Feb 14, 2011

Satellite Sentinel Project Uses Commercial Satellite Imagery to Monitor Sudanese Conflict

Estimated Article Reading Time: 8 min.

It has long been the hope of commercial satellite imaging companies that they could extend their use to the commercial sector. With the goal of generating rapid responses for human rights and human security, the Satellite Sentinel Project (SSP) has employed DigitalGlobe to take high resolution commercial satellite imagery and make it available to the public in near real time.

On January 9, Sudan, Africa’s largest country, held a historic referendum for self determination for southern Sudan. Southern Sudan voted by over 99% to secede and become Africa’s 55th nation. If southern Sudan becomes a new nation it will do so on July 9. There is a mandatory six month period between the voting and the independence of Sudan.

If they are to become emerging nation they can not do business without maps. Southern Sudan is interested in maps not only for defensive purposes but for peacetime purposes —for hospitals, clinics, schools, roads, airports, shipping, real estate, businesses, oil production and transport. They don’t have the basic coordinates or maps of the country in place yet.

Since southern Sudan produces much of the oil revenue for Africa, tensions are high in the region and it is necessary for diplomatic negotiations to take place to prevent a return to full scale civil war.

Troop Buildups

“The Satellite Sentinel Project (SSP) has confirmed that the Sudanese Armed Forces, or SAF, has deployed company-sized units of troops equipped with light armor and artillery in areas of South Kordofan around the oil-producing Abyei region and other strategic areas along Sudan’s volatile North-South border. However, the project’s first report also indicates that the SAF troops do not appear prepared for imminent forward movement. This provides a window for the peace process to address outstanding North-South issues which, if unresolved, could trigger renewed conflict.

Troop buildups have been reported on both sides of the border. Authoritative sources, such as the Small Arms Survey, indicate approximately 55,000 SAF troops along the border of South Kordofan – half the strength of Sudan’s standing regular army – spread out over some 100 garrisons. The satellite imagery collected to date by SSP is consistent with those reports, and it provides photographic corroboration of company-size deployments, light armor, mobile artillery, and other offensive military equipment, as well as helicopter transport.” – Satellite Sentinel website press release

Stopping War Before it Starts

So how did the SSP collect such comprehensive satellite imagery that hasn’t been collected before for a commercial enterprise?

The imagery analysis, prepared by the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, used new high-resolution imagery of a potential conflict zone captured by commercial satellite firm DigitalGlobe, which is providing imagery and additional analysis. DigitalGlobe and GeoEye are offering their images to this cause, which highlights the need for the use of imagery before a conflict takes place, rather than while it is taking place.

These images, “combined with the Enough Project’s field reports, provide a baseline understanding of what’s happening in flashpoint areas, where the combination of large numbers of security forces and high levels of tension could cause localized incidents to escalate, drawing both sides into a wider conflict,” according to Jonathan Huston, Director of Communications, Enough Project.

The Satellite Sentinel project launched on Dec. 29. “The first report came out January 27,” said Huston. “Sudan faces challenges to avoid a return to war in the wake of its historic referendum on self determination for Southern Sudan. If war is not inevitable, we can stop this war before it starts.”

The collection of commercial satellite imagery “has never been done before in the context of human rights or human security,” said Huston. “Previously, efforts to incorporate satellite imagery to safeguard human rights have been exercises in after-the-fact documentation – we’re trying to get ahead of mass atrocities, including potential genocide — and make available the images in near real time within 36 hours.” Up until now the turnaround time between acquiring high resolution satellite imagery and uploading it to Google Earth, along with an analysis of an impact of human rights and human security on the ground — has been at best two to three weeks, and sometimes months.

If the turnaround time can be shortened to approximately 36 hours, Huston said lives can be saved. The project is the result of an unprecedented collaboration between major institutions and organizations, Not On Our Watch, the Enough Project, Google, the United Nations UNITAR Operational Satellite Applications Programme (UNOSAT), the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, DigitalGlobe and Trellon, LLC.

DigitalGlobe vice president Stephen Wood said the company has imaged nearly 750,000 square kilometers of Sudan in the last 30 days. “With access to imagery and information from the most capable constellation of high-resolution commercial satellites, the Satellite Sentinel Project can accurately monitor actions on the ground in Sudan during this very critical period.”

Flying over Uncharted Land

DigitalGlobe flies one of its satellites over Sudan at 17,000 miles per hour every day, with ground speed at between 280-485 miles above earth. Huston said he can view each day’s high resolution imagery of Sudan captured by DigitalGlobe’s satellites with his iPad.

The three satellites from DigitalGlobe – QuickBird, WorldView 1 and WorldView 2 follow the sunrise so each day one of them sweeps the strategic hotspots along the north-south border, monitors activity and analyzes potential security threats.

Much of southern Sudan has never been mapped accurately or comprehensively using geodata. The Enough Project collaborates with Google and uses its Map Maker technology to create the first detailed comprehensive maps.

Any data needs to be corroborated with policy analysis, field reports, and crisis mapping as well as crowd sourced information, “but it’s our hope that the targeted real time verification offered by this advanced satellite technology will help deter atrocities, activate response and ensure accountability,” said Huston.

Huston said they expect the lessons learned from the Satellite Sentinel Project will have practical applications, not only for human rights and security in southern Sudan but worldwide. “We hope to develop best practices that can be applied from Bosnia to Burma, from Congo to Kurdistan and that could affect how news coverage and academic analysis incorporates satellite imagery in addressing other emerging crises such as climate change, oil spills, global health emergencies, and population shifts.”

Amnesty International has used satellite imagery in the project called “Eyes on Darfur” to monitor thirteen villages in Darfur. Physicians for Human Rights and the American Academy for the Advancement of Science have used satellite imagery to gather evidence of mass grave tampering in Afghanistan.

How SSP’s efforts differ is that they are using high resolution imagery in near real time to prevent human rights crimes before they occur as well as to promote greater accountability.

Huston said they would like to see a whole new generation of students aware of the true capacities of the geospatial intelligence industry. He makes the analogy that DARPA developed and funded the Internet, yet it was the private sector that capitalized on it and exploited it to its fullest potential. He predicted that five or ten years from now those commercial satellite companies that today depend up on government defense contracts for their welfare will also rely on revenues from the private sector.

SSP aims to create an interactive portable map that will combine Google Map Maker and satellite imagery with field analysis and concise, clear calls to action. “We want to share this app for free with students, academic and human rights activists all over the world,” said Hutson.

Not On Our Watch gave $750,000 in seed money for a six month start up phase and the SSP hopes to secure additional funding to extend the startup phase throughout this crisis in southern Sudan.

Ushahidi has included its Sudan vote-monitor project to incorporate crowdsourced data into SSP’s crisis mapping and reports. There has also been some imagery donated to UNISAT by GeoEye and other satellite firms have asked how they could become involved with the project.

More people in Africa including Sudan have cell phones than have laptops. Thus mobile technology is essential to communicating with people on the ground.

Students care a lot about Darfur and preventing genocide and mass atrocities. SSP is collaborating with MTV and MTVU. MTVU is on 24/7 in 750 college campuses nationwide, and in all the fitness centers, dorms, and dining rooms. MTVU has put SSP on their home page; SSP will develop a free app to give away so students all over the world can become inspired by it and develop their own approaches to other crises in other countries.

Mapping Plans

Most of the imagery of Southern Sudan has been low resolution and has not been any where near near real time.

The plan of SSP is to create maps based on the experiences of people who have lived and worked in Sudan, then geotag it. It is difficult to get accurate information in Sudan, said Hutson, as there can be four different villages that have the same name, in a region where people speak four different languages, and spelling and pronunciations vary. “We actually need some one on the ground with a GPS transponder to identify it by its characteristics and its proximity to bodies of water, other villages, etc.”

Harvard Humanitarian Initiative was to develop the first accurate database of GPS coordinates so that data can be triangulated and referenced on a point based on a fixed known starting point and then be able to develop a basic map. Hutson said, “Whether there is peace or war, you can’t build a nation without accurate maps. You can’t decide where to build a hospital, clinic or school.”

Google’s worldwide community of mapmakers, “Power Mappers,” are trained in how to use Google Map Maker for crisis response. They were called to map the Pakistani floods and determine humanitarian relief. People whose villages had been flooded needed food, water and medicine.

Two Pakistani developers who were instrumental in the Pakistani effort using Google Map Maker volunteered to help develop the basic application that SSP used to launch their interactive map.

By Susan Smith
GIS Cafe