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Visiting Human Rights Specialists Explore Technology to Support Work in Asia

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From left, Mohamad Azizi Bin Azmi of the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia, Henryk Szadziewski, Savita Bhakhry, and Katharyn Hanson | AAAS/Earl Lane

On a blustery December day, small clusters of human rights specialists made their way to several locations near the AAAS headquarters building in downtown Washington, using GPS devices no larger than cellphones to guide their steps. 

The exercise was part of a hands-on workshop organized by the AAAS Geospatial Technologies and Human Rights Project to give representatives of national human rights institutions from Asia and several Asia-focused human rights researchers from Washington an understanding of technologies they can use to support and strengthen their work.

Speakers at the 8-9 December workshop described tools being used by AAAS and other organizations to document human rights abuses, including satellite imagery, GPS (Global Positioning System) devices for tracking and precise location of sites of concern, and computerized GIS (geographic information system) resources for organizing and presenting data via maps and graphics. Use of a GIS system to blend data and images from diverse sources "is the glue that holds all this information together," said Jonathan Drake, a program associate for the AAAS geospatial project.

The project, now approaching its tenth anniversary, has a broad goal of increasing the use of satellite imagery and other tools to document violations of human rights, destruction of cultural resources, and environmental degradation that can affect the well-being of local populations, according to project director Susan Wolfinbarger. Geospatial technology also can be used to monitor regions for signs of potential problems, such as movement of troops or equipment in advance of a conflict.

"It's been a wonderful opportunity to learn these kinds of skills."

Henryk Szadziewski, Uyghur Human Rights Project

The workshop was part of an effort "to increase the understanding of technologies among human rights organizations," Wolfinbarger said. The project team previously had conducted information sessions for the European Court of Human Rights, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, and the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights. It also conducted a training session for African non-governmental organizations at a meeting in Banjul, The Gambia.

The Washington workshop participants, in their short walk around downtown, marked locations with their GPS devices that were automatically collected as "waypoints" — stamped with date, time, and elevation — that could later be transferred to a computer showing the "track" of their walk. Such precise location information can be annotated with descriptions and photos and checked against satellite images from earlier dates.

Researchers can use such data to reliably update what is happening over time at a particular site or group of sites, including destruction of structures, looting of cultural heritage sites, forced relocation of populations, digging of mass graves. Eric Ashcroft, senior project coordinator for the AAAS geospatial program, said use of a GPS device in field work allows a researcher to say, "Yes, this data was taken at this location, and I'm confident about that."  It also allows others to verify the results.

The variety of sensors available on orbital satellites allows data collection in both visible and non-visible wavelengths, and their use can often disclose patterns that are not easily recognizable to the naked eye, Drake said. He cited the group's recent use of images from heat-sensitive infrared sensors to determine the location of numerous oilfield gas flares in the Niger Delta of Nigeria. There are concerns about potentially harmful effects of sulfur dioxide and other toxins from the flares on nearby residential areas. The AAAS researchers also used satellite images to study housing demolitions and other impacts of continuing conflicts and armed strife in the region.

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News, December 12, 2014 Geospatial team training Ahmad Ali Yaqub
Sri Nur Fathya (above) and Ahmad Ali Yaqubi | AAAS/Earl Lane

Sri Nur Fathya, a workshop participant from the National Commission on Human Rights in Indonesia, said geospatial technologies would be helpful in an ongoing investigation into encroachment on the lands of indigenous peoples in her country. In many cases, the geographic coordinates of the lands in question are problematical, she said, and better maps must be made to protect the rights of local peoples. "We need the possibility of having this type of training in Indonesia," she said, "so a lot of my colleagues can use this technology."

Henryk Szadziewski, senior researcher with the Washington-based Uyghur Human Rights Project, was enthusiastic about the AAAS training session. "It's been a wonderful opportunity to learn these kinds of skills," he said. His group is considering use of geospatial technologies in its efforts to map incidents of violence against the Uyghur people in China's Xinjiang autonomous region, which separatists call East Turkestan. He said the project also is interested in documenting the razing of buildings in the historic section of the silk route city of Kashghar. "It is difficult to get information out of the region," Szadziewski said. Use of satellite images should make the task easier, he said.

Ahmad Ali Yaqubi, an official with the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, said use of satellite images would help his group obtain evidence from "very remote areas" regarding civilian casualties that continue to occur in his war-torn land. "We could use it for spotting and documenting the human rights violations that are taking place right now in Afghanistan," Ali Yaqubi said. "It could be national forces or international forces."

As the workshop attendees learned, use of geospatial technologies necessarily begins with simple steps first. They had many questions for Katharyn Hanson, a visiting scholar at the AAAS geospatial project and a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania Museum's Cultural Heritage Center. She gave them a primer on how to enter coordinates in GPS devices and capture "waypoint" data, skills the attendees they tried out as they moved from block to block near AAAS.

They learned that their hand-held GPS devices must be able to receive signals from at least four overhead global positioning satellites before they are able to provide location and time information on a waypoint. Among some other tips: bring lots of batteries when you go into the field, make sure the time, date and starting location are accurately set before starting new data collection, be wary if gathering information in an area where authorities might object.

In classroom sessions, the trainees learned that geospatial technologies, while powerful, are not omniscient. Some features viewed in satellite images can be difficult to interpret, particularly in urban areas with lots of clutter. Shadows and clouds may obscure terrain. Changes in terrain and cultivation patterns may take many months to sort out. Images that might at first to appear to be shell craters could be merely holes dug as part of an orchard expansion. 

Still, Wolfinbarger told the group that geospatial technologies offer new approaches to documenting old problems. Use of GPS devices, she said, is something "you can take home and immediately start doing on your own." She also noted that the AAAS project has joined with many sponsoring organizations from the United States and abroad during its investigations. "Perhaps we'll be able to partner with you to do some work in the future," she said.

Savita Bhakhry, joint director for research at the National Human Rights Commission of India, said she is "definitely going to apply [the training] in my work situation." She said the GPS methods would be particularly useful in mapping and consolidating commission data on human rights violations throughout India.  "This has been a new and learning experience," Bhakhry said.