AAAS leverages emerging scientific technologies in its collaborations with human rights organizations to expand capacity to defend human rights. | Neil Orman/AAAS
Against a backdrop of summer heat and a constant roar of distant howler monkeys, a scientific analyst piloted a drone to collect data from a hillside in northern Guatemala. At his side, anthropologists affiliated with a regional human rights group painstakingly cleared soil and roots from human remains in a mass grave.
“Remains contorted, overlapping, interlaced, a cruel, tragic mashup of Hieronymus Bosch and H.R. Giger,” noted Jonathan Drake, senior program associate of the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Geospatial Technologies Project, summoning images from 15th- and 20th-century artists to describe the nightmarish remnants of an atrocity estimated to have occurred sometime after 1980, during Guatemala’s lengthy civil war.
Multiple skeletons were exhumed. Clothing with burnt edges stuck to the bones of some. A blindfold encircled a skull. Leg bones bore evidence of a child. Those were among the observations Drake shared after maneuvering a commercial-grade drone at specific angles for optimal data collection and documentation.
Drake and the representatives of the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation (FAFG) each used drones to collect several hundred overlapping photographs documenting the location of the mass grave and to record each step of the exhumation process.
AAAS and FAFG have worked together on six projects since AAAS first offered its scientific expertise and technical and analytical skills to assist in the search and exhumation of mass graves in Guatemala. The collaborations went from “proof of concept, to training on data processing, to capacity building, to implementation in a real-world context,” said Drake.
AAAS’s use of drones for geospatial documentation in Guatemala grew out of an earlier alliance with EQUITAS, an independent, nonprofit organization of scientific investigators of human rights violations in Bogotá, Colombia. The organization sought help locating remains of victims of forced disappearances during Colombia’s decades-long war.
EQUITAS asked for help with a suspected mass grave in a cloud-covered, mountainous region likely inaccessible to remote sensing satellites. While remote sensing collects data without requiring a visit and some types can penetrate cloud cover, high-resolution optical imagery offers better chances of capturing data from locations blanketed by clouds.
It was in Colombia where AAAS first used and tested a drone to collect data from the suspected mass grave site. The site turned out to have no graves, but the data gathered allowed AAAS to produce a comprehensive map of the canopied jungle, providing EQUITAS with its first detailed survey of the region and a tool for planning future digs, Drake said.
The AAAS geospatial project has evolved since its establishment in 2005 by putting technologies to work as they emerge. Drake and earlier project participants have incorporated emerging technological advances into scientific collaborations with human rights practitioners around the globe.
Lars Bromley, a former AAAS staff member and participant in the geospatial project’s collaborations with human rights organizations, took on one of AAAS’s initial initiatives. In an alliance with Amnesty International, Bromley used available technology and applied his background in geospatial analysis to scrutinize satellite imagery of four communities in Zimbabwe.
The government asserted that homes in the communities were illegal and launched a demolition campaign that organizations considered to be human rights violations. AAAS analyzed the destruction and removal of more than 5,000 homes captured by data that were provided to human rights lawyers in Zimbabwe.
Leveraging drones to gather evidence that can later be used in courts is just one of the emerging technologies AAAS is now testing and using in its alliances with human rights organizations, particularly those that lack significant resources.
Scientific advances in machine learning and artificial intelligence are being studied and, in some cases, tested for their ability to capture and analyze copious amounts of data. More recently, blockchain, microdrones and nanodrones are being recognized as technologies that could assist in human rights investigations.
Blockchain technology, Drake noted, could be useful in establishing a chain of custody for scientific evidence, as well as providing verifiable provenance of digital data necessary in human rights cases.
“They all fit together. Artificial intelligence fits with satellite imagery in terms of classifying images, and it is also critical in linking hundreds and hundreds of images collected by a drone into a 3-D model,” Drake explained. “You can’t do that sort of thing without machine learning.”
Insights gleaned from the drone test in Colombia were put to work in Guatemala. The drone’s effectiveness in data gathering opened the door to AAAS’s eventual ability to produce 3-D models from high-resolution images, assign global coordinates, map large areas, and conduct such analyses relatively quickly.
During AAAS’s first collaboration with FAFG in Guatemala, Drake used a drone to collect extensive photographic data and later transformed the photographs into a 3-D representation using a computer-assisted process known as photogrammetry. The process permits photographs of a single skeleton to be merged with images of subsequent exhumations, producing a dynamic model of a mass grave’s human remains and contents. The model offers an integrated 3-D image of all or any part of the scene.
Data collection by drones can show the precise orientation of one skeleton in relation to another—such as one facing another—a heartbreaking and rarely noticed view at a site during an exhumation since skeletons are most often removed separately.
Removal is a laborious process that can consume a day for a single extraction. Precise documentation of each exhumation is required. The scientific methods employed to collect data also must be described.
“All of these technologies are sort of converging in a way that is really very effective and has the potential of being really effective in promoting human rights around the world,” noted Drake.
The AAAS Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights and Law Program released a report in July examining the lessons learned by the organization in providing “geospatial analysis in a human rights context.”
The report includes reviews of dozens of legal cases in which geospatial technology provided evidence used in international criminal prosecutions brought before the International Criminal Court; conflict-specific courts in Yugoslavia, Sierra Leone, and Cambodia; and human rights courts in Europe and Central and South America.
Among its recommendations, the report calls on the judicial branch to appoint independent scientific advisers for cases that involve highly technical or specialized research; geospatial analysts to document where and how their findings were collected and explain the scientific methods used; and human rights groups to use independent, experienced analysts. It urges government agencies to safeguard metadata and preserve the chain of custody of data, which are vital to the legal community. It also advises private-sector satellite data providers to protect their images from manipulation.
Bromley, who now serves as a principal analyst and research adviser for a United Nations institute and a satellite operations program, expressed surprise about how often fundamental education about geospatial technologies continues to be required by human rights organizations. Over time, Bromley said, he has “come to accept that capacity building is a slow and never-ending process.” AAAS integrates extensive training in the collection of evidence from emerging technologies in its work with human rights groups.
“Now, 10 years later, these technologies are firmly embedded in the human rights landscape and are in relatively common use,” said Bromley, referring to the geospatial technologies that were actively used when the program began, and the pathway AAAS continues to pursue with emerging technologies.
“We really did manage to take these from an infant technology to something useful and valued,” he added.
This story first appeared in the August 31 edition of Science magazine's AAAS News & Notes section.
[Associated image: Erica Henderson of FAFG]