Geographers Using Satellite Images to Assess Haitian Damage and Relief Needs

Satellite images of the devastated Haitian landscape are providing potentially valuable information that could contribute to relief efforts in the days ahead, said Lars Bromley, who leads AAAS projects on geospatial technologies.

View a selection of satellite images from GeoEye Inc. showing the damage to Port-au-Prince, the Haitian capital.

In the days since the 12 January earthquake, Bromley and other geographers have joined in informal international email networks to assess the satellite images for information that could measure the damage and contribute to rescue and relief efforts.

The immediate need is for relief funding and on-the-ground rescue efforts, Bromley emphasized in an interview. But already, satellite images are providing insights, he said, many of them related directly or indirectly to transportation.

In an image taken on 13 January, a day after the quake that registered 7.0 on the Richter scale, buildings have been reduced to rubble across broad neighborhoods of Port-au-Prince, the Haitian capital. The images also show people on the streets and clustering in parks and soccer fields. Such information could be useful in directing food, water, and medical care to people as transit improves and the relief effort builds momentum, Bromley said.

The dark ribbon of an oil spill trailing from the Port-au-Prince pier to the ocean indicated likely damage to one of the port’s piers. That is affecting attempts to get supplies to the island. Geographers also look for open areas that could possibly be used for helicopter landing sites, he said.

A considerable team of mapping and imagery analysis groups has come together to help out with this work. Communicating individually and as part of the International Network of Crisis Mappers, groups such as Open Street Map, Ushahidi, the Sahana Foundation, and GISCorps have sought to support U.S., U.N., and international relief and aid efforts. While it’s too early to judge their impact, the scale and sophistication of their efforts are unprecedented.

From preliminary analysis of the satellite images, Bromley and other geographers say that it can be difficult to evaluate the full extent of the damage.

“Many of the buildings fell flat,” said Bromley, project director with the AAAS Science and Human Rights Program. The Presidential Palace, for example, appears from above to be somewhat skewed though not necessarily destroyed, but street-level views make clear it’s destroyed. Damage to bridges and roads can be similarly difficult to judge. Such examples show the limits of satellite imagery.

Geographers are sharing their knowledge of datasets that might help with disaster relief. For instance, On Thursday 14 January Bromley put a satellite image from GeoEye Inc. on the AAAS server to help with image-sharing and dissemination. That has now been superseded by a Google effort that is hosting satellite images. He also offered data and map sources for Haiti.

Bromley knows of maps that show of water reserves. He can’t vouch for the accuracy of the data, though, and he adds that the water reserves may have been damaged in the earthquake. Geographers are also pooling their knowledge of images that could better indicate the population of Haiti, Bromley said.

Although he is not involved in any official satellite image analysis of the Haitian earthquake, Bromley is assisting—as the need arises—other organizations who specialize in disaster relief situations. For example, a United Nations entity in Geneva, UNOSAT, released an initial satellite report of where the damage is and where the people are. While Bromley did not play a role in that analysis, it exemplifies the sort of damage assessments which make satellite critical during such emergencies.

And it could have further application in the weeks and months ahead.

“We can expect that imagery will be acquired almost daily for the next several weeks, and then fairly frequently over the following months and years,” Bromley said. Aerial photo missions may also provide more detail on particular areas. “Such exhaustive collection of imagery and photos will help document the reconstruction process in unprecedented fashion, especially for such a poor country,” Bromley said.

The effort could facilitate resettlement activities and monitor for signs of “phantom reconstruction,” in which money is taken for building projects but little or no work is done.

Bromley has done analysis of satellite imagery of human rights violations in countries such Sudan, Burma, Sri Lanka, Ethiopia and Afghanistan. His projects receive funding from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Oak Foundation, and the Open Society Institute.