Tag Archives: Sudan

Will Using ‘Live’ Satellite Imagery to Prevent War in the Sudan Actually Work?

Update: Heglig Crisis 2012, Border Clashes 2012, Invasion of Abyei 2012

The Satellite Sentinel Project has hired private satellites to monitor troop movements around the oil-rich region of Abyei during the upcoming Sudanese referendum and prevent war. The images and analysis will be made public on the Project’s website. George Clooney, who catalyzed this joint initiative between Google, UNOSAT, the Enough Project, Trellon and my colleagues at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI), calls this the anti-genocide paparazzi:

“We want them to enjoy the level of celebrity attention that I usually get. If you know your actions are going to be covered, you tend to behave much differently than when you operate in a vacuum.”

The group hopes that they can deter war crimes by observing troop buildups and troop movements in advance. If successful, the project would accomplish an idea first proposed more than half-a-century ago  by US President Dwight Eisenhower during a US-Soviet Summit in Paris at the height of the Cold War. Eisenhower announced his plan to “submit to the United Nations a proposal for the creation of a United Nations aerial surveillance to detect preparations for attack.” Interestingly, Eisenhower had crafted this idea five years earlier as part of his Open Skies Proposal, which actually became a treaty in 2002:

“The Treaty establishes a regime of unarmed aerial observation flights over the entire territory of its participants. The Treaty is designed to enhance mutual understanding and confidence by giving all participants, regardless of size, a direct role in gathering information about military forces and activities of concern to them. Open Skies is one of the most wide-ranging international efforts to date to promote openness and transparency of military forces and activities.”

If you want to find out more about Eisenhower’s efforts, please see my blog post on the subject here.

So there is some precedence for what Clooney is trying to pull off. But how is the Sentinel project likely to fare as a non-state effort? Looking at other non-state actors who have already operationalized Eisenhower’s ideas may provide some insights. Take Amnesty International’s “Eyes on Darfur” initiative, which “leverages the power of high- resolution satellite imagery to provide unim- peachable evidence of the atrocities being committed in Darfur–enabling action by private citizens, policy makers and international courts.”

According to Amnesty, the project “broke 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.” The imagery also enabled Amnesty to capture the movement of Janjaweed forces. Amnesty claims that their project has had a deterrence effect. Apparently, the villages monitored by the project have not been attacked while neighboring ones have. That said, at least two of the monitored villages were removed from the site after reported attacks.

Still Amnesty argues that there have been notable changes in decisions made by the Bashir government since “Eyes on Darfur” went live. They also note that the government of Chad cited their as one of the reasons they accepted UN peacekeepers along their border.

In my blog post on Eisenhower’s UN surveillance speech I asked whether the UN would ever be allowed to monitor and detect preparations for attack using satellite imagery. I now have my answer given that UNOSAT is involved in the Sentinel Project which plans to “deter the resumption of war between North and South Sudan” by providing an “early warning system to deter mass atrocities by focusing world attention and generating rapid responses on human rights and human security concerns” (Sentinel). But will these efforts really create an effective deterrence-based “Global Panopticon”?

French philosopher Michel Foucault has famously written on the role of surveillance as an instrument of power. “He cites the example of Jeremy Bentham’s ‘Panopticon,’ an architectural model for a prison enabling a single guard, located in a central tower, to watch all of the inmates in their cells.  The ‘major effect of the Panopticon,’ writes Foucault, is ‘to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power.'”

According to Foucault, the Panopticon renders power both “visible and unverifiable”: Visible: the inmate will constantly have before his eyes the tall outline of the central tower from which he is being spied upon. Unverifiable: the inmate must never know whether he is being looked at at any one moment; but he must be sure that he may always be so. But potential perpetrators of the violence in the Sudan do not actually see the  outline of the satellites flying overhead. They are not being directly harassed by high-powered “cameras” stuck into their faces by the anti-genocide paparazzi. So the power is not directly visible in the traditional sense. But who exactly is the inmate in or connected to Abyei in the first place?

There are multiple groups in the area with different agendas that don’t necessarily tie back to the Sudanese government in Khartoum. The Arab Misseriya tribe has thus far remained north during this dry season to avert confrontation with the Ngok Dinka in the Southern part of Abyei. These nomadic tribes typically carry Kalashnikovs to guard their cattle. So distinguishing these nomads from armed groups prepared to raid and burn down villages is a challenge especially when dealing with satellite imagery. Using UAV’s may be more useful and cheaper. (Note that monitoring the location and movement of cattle could be insightful because cattle issues are political in the area).

If armed groups who intend to burn down villages are the intended inmates, do they even know or care about the Satellite Sentinel Project? The ICC has already struggled to connect the chain of command back to the Sudanese government. Besides, the expected turn-around time to develop the satellite imagery is between eight to twenty-four hours. Getting armed men on a truck and raiding a village or two doesn’t take more than a few hours. So the crimes may already have been committed by the time the pictures come in. And if more heavy military machinery like tanks are rolled in, well, one doesn’t need satellite imagery to detect those.

As scholars of the panopticon have noted, the successful use of surveillance has to be coupled with the threat of punishment for deviant acts. So putting aside the issue of who the intended inmates are, the question for the Sentinel Project is whether threats of punishment are perceived by inmates as sufficiently real enough for the deterrence to work. In international relations theory, “deterrence is a strategy by which governments threaten an immense retaliation if attacked, such that aggressors are deterred if they do not wish to suffer great damage as a result of an aggressive action.”

This means that official state actors need to step up and publicly pledge to carry out the necessary punishment if the satellite imagery collected by Sentinel provides evidence of wrong-doing. The ICC should make it crystal clear to all inmates (whoever they are) that evidence from the satellite imagery will be used for prosecution (and that they should care). There also need to be armed guards in  “the tower” who are proximate enough to be deployed and have the political will to use force if necessary. Or will the anti-genocide paparazzi’s many eyes be sufficient to keep the peace? It’s worth remembering that the Hollywood paparazzi haven’t exactly turned movie stars into alter boys or girls. But then again, they’d probably get away with a whole lot more without the paparazzi.

US spy satellites have no doubt monitored conflict-prone areas in the past but this  hasn’t necessarily deterred major crimes against humanity as far as I know. Of course, the imagery collected has remained classified, which means the general public hasn’t been able to lobby their governments and the international community to act based on this information and shared awareness.

The Sentinel Project’s open source approach changes this calculus. It may not deter the actual perpetrators, but the shared awareness created thanks to the open data will make it more difficult for those who can prevent the violence to look the other way. So the Satellite Sentinel Project may be more about keeping our own governments accountable to the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) than deterring actors in the Sudan from committing further crimes.

How will we know if Clooney succeeds? I’m not quite sure. But I do know that the Sentinel Project is a step in the right direction. More evidence is always more compelling than less evidence. And more public evidence is even better. I have no doubt therefore that Eisenhower would back this Open Skies project.

p.s. It is worth noting that the satellite imagery of Sri Lankan forces attacking civilians in 2009 were dismissed as fake by the Colombo government even though the imagery analysis was produced by UNOSAT.

UN Sudan Information Management Working (Group)

I’m back in the Sudan to continue my work with the UNDP’s Threat and Risk Mapping Analysis (TRMA) project. UN agencies typically suffer from what a colleague calls “Data Hugging Disorder (DHD),” i.e., they rarely share data. This is generally the rule, not the exception.

UN Exception

There is an exception, however: the recently established UN’s Information Management Working Group (IMWG) in the Sudan. The general goal of the IMWG is to “facilitate the development of a coherent information management approach for the UN Agencies and INGOs in Sudan in close cooperation with local authorities and institutions.”

More specifically, the IMWG seeks to:

  1. Support and advise the UNDAF Technical Working Groups and Work Plan sectors in the accessing and utilization of available data for improved development planning and programming;
  2. Develop/advise on the development of, a Sudan-specific tool, or set of tools, to support decentralized information-sharing and common GIS mapping, in such a way that it will be consistent with the DevInfo system development, and can eventually be adopted/integrated as a standard plug-in for the same.

To accomplish these goals, the IMWG will collectively assume a number of responsibilities including the following:

  • Agree on  information sharing protocols, including modalities of shared information update;
  • Review current information management mechanisms to have a coherent approach.

The core members of the working group include: IOM, WHO, FAO, UNICEF, UNHCR, UNPFA, WFP, OCHA and UNDP.

Information Sharing Protocol

These members recently signed and endorsed an “Information Sharing Protocol”. The protocol sets out the preconditions, the responsibilities and the rights of the IMWG members for sharing, updating and accessing the data of the information providers.

With this protocol, each member commits to sharing specific datasets, in specific formats and at specific intervals. The data provided is classified as either public access or classified accessed. The latter is further disaggregated into three categories:

  1. UN partners only;
  2. IMWG members only;
  3. [Agency/group] only.

There is also a restricted access category, which is granted on a case-by-case basis only.

UNDP/TRMA’s Role

UNDP’s role (via TRMA) in the IMWG is to technically support the administration of the information-sharing between IMWG members. More specifically, UNDP will provide ongoing technical support for the development and upgrading of the IMWG database tool in accoardance with the needs of the Working Group.

In addition, UNDP’s role is to receive data updates, to update the IMWG tool and to circulate data according to classification of access as determined by individual contributing agencies. Would a more seemless information sharing approach might work; one in which UNDP does not have to be the repository of the data let alone manually update the information?

In any case, the very existence of a UN Information Management Working Group in the Sudan suggests that Data Hugging Disorders (DHDs) can be cured.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Threat and Risk Mapping Analysis in Sudan

Massively informative.

That’s how I would describe my past 10 days with the UNDP‘s Threat and Risk Mapping Analysis (TRMA) project in the Sudan. The team here is doing some of the most exciting work I’ve seen in the field of crisis mapping. Truly pioneering. I can’t think of  a better project to apply the past two years of work I have done with the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative’s (HHI) Crisis Mapping and Early Warning Program.

TRMA combines all the facets of crisis mapping that I’ve been focusing on since 2007. Namely, crisis map sourcing, (CMS), mobile crisis mapping (MCM), crisis mapping visualization (CMV), crisis mapping analytics (CMA) and crisis mapping platforms (CMP). I’ll be blogging about each of these in more detail later but wanted to provide a sneak previous in the meantime.

Crisis Map Sourcing (CMS)

The team facilitates 2-day focus groups using participatory mapping methods. Participants identify and map the most pressing crisis factors in their immediate vicinity. It’s really quite stunning to see just how much conversation a map can generate. Rich local knowledge.

trma1

What’s more, TRMA conducts these workshops at two levels for each locality (administrative boundaries within a state): the community-level and at the state-level. They can then compare the perceived threats and risks from both points of view. Makes for very interesting comparisons.

trma2

In addition to this consultative approach to crisis map sourcing, TRMA has played a pivotal role in setting up an Information Management Working Group (IMWG) in the Sudan, which includes the UN’s leading field-based agencies.

What is truly extraordinary about this initiative is that each agency has formally signed an information sharing protocol to share their geo-referenced data. TRMA had already been using much of this data but the process until now had always been challenging since it required repeated bilateral efforts. TRMA has also developed a close professional relationship with the Central Bureau of Statistics Office.

Mobile Crisis Mapping (MCM)

The team has just partnered with a multinational communications corporation to introduce the use of mobile phones for information collection. I’ll write more about this in the coming weeks. Needless to say, I’m excited. Hopefully it won’t be too late to bring up FrontlineSMS‘s excellent work in this area, as well as Ushahidi‘s.

Crisis Mapping Visualization (CMV)

The team needs some help in this area, but then again, that’s one of the reasons I’m here. Watching first reactions during focus groups when we show participants the large GIS maps of their state is  really very telling. Lots more to write about on this and lots to contribute to TRMA’s work. I don’t yet know which maps can be made public but I’ll do my utmost best to get permission to post one or two in the coming weeks.

Crisis Mapping Analytics (CMA)

The team has produced a rich number of different layers of data which can be superimposed to identify visual correlations and otherwise hidden patterns. Perhaps one of the most exciting examples is when the team started drawing fault lines on the maps based on the data collected and their own local area expertise. The team subsequently realized that these fault lines could potential serve as “early warning” markers since a number of conflict incidents subsequently took place along those lines. Like the other crisis mapping components described above, there’s much more to write on this!

Crisis Mapping Platforms (CMP)

TRMA’s GIS team has used ArcGIS but this has been challenging given the US embargo on the Sudan. They therefore developed their own in-house mapping platforms using open-source software. These platforms include the “Threat Mapper” for data entry during (or shortly after) the focus groups and “4Ws” which stands for Who, What, Where and When. The latter tool is operational and will soon be fully developed. 4Ws will actually be used by members of the IMWG to share and visualize their data.

In addition, TRMA makes it’s many maps and layers available by distributing a customized DVD with ArcReader (which is free). Lots more on this in the coming weeks and hopefully some screenshots as well.

Closing the Feedback Loop

I’d like to add with one quick thought, which I will also expand on in the next few weeks. I’ve been in Blue Nile State over the past three days, visiting a number of different local ministries and civil society groups, including the Blue Nile’s Nomadic Union. We distributed dozens of poster-size maps and had at times hour long discussions while pouring over these maps. As I hinted above, the data visualization can be improved. But the question I want to pose at the moment is: how can we develop a manual GIS platform?

While the maps we distributed were of huge interest to our local partners, they were static, as hard-copy maps are bound to be. This got me thinking about possibly using transparencies to overlap different data/thematic layers over a general hard-copy map. I know transparencies can be printed on. I’m just not sure what size they come in or just how expensive they are, but they could start simulating the interactive functionality of ArcReader.

transparency

Even if they’re only available in A4 size, we could distribute binders with literally dozens of transparencies each with a printed layer of data. This would allow community groups to actually start doing some analysis themselves and could be far more compelling than just disseminating poster-size static maps, especially in rural areas. Another idea would be to use transparent folders like those below and hand-draw some of the major layers. Alternatively, there might a type of thin plastic sheet available in the Sudan.

I’m thinking of trying to pilot this at some point. Any thoughts?

folders

Patrick Philippe Meier