Geospatial technologies is a term used to describe the range of modern tools contributing to the geographic mapping and analysis of the Earth and human societies. These technologies have been evolving in some form since the first maps were drawn in prehistoric times. In the 19th century, the long important schools of cartography and mapmaking were joined by aerial photography as early cameras were sent aloft on balloons and pigeons, and then on airplanes during the 20th century. The science and art of photographic interpretation and map making was accelerated during the Second World War and during the Cold War it took on new dimensions with the advent of satellites and computers. Satellites allowed images of the Earth’s surface and human activities therein with certain limitations. Computers allowed storage and transfer of imagery together with the development of associated digital software, maps, and data sets on socioeconomic and environmental phenomena, collectively called geographic information systems (GIS). An important aspect of a GIS is its ability to assemble the range of geospatial data into a layered set of maps which allow complex themes to be analyzed and then communicated to wider audiences. This ‘layering’ is enabled by the fact that all such data includes information on its precise location on the surface of the Earth, hence the term ‘geospatial’.
Especially in the last decade, these technologies have evolved into a network of national security, scientific, and commercially operated satellites complemented by powerful desktop GIS. In addition, aerial remote sensing platforms, including unmanned aerial vehicles (e.g. the GlobalHawk reconnaissance drone), are seeing increased non-military use as well. High quality hardware and data is now available to new audiences such as universities, corporations, and non-governmental organizations. The fields and sectors deploying these technologies are currently growing at a rapid pace, informing decision makers on topics such as industrial engineering, biodiversity conservation, forest fire suppression, agricultural monitoring, humanitarian relief, and much more.
There are now a variety of types of geospatial technologies potentially applicable to human rights, including the following:
- Remote Sensing: imagery and data collected from space- or airborne camera and sensor platforms. Some commercial satellite image providers now offer images showing details of one-meter or smaller, making these images appropriate for monitoring humanitarian needs and human rights abuses.
- Geographic Information Systems (GIS): a suite of software tools for mapping and analyzing data which is georeferenced (assigned a specific location on the surface of the Earth, otherwise known as geospatial data). GIS can be used to detect geographic patterns in other data, such as disease clusters resulting from toxins, sub-optimal water access, etc.
- Global Positioning System (GPS): a network of U.S. Department of Defense satellites which can give precise coordinate locations to civilian and military users with proper receiving equipment (note: a similar European system called Galileo will be operational within the next several years while a Russian system is functioning but restricted).
- Internet Mapping Technologies: software programs like Google Earth and web features like Microsoft Virtual Earth are changing the way geospatial data is viewed and shared. The developments in user interface are also making such technologies available to a wider audience whereas traditional GIS has been reserved for specialists and those who invest time in learning complex software programs.
AAAS has produced two manuals to assist the process of locating areas of interest and ordering satellite imagery: