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Overview of the Geospatial Project

One of the central roles of the AAAS Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights and Law Program (SRHRL) is to develop and promote the application of scientific methods to human rights. SRHRL has pioneered the application of the forensic sciences, statistical approaches, a range of social science research methods, and the use of different types of indicators. A new opportunity presents itself with the application of geospatial technologies to human rights. Geospatial technologies broaden the ability of international organizations, government agencies, and non-governmental organizations to rapidly gather, analyze, and disseminate authoritative information during times of crisis. Such technologies are likely to be especially useful for early warning initiatives. In addition, geospatial technologies can provide documentation to strengthen human rights campaigns targeting some types of major human rights violations and enhance response coordination among the human rights community.

With funding from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Oak Foundation, and other sources, AAAS is undertaking a multi-year study on applications of geospatial technologies to human rights issues. The goals of this project are to assess the utility of applying geospatial technologies to human rights issues, determine what kinds of inputs and infrastructure are necessary to make these technologies more accessible to international agencies, specifically to non-governmental human rights groups. AAAS will draw upon lessons and resources generated in recent years by the human rights, environmental, humanitarian, and other communities to carry out the following activities:

  • Research, compile, and disseminate information on the application of geospatial technologies to human rights.
    AAAS is conducting background research to investigate how, where, and why geospatial technologies are currently being applied to human rights work and related areas by non-governmental organizations, governments, intergovernmental agencies, and academia, and will evaluate these applications for other potential uses. Project staff will assess which methods most commonly used by other fields can be applied successfully and what kinds of geospatial data are relevant to the international human rights arena. AAAS will correlate data and information from the social and environmental sciences and governmental and non-governmental sources, exploring methodologies for assessing ongoing human rights violations and perhaps identifying potential crises areas in advance. In addition to providing research analyses online through this website, particularly in the form of select case studies, AAAS plans to draft a manual detailing potential applications, requirements for the use of these methodologies, costs, resources, and how and where to find expert assistance.
  • Develop a professional network.
    AAAS is formulating an outreach strategy to contact, inform, and encourage potential users, including actors within the UN human rights system, to make use of geospatial technologies. Further, AAAS will develop a network of relevant experts willing to work with human rights organizations on the model of similar networks that SHRP has previously organized of forensic scientists and statisticians. Throughout this project, AAAS hopes to work with a cross-section of non-governmental organizations, international organizations, corporations, industry groups, individuals and others to further these goals.
  • Create infrastructure and resources for long term application of geospatial technologies to human rights.
    Given the technical demands and relatively high costs of geospatial technologies, greater access and use may require centralizing resources and applications. Doing so would also provide an opportunity to establish a common framework and reinforce the development of a professional network to facilitate the application of these technologies within the human rights community. As the project proceeds, AAAS intends to identify ways to lower costs, particularly by trying to arrange for the donation of satellite imagery for human rights analysis. Also, AAAS will continue to develop in-house expertise to offer technical assistance on the uses of geospatial technologies to organizations within the UN system and the human rights community. In the next phase of this project, AAAS plans to develop a training strategy, including a series of workshops teaching nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) about the potential applications of geospatial technologies. Whether there is a need for a central organization with technical competence to analyze and disseminate data for potential users is a question that the project will explore.
  • Undertake several case studies to test the feasibility and usefulness of geospatial technologies to human rights applications and early warning systems.
    For the case study, the project will apply geospatial technologies to both ongoing and rapidly developing human rights situations. Differing methodologies and data sources will be deployed depending on the specific situation analyzed. AAAS receives requests both a wide variety of non-governmental human rights organizations. When AAAS receives a request, it is assessed as to whether the location is amenable to geospatial analysis and whether the focus is within our project mandates and the workload reasonable.

Contact Us: To learn more about this project or to submit a request for assistance with a potential human rights related case study