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.
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