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Location-Based Data Raise Ethical Issues for Cultural Heritage

AAAS Issues Guidelines for Scientists, Volunteers and Others Increasingly Using Such Data

Syria’s ancient site of Palmyra was attacked by militants beginning in the spring of 2012. | LOUAI BESHARA/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Wars in Syria and Iraq left archaeological treasures and ancient historical sites demolished and looted, obliterating significant symbols of each country’s cultural heritage and ripping chapters out of the journey of humanity.

At the time, international human rights and nongovernmental organizations sought scientific help to document the scope of the destruction. The American Association for the Advancement of Science was called upon to help assess damage to historic structures, museums, and archeological sites.

Requests for analyses followed the onset of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the ethnic and sectarian violence in Syria in 2011 and gained momentum after the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, seized control of sections of Syria and Iraq, unleashing campaigns to eliminate the region’s cultural and historic resources.

AAAS’ Geospatial Technologies and Human Rights project, with funding from the National Science Foundation, examined remote sensing data from high-resolution satellite imagery and, based on that, expanded its work to focus on the ethics of using volunteered geographic information and other forms of location-based data.

The project analyzed data gathered from impacted locations in both countries—analyses that helped organizations to determine sites in need of immediate protection; inform potential restoration efforts; verify ground reports; and assist policy-makers and humanitarian organizations in producing more effective interventions.

As part of its research, the project examined six Syrian sites that the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization had added to the list of World Heritage sites. It established that five of the UNESCO World Heritage sites experienced “significant damage.” The project later conducted a similar analysis of eight of the Syrian sites that UNESCO had marked as tentative World Heritage sites, finding that four exhibited “significant damage.”

The ancient Syrian city of Aleppo, a World Heritage site, encountered “massive destruction,” particularly within the ancient city boundaries and the surrounding citadel complex. The citadel dates to at least the 3rd millennium BCE and includes the Great Mosque, which was founded in the 7th century during the first Islamic dynasty of Umayyad and rebuilt in the 12th century, noted AAAS’ research. Similar devastation at Palmyra’s Greco-Roman and Persian ruins also was documented.

Many sites were found marred with deep pits and tunnels used for looting, which served as a lucrative revenue pipeline for ISIS.

Human rights and multinational organizations as well as civil society organizations deplored the destruction and branded it as “cultural cleansing,” meant not just to wipe away traces of the two nations’ deep historic past but also to eliminate their cultural identity and diversity.

Archaeologist Katharyn Hanson, the cultural heritage preservation scholar at the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum Conservation Institute, has worked with AAAS since the project’s outset, most recently participating in three AAAS workshops on the ethical ramifications of the use of satellite imagery and other location-based data in crisis situations.

Earlier, Hanson, who now directs archaeological site preservation training at the Iraqi Institute for the Conservation of Antiquities and Heritage in the northern Iraqi Kurdistan region, contributed to a 2015 AAAS statement, “Satellite Imaging of Cultural Sites in Conflict: A Cautionary Note,” that raised insightful questions about the potential risks and dangers that data disclosures can pose for nearby populations and whether such revelations can inadvertently license the destruction of cultural heritage by militant groups like ISIS.

“The scale of the intentional damage is nothing like we’ve ever seen before,” said Hanson about ISIS’ attacks in Syria and Iraq. “Nothing like what happened even during World War II in terms of just the sheer quantity of heritage that was destroyed.”

As concern over the region’s ancient heritage sites spread, AAAS was alerted that ISIS had decimated Hatra, an ancient northern Iraq landmark with a history of having repelled Roman invaders and being the capital of the first Arab Kingdom. AAAS’ subsequent analysis found that the site had not, in fact, been leveled.

A debate over whether the project’s finding should be disclosed evolved into a discussion of the advantages and drawbacks of the collection, use, and storage of such data in crisis situations. AAAS brought together stakeholders and soon concluded it best to keep confidential the site’s identity, determining that revealing the information could invite further destruction.

“This gave rise to a bigger question about what the ethical responsibilities should be of those who have access to location-based data that are relevant in the humanitarian context or with regard to human rights questions in crisis situations,” said Jessica Wyndham, director of AAAS’ Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights & Law Program.

The debate over the confidentiality of collected data led AAAS to pursue a broader review of the topic. From 2016 to 2017, AAAS held three multiday workshops, assembling a cross-section of academic, nongovernmental organizations, government, industry and scientific groups, to examine more deeply the ethical issues raised by location-based data drawn, for instance, from remote sensing imagery and geotagged social media.

In late March, AAAS’ Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights & Law Program issued guidelines and implementing tools as a result of its extensive review. The materials are meant to inform the use of location-based data in crisis zones by human rights and aid groups, academic researchers, volunteer networks of technical experts, local partners and participants of international and multinational organizations. The program also hosted a closing webinar on its work on June 24 as the project pivots its work and expands its vision to the topic of emerging technologies.

The guidelines and tools also are intended to assist volunteers working with human rights groups and other organizations to enhance their awareness of the range of metadata that social media posts and videos can reveal to avoid endangering affected populations or prompting the targeting of infrastructure and cultural heritage sites.

The principles and guidelines set out five central pillars for organizations to incorporate into their planning for conflict-area projects. The principles urge participants to: “do no harm” by avoiding hasty identification of locations; “define their purpose” by carefully setting missions and goals driving their work; “do good science” by using rigorous scientific methods; “collaborate and consult” by engaging and tapping the knowledge of local partners; and “give access to data” by establishing when data is ready and safe to share.

In “Collecting & Sharing Geo-Located Data in Crisis Situations,” the principles and guidelines are condensed into an easy-to-use decision tree format, able to be displayed in field offices and made accessible to those working in crisis zones. It lays out best practices in the handling of gathered data and how to come to such decisions. A separate compilation of six case studies is meant to provoke discussion and spread knowledge about the use of such data.

Scientists, volunteers, and others affiliated with organizations using location-based data are urged to consider the risks and benefits of data disclosures; keep affected populations foremost in mind; monitor each stage of data collection; have data storage and data breech response plans in place; and among other guidelines, adopt ethical research practices that serve the public good and protect the privacy and safety of human subjects.

Increasing consideration by scientific and affiliated communities of such ethical implications come at a time when satellite imagery is a rapidly advancing and expanding technology, particularly in the commercial realm with more private companies launching satellites. The range of disciplines relying upon location-based data also is growing beyond archaeological preservation and natural disaster responses.

“As the availability and use of technologies continue to grow simultaneously so does our excitement about their potential value in supporting human rights and humanitarian efforts. Yet, our chief focus remains on using these technologies to address societal needs – from protecting cultural heritage to promoting accountability for mass human rights violations,” said Wyndham. “The guidelines and implementing tools we have developed provide principled anchors needed for thoughtful, timely reflection and responsible action.”


A version of this article was published in AAAS News & Notes in the June 28, 2019 issue of Science.

[Associated image and credit: The city of Aleppo experienced heavy damage to its ancient historic structures after the onset of the Syrian civil war in 2011. | Rafal Cichawa/Adobe Stock]


Anne Q. Hoy

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