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New AAAS Project Will Explore Geospatial Technology and Human Rights
A new year-long AAAS project will explore how satellite imagery and other cutting-edge geospatial technologies can be used to assess potential human rights violations and prevent new ones before they develop.
Funded by a grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the AAAS Science and Human Rights program will conduct a broad study on whether and how the technology can be used effectively and efficiently for human rights applications. If the assessment determines that the technologies have broad utility for human rights, the program will seek to establish an ongoing project.
AAAS staffers will evaluate the range of potential geospatial technology available for human rights applications; conduct several case studies, applying the data to a past or ongoing human rights crisis; and assess technical and dissemination issues regarding provision of geospatial services to the world’s human rights groups. The case studies will be undertaken in collaboration with Amnesty International, the United Nations Advisor on the Prevention of Genocide and the Holocaust Memorial Museum.
“Geospatial technologies potentially offer human rights researchers and advocates a significant new tool for assessing human rights violations and monitoring developing crises in geographic areas where it is difficult to send observers,” said Audrey Chapman, director of the AAAS Science and Human Rights program. “These tools may also provide compelling documentation to encourage intervention and to determine responsibility. The initial phase of this project will enable AAAS to evaluate the potential uses and to determine the most feasible way to develop and disseminate these technologies within the human rights community.”
In a variety of initiatives, Science and Human Rights seeks to develop and promote the use of scientific methods to advance human rights. It has pioneered the application of forensic sciences, statistical approaches, information management technologies, a range of social science methods and the use of various indicators, and it has helped build an international network of science and human rights organizations.
The idea for the geospatial technology project developed from a series of discussions between Chapman and Lars Bromley, senior program associate in the AAAS Office of International Initiatives. Bromley has a background in geospatial technology and was the principal researcher for the AAAS Atlas of Population & Environment, published in 2000. MacArthur awarded a $110,000 grant in December, and work on the new project got underway this month.
On 23 January, AAAS hosted the first meeting of experts who are interested in the project, including representatives from the National Resources Defense Council, Amnesty International USA, the U.S. State Department and ESRI, the world leader in GIS (geographic information system) software and technology. The U.N. Special Advisor for the Prevention of Genocide also is a partner in the project.
Geospatial technology is not new — the development of hot air balloons and the first airplanes brought the use of aerial cameras, intelligence agencies have long used spy satellites, and scientists likewise make active use of the technologies. But the latest satellites and the increasing power of personal computers and the Internet have made the data available and helpful in a range of other uses, from fighting fires to planning famine relief operations. And in the coming decade, more satellites will be gathering higher-quality resolution images and other data, making the information even more accessible and less expensive.
Today, a few commercial satellites in orbit above Earth can capture images detailed down to a meter, even approaching a half-meter. Still, such technology has limitations, says Chuck Herring, director of corporate communication for DigitalGlobe, a Colorado-based satellite image company that is providing service to the AAAS project.
“It’s not a real great surveillance satellite, unless you get lucky,” Herring said. “My analogy is that you’re looking at the world through a straw. We fly over an area every three to five days. The upside is that compared to aerial platforms — airplane-based technology — it can be more effective. A lot of people will notice planes flying over and will react to that. Satellites are much less invasive, less intrusive. People on the ground have less of a chance to do denial or deception, to cover things up.”
Satellites can be especially effective in doing post-event assessment, or other analysis that does not require real-time data. For example, Herring said, the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea obtained data on the country’s secret prison camp locations from ex-prisoners; using that data and images from DigitalGlobe’s cutting-edge QuickBird satellite, the group was able to pinpoint the locations of the camps.
“Using satellite images, they were able to prove to the world those camps exist,” Herring said. “That was the first time anyone had ever seen those camps.”
While QuickBird’s 2-foot resolution is not fine enough to see individual humans going about their business, Bromley said, it does allow a sharp-focus view of buildings, building-destruction, fires, environmental sabotage and soil disruptions that might mark mass graves. And imagery from lower-resolution sensors can show signs of drought or other disruptions that can be among the precursors of broad human-rights violations.
In an emerging crisis, “we’re going to be looking for signs of violence—destroyed structures, burned fields and destroyed infrastructure, things like that,” Bromley explained. “Or, looking at Darfur right now, it might be interesting to look at stolen vehicles and stolen cattle. Are there certain villages that had a normal-sized herd of cattle before the violence and then afterward they have a 10-fold increase in the number of cattle? That’s the sort of material that we’re hoping to be able to spot.”
The use of images from DigitalGlobe’s QuickBird satellite was crucial in helping U.S. officials to prove the extent of ethnic cleansing in Darfur.
Over the course of a year, the MacArthur-funded AAAS project will explore how human rights groups can most effectively use geospatial technologies. In the first phase, project staff will gather information on how geospatial technology is currently being used, including by human rights groups; that will entail assessing information from a variety of government and non-governmental sources and exploring various methodologies for assessing human rights violations.
Later, the project will explore what geospatial tools being used in other fields can be applied to human rights work. It will also explore the issue of costs and how the information can most economically be gathered and used by human rights groups which usually operate on tight budgets. (Currently, the cost of one new high-resolution image approaches $2,000, and more than one image would be needed to assess an unfolding crisis. Archived satellite photos are considerably less expensive.) The project also will undertake several case studies. And staffers will develop an online manual on the use of geospatial technologies in human rights work.
Throughout the project, Bromley said, staffers will have an eye to the rapid evolution of technology. More high-resolution satellites will be put in orbit above the earth within a few years, he said, and that will likely mean more data, including more real-time data, and falling costs. In addition, technologies such as unmanned drones and mathematical modeling of potential crisis zones may prove useful.
Chapman, Bromley and others are hopeful that in the future, the use of geospatial data will become sufficiently refined that it may be possible in some cases to see signs of impending crisis and to intervene early, before it’s too late.
Edward W. Lempinen
27 January 2006