• Home

When Science Meets Human Rights:

Innovative Uses of Geospatial Technologies for Human Rights Monitoring and Conflict Prevention

bridges vol. 19, October 2008 / Feature Article

By Christoph Koettl

{enclose Vol.19_AlKoettl.mp3}

Human rights organizations are quickly catching up with organizations in the humanitarian and environmental fields in utilizing geospatial technologies like satellite imagery, Global Positioning Systems (GPS), and Geographic Information Systems (GIS). These technologies are especially helpful for overcoming obstacles such as getting access to and information from crisis areas. In combination with Internet-based platforms, they mainly build on the power of visualization to document human rights abuses, prevent conflict, and - most importantly - provoke activism.

Over the last few years, Amnesty International (AI) has cooperated repeatedly with the Science and Human Rights Program of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) to document human rights violations. This cooperation is part of a broader trend toward the innovative use of geospatial technologies for human rights monitoring and advocacy work. And although national security concerns of some governments limit the full utilization of technological progress, for example in the area of remote sensing, a continued increase in the use of geospatial technologies in the fight for human rights is expected.

Russia vs. Georgia

The most recent use of geospatial technologies to support the work of human rights advocates in investigating human rights abuses was in the conflict between Russia and Georgia.

Regional experts at AI identified places in the conflict zone and AAAS acquired high-resolution satellite imagery of South Ossetia in order to assess the areas of interest. AAAS conducted a satellite imagery-based damage assessment of 24 villages around the capital of Tskhinvali in South Ossetia. Using commercial satellite imagery providers, AAAS acquired high-resolution satellite imagery (spatial resolution less than 1 meter) from August 10 and August 19, 2008, which allowed a traditional "before and after" comparison of damage. The analysis, still in progress, revealed destruction concentrated on Tshkinvali and damage to surrounding villages on August 19, which confirms analysis done by UNOSAT, the United Nations Institute for Training and Research Operational Satellite Applications Program.

(Click here for more background information on the conflict between Russia and Georgia).

Satellite-based damage assessment from Kekhvi to Tskhinvali, South Ossetia (August 19, 2008).

{access view=guest}Access to the full article is free, but requires you to register. Registration is simple and quick – all we need is your name and a valid e-mail address. We appreciate your interest in bridges.{/access} {access view=!guest} Human rights advocates are discovering technology tools to monitor crises in Darfur and beyond 

More and more organizations are discovering the benefits of geospatial technologies, especially when utilized in combination with user-friendly and interactive platforms that go beyond the sole presentation of before and after satellite images. In 2007, an unusual couple joined forces to raise awareness about one of the worst human rights catastrophes, when the US Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) in cooperation with Google launched the "Crisis in Darfur" project.

Combining high-resolution satellite imagery with layers of data and multimedia in Google Earth, this project allows interactive exploration of the conflict in Darfur. USHMM staff obtained data from UN agencies, the US Department of State, and non-governmental organizations. Audiovisual materials and testimonies from survivors of the violence completed this information.

Michael Graham

Michael Graham, coordinator of the Genocide Prevention Mapping Initiative at the USHMM, explains the manifold benefits from the use of such innovative technology tools: "Geospatial technologies, especially web-mapping tools like Google Earth, enable us to present critical evidence and information about a situation like Darfur in geopolitical context. Making the argument that widespread and systematic destruction of villages is occurring in Darfur is more successful when supported by visually rich and trusted types of scientific data such as satellite imagery. In combination with evidence from the ground, the human rights community can create a compelling narrative of the situation, and a record of specific affected sites that have been damaged. This is far harder for critics to dismiss than reports from organizations and in some cases even traditional photos from the ground."


Screenshot of The Crisis in Darfur interactive map.

A global neighborhood watch: Eyes on Darfur

A few months later, AI and AAAS advanced the use of remote sensing technology for human rights work to a new level: In addition to using high resolution satellite imagery to simply document atrocities committed in Darfur, the Eyes on Darfur project allows users to monitor 12 villages at risk for an attack in order to prevent further atrocities. AI publicized images of the at-risk villages on an interactive platform and provided activists around the world with an opportunity to take action on behalf of the villages, thus effectively creating a "Global Neighborhood Watch."

Screenshot of the Eyes on Darfur web site, where villages at risk are monitored by human rights activists who created a “Global Neighborhood Watch.”

Both these projects on Darfur had an enormous impact in terms of media coverage and awareness raising. The powerful images of an area that is normally inaccessible to human rights NGOs provoked thousands of activists to take action through the Eyes on Darfur web site (to hear more about AI's "Eyes on Darfur" click here; for more on USHMM's "Crisis in Darfur," click here).

Kenya: Using "crowdsourcing" to document post-election violence

Another excellent example of how the use of technology helps human rights protection is Ushahidi.com. Ushahidi means "testimony" in Swahili, and the web site was launched in early 2008 by a small group of activists and developers to document post-election violence in Kenya. The project consists of a Geographic Information System (GIS) that aims at "crowdsourcing crisis information": People in conflict areas can submit information on human rights violations through text messaging, e-mail or a web form. The information provided is geo-referenced and displayed on a simple map, documenting and visualizing human rights abuses. "Basically, using pre-built API's [Application Programming Interface] like those found in Google Maps meant that we could quickly wire the geospatial data into the system, and focus more of our development time on creating the basic features that made gathering crisis information possible via SMS, e-mail, and the web. Of course, one of the great values of having the ability to use maps is that it's a lot easier for the user to understand. The visual data tends to be a lot more accessible and usable by the average user than big lists of data," explains Erik Hersman, director of operations at Ushahidi.

Utilization of technological progress impeded by government fears?

Unfortunately, national governments continue to be concerned about some of these powerful new tools in the hands of private citizens and NGOs, therefore putting some limits on their utilization by the human rights community. This fear is most evident with regard to remote sensing technologies - a traditional privilege of national governments - and virtual globes like Google Earth.

In May 2007, Robert Murrett, currently the director of the US National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) suggested that some kind of censorship for satellite imagery may be necessary, based on national security concerns. "I think we may need to have some control over things that are disseminated. I don't know if that means buying up all the imagery or not. I think there are probably some other ways you could do it," Murret stated in an article published in Satellite Today.

There are three ways the US government - as the provider of commercial satellite licenses for US companies - already restricts the use of high resolution satellite imagery:  by limiting spatial resolution, restricting use on certain areas of the world, and purchasing exclusive rights to imagery. The result is that technical progress does not necessarily yield further advantages for human rights organizations.

For example, in September 2008, GeoEye corporation launched its new satellite with a spatial resolution of 0.41 meters, unprecedented for commercial providers. A sub-0.5 meter spatial resolution would allow analysts to start identifying people and estimating the size of populations (e.g., refugees) on the ground, a prospect that raises national security concerns. Therefore, US companies are not permitted to supply images with a resolution below 0.5 meters to commercial customers such as NGOs and are required to reduce the resolution of any image sold.

There is other interference by governments that hinders the use of satellite imagery by commercial customers like NGOs, most notably "Shutter Control." The US government retains the rights to prohibit US companies from obtaining or distributing high resolution images of certain areas of the world because of national security or foreign policy concerns. The most well known example for shutter control is Israel. The Kyl-Bingaman Amendment to the 1997 US National Defense Authorization Act restricts the collection and dissemination of high-resolution satellite imagery of Israel.

The practical implications of this restriction materialized in a previous AI and AAAS project. Following the 2006 conflict between Israel and Hezbollah in which both sides were suspected of perpetrating human rights violations, AI and AAAS sought to obtain satellite images of damage to civilian infrastructure in both northern Israel and southern Lebanon. The Kyl-Bingaman Amendment prevented the collection of images of northern Israel at a sufficient resolution to interpret. While analysis of images of Lebanon corroborated reports of Israeli attacks on civil structures by AI delegates, it was not possible to analyze attacks on Israel based on satellite imagery. (For more details click here and here ).

Another form of restriction consists of the so-called "Checkbook Shutter Control," which describes the purchase of exclusive image rights. For example, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency ( at that time called NIMA, National Imagery and Mapping Agency) contracted with GeoEye (at the time called Space Imaging) for exclusive rights to all images taken by Ikonos 2 of the Operation Enduring Freedom area of operations in Afghanistan. Under the contract, NIMA approved which, if any, images could be released for public use, thus controlling the information flow and limiting the possibilities for use by non-governmental customers.

Moving forward

Despite the restrictions described above, immense progress has been made over the last 15 years. The single most important change was that the utilization of satellites - for many years the exclusive right of national governments - is possible today independent of the goodwill of governments. This step represents major progress, since large-scale atrocities were committed in places like Rwanda and Srebrenica in the mid-1990s, when satellite imagery was not provided despite repeated requests.

The UN Force Commander Romeo Dallaire most prominently expressed frustration about this during the Rwandan genocide, stating: "I asked for satellite photos so I could see where the mass movements of people were occurring. They were herding people before they killed them. But I got nothing. In 100 days, 800,000 people were killed, 300,000 of them children."

The human rights field is just beginning to discover the usefulness of geospatial technologies. Spatial high-resolution imagery is only one tool and there is great potential for further development. Radar satellites, for example, should overcome the problem of cloud coverage that currently makes imaging difficult in places like Burma or the Democratic Republic of the Congo. To explore the re-application of this and other technologies for human rights work (for an example of the use of radar satellites for humanitarian relief efforts, click here), AI and AAAS have recently launched the "Satellites for Human Rights Project." The objectives of this effort, funded by the Oak Foundation ( http://www.oakfnd.org ), are to improve selected human rights situations in the areas of forced displacement, secret detention, and mass violence (for more information see "New Support for Satellite-Based Human Rights Work " ).

The expectations in the human rights community are high and optimistic. "Generally, I believe geospatial technologies have the potential to create an evolving and credible record of human rights abuses that will make it harder for citizens and governments alike to ignore, and support efforts in bringing justice to perpetrators, such as through the International Criminal Court. I also see progress towards using these tools more in the developing world, by humanitarian and human rights actors but also with local buy-in, such as through collaborative real-time mapping of village attacks as opposed to more traditional analyses of satellite imagery or studies primarily undertaken by government agencies," states Michael Graham from the USHMM.

Erik Hersman is currently working on developing such a tool by building a free and open source version of Ushahidi, which has great potential to empower local human rights organizations with fewer available resources than well-established international human rights organizations. The advanced version of Ushahidi "would make it easier for anyone around the world to use the tools that we have created to gather crisis information from the public and visualize it on a map and timeline," says Hersman.

Geospatial technologies are not a silver bullet for stopping large-scale human rights abuses and preventing violent conflict. Many of the projects described above also depend on traditional information gathering and monitoring. The uses of these technologies are limited by vegetation, weather conditions, or government restrictions. However, geospatial technologies provide a powerful new tool for human rights advocates and complement traditional mechanisms of monitoring in the fight to stop human rights crises. They can help to overcome challenges that many organizations face in crisis situations, most notably access to crisis areas and information from the ground. Combined with user-friendly platforms and a compelling design, they are an innovative new instrument to encourage activism and, ultimately, social change.

For an extensive list of examples of human rights applications of geospatial technologies, please visit the following link list .


About the author: Christoph Koettl is Crisis Prevention and Response Campaigner at Amnesty International USA, where he works on a project that utilizes geospatial technologies for human rights work and conflict prevention.

The views expressed here are the author's and not those of Amnesty International USA.


Amnesty International USA - http://www.amnestyusa.org
Israel/Lebanon: Deliberate destruction or "collateral damage"? Israeli attacks on civilian infrastructure.
http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/asset/MDE18/007/2006/en/dom-MDE180072006en.pdf   (accessed September 10, 2008)
AIUSA Georgia Country Page - http://www.amnestyusa.org/georgia

American Association for the Advancement of Science - http://www.aaas.org/
Science and Human Rights Program - http://shr.aaas.org
Geospatial Technologies and Human Rights - http://shr.aaas.org/geotech/
 "New Support for Satellite-Based Human Rights Work." http://www.aaas.org/news/releases/2008/0304geospatial.shtml   (accessed September 10, 2008).
Lebanon: Destruction in Civilian Areas. Case Study Report. http://shr.aaas.org/geotech/Lebanon/lebanon.shtml   (accessed September 10, 2008).

Eyes on Darfur - www.eyesondarfur.org

Federal Register, National Archives and Records Administration, vol. 71 no. 79 (25 April 2006). "Licensing of Private Land Remote-Sensing Space Systems; Final Rule."

GeoEye Corporation - http://www.geoeye.com/

Graham, M. "Crisis in Darfur." Google Earth Outreach Case Study. http://earth.google.com/outreach/cs_darfur.html   (accessed September 11, 2008).

Graham, Michael, Coordinator, Genocide Prevention Mapping Initiative, US Holocaust Memorial Museum. E-mail to author, September 11, 2008.

Hermsan, Erik, Director of Operations, Ushahidi. E-mail to author, September 12, 2008.

Hoversten, M. R. "US national security and government regulation of commercial remote sensing from outer space." Air Force Law Review (Winter 2001).
http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m6007/is_2001_Wntr/ai_75622168?tag=untagged   (accessed March 13, 2008).

International Crisis Group - http://www.icg.org  

National Public Radio, Tell Me More: "Satellite Tracks Human Rights Abuses". June 11, 2007
http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=10935094 (accessed September 26, 2008)

Oak Foundation - http://www.oakfnd.org

Ringle, K. "The Haunting. He Couldn't Stop the Slaughter in Rwanda. Now He Can't Stop the Memory." The Washington Post, June 15, 2002 p. C01.

Rowberg, R. "Commercial Remote Sensing by Satellite: Status and Issues." Congressional Research Service, January 8, 2002.

Satellite News. "Remote-Imaging Experts Dismiss NGA Director's General Concerns."  (14 May 2007)  http://www.satellitetoday.com/military/homelandsecurity/17974.html   (accessed March 15, 2008).



Print Email