigital Humanitarians: How Big Data is Changing the Face of Humanitarian Response, which has already been endorsed by faculty at Harvard, MIT, Stanford, Oxford, etc; and by experts at the UN, World Bank, Red Cross, Twitter, etc.

Drones for Good Make History in Dubai

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We’ve just wrapped up an incredible week at the first ever Drones for Good Challenge. Not only was this the first event of its kind in Dubai, it was the first ever such event in the world. I was thus hugely honored to both keynote this outstanding celebration of technologies for good and to also serve on the judging panel for the finalists. Some 800 teams from nearly 60 countries around the world submitted their “Drones for Good” ideas. Only 5 made it to the very final round today. I lived-tweeted the event and curated the  list of tweets below as a summary (all original tweets available here). My head is still spinning from all the possibilities, ideas and the incredible innovators that I had the good fortune to meet in person. I’ll absolutely be following up with a number of them for several Humanitarian UAV projects I am working on. In the meantime, huge thanks to the organizing event team for their very kind invitation and friendship!

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I’m excited to explore the above possibility with a number of key individuals who I met and spoke with whilst in Dubai.

Indigenous Community in Guyana Builds Drones for Good

If you find yourself in the middle of the jungle somewhere in South America and come across this indigenous community, then you’re probably in Guyana:

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I’ve been an avid fan of Digital Democracy since 2008 and even had the honor of serving on their Advisory Board during the early days. So I was thrilled when friends Emily Jacobi and Gregor MacLennan told me they were interested in using drones/UAVs for their projects. Six months later, the pictures above explain my excitement.

When Gregor traveled down to Guyana a few months ago, he didn’t bring a drone; he simply brought a bunch of parts and glue, lots of glue. “We didn’t want to just fly into Guyana and fly a drone over the local villages,” writes Gregor. “Our interest was whether this technology could be something that can be used and controlled by the commumunities themselves, and become a tool of em-powerment for helping them have more of a say in their own future. We wanted the Wapichana to be able to repair it themselves, fly it themselves, and process the images to use for their own means.” Oh, and by the way, Gregor had never built a drone before.

And that’s the beauty of Digital Democracy’s approach: co-learning, co-creation and co-experimentation. Moreover, Emily & Gregor didn’t turn to drones simply because it’s the latest fad. They tried using satellite imagery to document illegal logging and deforestation in Guyana but the resolution of said imagery was limited. So they figured drones might do the trick instead. Could this technology be a “tool for positive change in the hands of indigenous communities?” Could local communities in Guyana use flying robots to create maps and thus monitor illegal logging and deforestation?

Building the drone was truly a community effort. “When the motor mount broke, the team scoured the village for different types of plastic, and fashioned a new mount from an old beer crate. The drone was no longer a foreign, mysterious piece of technology, but something they owned, built, & therefore understood.” And that is what it’s all about. Check out the neat video above to see the team in action and the 3D results below based on the data collected.

So what’s next? The Wapichana UAV Team have demonstrated “that a remote indigenous community with no prior engineering experience can build and fly a complex drone and make a detailed map.” The team has already been discussing the multiple ways they want to use their UAVs: “to monitor deforestation of bush islands over time; creating high-resolution maps of villages to use as a basis for resource-management discussions; and flying over logging camps in the forest to document illegal deforestation.” You can make sure this happens by donating to the cause (like I just did). That way, Gregor can continue the training and get “the whole team comfortable with flying and to streamline the process from mission planning to processing imagery.”


Meanwhile, back in Congo-Brazzaville…

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… another team was learning about Drones for Good.

Drones for Good: Technology, Social Movements and The State

Discussions surrounding use of drones, or UAVs, have typically “centered on their use by governments, often for the purpose of surveillance and warfare.” But as colleague Austin Choi-Fitzpatrick rightly notes in his new study, “[t]his focus on the state’s use obscures the opportunity for civil society actors, including social movements, to make use of these technologies.” Austin thus seeks to high-light civil society uses, “ranging from art to digital disruption.” The latter is what I am particularly interested given my previous writings on the use of non-lethal UAVs for civil resistance and for peacebuilding.

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When I began writing my doctoral dissertation some 7 years ago, scholars and activists were particularly interested in measuring the impact of mobile phones on social movements and civil resistance. Today, civil society is also turning to UAVs as evidenced during the recent protests in Hong Kong, Turkey, Poland, Ukraine and Ferguson. “This innovation represents a technological shift in scale for citizen journalists, human rights advocates, and social movement actors,” writes Austin. “As such, it requires a sophisticated assessment of the ethical issues and policy terrain surrounding its use.”

The most disruptive aspect of today’s small, personal UAVs, “is the fundamental break between the camera and the street level. […] The most memorable photographs of violent conflict, social protest and natural disasters have almost all been taken by a person present on the ground. […] UAVs relocate the boundary between what is public and what is private, because camera-equipped UAVs more the line of sight from the street to the air. This simple shift effectively pushes public space from the sidewalk to the stairwell, courtyard, rooftop, and so forth.” As Austin rightly concludes, “‘Open air’ and ‘free space’ are no longer as ‘open’ or ‘free’ as they once were. They are instead now occupied or vulnerable to occupation.” The use of the words “occupied” and “occupation” here is indeed intentional. Austin also makes another crucial point: UAVs  represent a type of innovation that is a “hallmark of asymmetrical warfare.”

One of my favorite books, Wasp, illustrates this asymmetry perfectly; as does the Syria Air Lift project. The latter seeks to fly swarms of UAVs to deliver aid to civilians caught in conflict zones. Little surprise, then, that the State is clamping down on civil society uses of UAVs. At times, they even shoot the UAVs down, as evidenced when “police in Istanbul shot down a camera-equipped UAV while it was monitoring large anti-government protests […].” Authorities would not be shooting down UAVs if they did not pose some form of (real or imagined) threat. And even when they pose no direct threat, UAVs are clearly annoying enough to react to (like a wasp or annoying mosquito). Annoyance is a key tactic in civil guerrilla warfare and civil resistance.

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Austin goes on to propose a “broad framework to guide a range of non-state and non-commercial actor uses of drones.” This framework is comprised of the following 6 principles:

1. Subsidiarity: decision-making and problem solving should occur at the lowest and least sophisticated level possible. I take this to mean that decisions surrounding the use of drones should be taken at the local level (implying local ownership) and that drones should “only be used to address situations for which there is not a less sophisticated, invasive, or novel use.”

2. Physical and material security: self-explanatory – “care must be taken so that these devices do not collide with people or with one another.”

3. Do no harm: emphasizes a “rights-based approach as found in the development and humanitarian aid communities. “The principle is one of proportionality, in which the question to be answered is, ‘Are the risks of using UAVs in a given humanitarian setting outweighed by the expected benefits?'”

4. Public interest: also self-explanatory but “especially sensitive to the importance of investigative journalism that holds to account the powerful and well-resourced, despite attempts by established interests to discredit these efforts.” Public interest should also include the interests of the local community.

5. Privacy: straightforward issue but not easily resolved: “creating a [privacy] framework that applies in all circumstances is nearly impossible in an era in which digital privacy appears to be a mirage […].

6. Data protection: of paramount importance. Aerial footage of protests can be used by governments to “create a database of known activists.” As such, “[c]ontext specific protocols must ensure the security of data, thereby protecting against physical or digital theft or corruption.”

Are there other principles that should factor into the “Drones for Good” frame-work? If so, what are they? I’ll also be asking these questions in Dubai this week where I’m speaking at the Drones for Good Festival.

Video: Digital Humanitarians & Next Generation Humanitarian Technology

How do international humanitarian organizations make sense of the “Big Data” generated during major disasters? They turn to Digital Humanitarians who craft and leverage ingenious crowdsourcing solutions with trail-blazing insights from artificial intelligence to make sense of vast volumes of social media, satellite imagery and even UAV/aerial imagery. They also use these “Big Data” solutions to verify user-generated content and counter rumors during disasters. The talk below explains how Digital Humanitarians do this and how their next generation humanitarian technologies work.

Many thanks to TTI/Vanguard for having invited me to speak. Lots more on Digital Humanitarians in my new book of the same title.

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Videos of my TEDx talks and the talks I’ve given at the White House, PopTech, Where 2.0, National Geographic, etc., are all available here.