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Geospatial Technologies Project Receives a $400,000 Grant From the Oak Foundation

AAAS has always been at the forefront of applying scientific methods to issues of human rights. The Geospatial Technologies Project, part of the AAAS Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights and Law Program, has been awarded a $400,000 grant from the Oak Foundation to further this work.

AAAS first developed a project on geospatial technologies and human rights in 2005 with an aim to document human rights violations using satellite imagery, GPS (Global Positioning System), and GIS (Geographic Information Systems) technologies.

According to Susan Wolfinbarger, project director of the Geospatial Technologies Project, the grant will allow them to look at geospatial information more broadly, using other tools such as geotagged social-media information, big data, and recently developed open source tools.


The Oak Foundation is known for funding endeavors that address issues of global, social, and environmental concern and it is not the first time the foundation has funded the GTP. In 2012 AAAS received a grant from the Oak Foundation for $800,000 to document secret detentions, mass violence, and forced displacement through the use of satellite imagery. It has provided other funding for AAAS human rights programs.

Jessica Wyndham, associate director of the Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights and Law Program, said that ultimately the new grant will permit them to build on previous projects and test new methods that have not been previously tested or applied to human rights contexts.

“One example may be the human rights application of unmanned aerial devices or the construction of low-cost devices for monitoring air and water pollution,” Wyndham says. GTP first focused primarily on using geospatial technologies in situations of conflict, such as the Eyes on Darfur project, where high-resolution satellite imagery was used to provide evidence of the destruction of villages and displacement of persons in Sudan. Since then, GTP has branched out to address a variety of human rights and related concerns in a variety of contexts such as the destruction of cultural heritage sites in conflict zones such as Iraq, Syria, and Azerbaijan. 


The evidence provided by geospatial technologies has also impacted court cases. In 2013 AAAS provided crucial evidence for the European Court of Human Rights in Sargsyan v. Azerbaijan. Thanks to the satellite imagery assessment conducted by AAAS, the courts found that Azerbaijan had violated the property rights of Mr. Sargsyan by forcing him to flee his home during the 27-year Nagorno-Karabakh conflict that displaced hundreds of thousands of people.

Despite the fact there are other groups that now use geospatial satellite imagery for human rights work, Wyndham says AAAS was a pioneer in exploiting satellite technologies to shed light on human rights abuses. What sets AAAS apart today, she adds, is how it incorporates ethical considerations.

“We’re strongly rooted in a scientific organization, which means we bring rigorous methods and we bring a holistic approach to the work that we’re doing. It’s not simply about applying the technologies and doing so the most effective way possible, but thinking about what are the ethical considerations and the risks inherent in what we’re doing,” Wyndham adds.

Moving forward, Wyndham believes what is also important is the research component of the project, including identifying the way in which these technologies have been and can be used in litigation nationally, regionally, and internationally. Specifically, Wyndham states researchers need to identify the barriers and challenges in having the information gathered through these technologies admitted as evidence for human rights cases.  

To do this GTP will continue to work on its capacity-building component to train researchers and prosecutors’ offices, among others, on how the information gathered can be used and how to ensure it is admissible as evidence.

“We have established a viable technique that human rights organizations find very valuable for documentation to provide visual evidence that they can use in testimony, in advocacy, in awareness raising—it has many different applications for the human rights community. Adding this as a tool for litigation purposes would be a significant contribution,” says Wyndham.

Wolfinbarger hopes the grant and the work that will result from it sets GTP up for other funding opportunities to continue testing and improving upon the implementation of new technologies for human rights causes.