Tag Archives: AAAS

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.”


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:


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.


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.


Copyright 2009 DigitalGlobe. Produced by AAAS.

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


Copyright 2009 DigitalGlobe. Produced by AAAS.


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.


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.


Copyright 2009 DigitalGlobe. Produced by AAAS.


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.


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

Conference – New Challenges for Human Rights Communications


I was just invited to participate on a panel at the Human Rights Information and Documentation Systems, International (HURIDOCS) Conference in Geneva, February 25-27, 2009.

The panel will be part of Plenary IV: Trends in Information Technology and Human Rights. The other panelists include my good friend Lars Bromley from AAAS and:

  • Florence Devouard, Chair Emeritus of the Wikimedia Foundation
  • Dan Brickley, developer of Semantic Web technologies
  • Jan Kleijsen, Director of Human Rights Standard Setting, Council of Europe

Lars will also be leading a workshop on “Satellite Imagery and Mapping” which I look forward to attending. I also plan to attend Sam Gregory’s workshop on “Video Advocacy“. Sam is the Program Director of Witness.

I plan to sit in on Plenary III entitled: Drawing Together the Common Information Needs. I’m particularly interested in uses of satellite imagery by the International Criminal Court (ICC) and have had several conversations on this with my colleague Russ Schimmer based on his remote sensing work in Darfur.

Another perk of attending this conference is that the LIFT Conference will be taking place on the same days at the same location. So I really hope to attend some of the LIFT panels if time permits.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Eyes on Darfur: 2 Villages Missing from Site

An update on Amnesty International’s (AI) “Eyes on Darfur” project based on my previous blog.

At least two of the protected villages monitored by AI using very-high resolution imagery provided by AAAS have been removed from the site after reported attacks in the area, with updated imagery still being processed. The attacks in question were summarized by this UNHCR Report.

This raises some important questions as noted by a colleague in a recent discussion: the bigger issue here is vital, all this geo-mapping is virtual, and while it may impact the real world that’s not a foregone conclusion; Would other NGOs, or perhaps a consortium, do better at the protective concept? And how? Namely, who can protect these villages and others like them?

I will write another blog this week on precisely these questions, i.e., civilian protection.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Human Rights 2.0: Eyes on Darfur

Amnesty International (AI) is taking human rights monitoring to a whole new level, metaphorically and literally speaking. The organization’s “Eyes on Darfur” project leverages the power of high-resolution satellite imagery to provide unimpeachable evidence of the atrocities being committed in Darfur – enabling action by private citizens, policy makers and international courts. Eyes On Darfur also breaks new ground in protecting human rights by allowing people around the world to literally “watch over” and protect twelve intact, but highly vulnerable, villages using commercially available satellite imagery.

I met with AI today to learn more. The human rights organization sends government officials these images on a regular basis to remind them that the world is watching. The impact? The villages monitored by AI have not been attacked while neighboring ones have. According to AI, there have also been notable changes in decisions made by the Bashir government since “Eyes on Darfur” went live a year ago. Equally interesting is that AI has been able to track the movement of the Janjaweed thanks to commercially available satellite imagery. In addition, the government of Chad cited the AI project as one of the reasons they accepted UN peacekeepers.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) is also leading a Human Rights and Geospatial Technologies project. So I also sat with them to learn more (September 2007). NGOs in Burma provided AAAS with information concerning attacks on civilians carried out by government forces in late 2006 and early 2007. AAAS staff reviewed these reports and compared them with high-resolution satellite images to identify destruction of housing and infrastructure and construction of new military occupation camps. The result is available in these Google Earth Layers. AAAS has provided comparable layers for Sudan, Chad, Lebanon and Zimbabwe. And this is just the tip of the iceberg.

AI is venturing on a 3-year project to provide satellite imagery to monitor forced displacement for early detection and advocacy. AAAS is developing a user-friendly web-based interface to let the NGO community know in real time where commercial satellites are positioned and what geographical areas they are taking pictures of. The interface includes direct links to the private companies operating these satellites along with contact and pricing information. AAAS believes this tool will enable the NGO community to make far more effective use of satellite imagery and to serve as a deterrent against repressive regimes choosing to commit mass atrocities.

The European Commission’s Joint Research Center (JRC) out of Ispra, Italy is also engaged in phenomenal work using satellite imagery. I first met with the JRC in 2004 and more recently in October 2007. The Center has developed automated models for change detection that are far more reliable than previously thought possible. Using pattern detection algorithms, the JRC can detect whether infrastructure has been destroyed, damaged, built or remained unchanged. They are now applying these models to monitor changes in refugee camps worldwide. The advantage of the JRC’s models is that they don’t necessarily require high resolution satellite imagery.

The same team at the JRC has also developed models to approximate population density in urban areas such as the Kibera slums out of Nairobi. Using satellite pictures taken at different angles, the team is able to construct 3D models of infrastructure such as individual buildings and houses. Thanks to these models they are able to approximate the size of these structures and thus estimate the number of inhabitants.

While AI and AAAS have been collaborating on some of these projects, the JRC has not been connected to this work. I therefore organized a working lunch during the OCHA +5 Symposium in Geneva last Fall to connect AAAS, the JRC, the Feinstein Center and the USHMM. My intention is to catalyze greater collaboration between these organizations and projects so we can upgrade to Human Rights 2.0.

Patrick Philippe Meier