Satellite Images Help Aid Groups Document Atrocities

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  Space News Business

Satellite Images Help Aid Groups Document Atrocities

By BECKY IANNOTTA
Space News Staff Writer
posted: 12 November 2008
02:30 pm ET






WASHINGTON
— Humanitarian workers seeking evidence of atrocities in the
Darfur
region of
Western Sudan
have turned to old and new satellite imagery to make their case.

Amnesty International and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) are collaborating on Eyes on
Darfur
(eyesondarfur.org), a Web site that shows before and after satellite images of areas the Washington-based human rights organization believes are, or could be at risk of, being under siege.

AAAS is using images from Longmont, Colo.-based DigitalGlobe‘sQuickBird satellite, Dulles, Va.-based GeoEye‘sIkonos and the Earth Remote Observation Satellite (EROS-B) owned by Tel Aviv, Israel-based ImageSat International, said Lars Bromley, director of geospatial technology and human rights at AAAS in Washington.

The satellite images are processed and classified using Erdas Imagine software created by Erdas Inc. of
Atlanta
.

Eyes on
Darfur
began as a pilot project with a $100,000 budget for AAAS to cull through archived images of the region and compare them to more recent images to produce clear examples of change in the landscape, Bromley said. AAAS searched areas based on reports to Amnesty International from the region.

“We took a lot of their on-the-ground reporting and our job was to review that information and figure out where the event took place,” Bromley said. “Then we’d search the imagery to match it up. We came up with a whole set of examples.”

The initial challenge was matching descriptions on the ground with archived images because the area never was well-mapped, Bromley said. Over time, village names have changed or language barriers have led to multiple spellings and pronunciations of the same town. AAAS analyzed about 200 locations to match humanitarian workers’ reports with archived imagery and obtain coordinates so Earth imaging satellites could be pointed in the correct direction when called upon in the future, he said.

Since then, the program has taken on two roles: to respond to reports of an attack on the ground by ordering new images that are compared to archived images of the same location, and to routinely capture images of 12 villages identified as at risk of attack by Amnesty International.

“We were really looking for a way to both get information out publicly and provide strategies on the ground,” said ArielaBlatter, director of Amnesty International’s Conflict Prevention and
Response
Center
.

The primary requirement for the imagery is that it have at least one-meter resolution so that building and infrastructure changes can be detected, Bromley said, adding that the half-meter resolution imagery available now via DigitalGlobe’sWorldView satellite – and soon to be offered by GeoEye after the Sept. 6 launch of GeoEye-1 – will further improve the analysis of Darfur activity.

Those two, the newest satellites subsidized by the U.S. National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, will draw more than half of their business from the government and have multiple
U.S.
and foreign commercial customers.

For analysis purposes, monochromatic images work just as well as multispectral imagery, Bromley said. He acknowledged, however, that color images such as those to be offered by GeoEye-1 look better on the Web site.

AAAS monitors the positions of Earth imaging satellites and quickly can identify which satellite can cover the
Darfur
region on short notice in response to a reported flare-up, Bromley said. Images have been turned around as quickly as 24 hours, but larger orders can take a week or two, he said.

The constant monitoring of the 12 threatened villages allows for what Amnesty International calls a “global neighborhood watch” to help prevent attacks there.

Blatter
said that earlier this year militias backed by the Sudanese government attacked the town of Abu Suruj, which was not identified as threatened, and caused extensive damage in two nearby towns that were being monitored, SarafJidad and Silea. Before and after images of those two villages are posted on the Eyes on Darfur Web site, offering the viewer the option of seeing damaged areas identified with bright red dots.

Eyes on
Darfur
is
relying upon EROS B imagery as it routinely monitors the 12 villages. ImageSat charges AAAS for the first 10 images and provides the next two at no charge, Bromley said. The going rate for images is about $2,000 each, he said. The program is funded through 2009, due to a grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

AAAS also is monitoring other areas using satellite data. The organization monitors reports of ethnic cleansing inBurmaand analyzed images after reports of intentional destruction of opposition party homes inZimbabwe. In October, AAAS released its analysis of destruction caused in the August clash between Russian and Georgian troops in South Ossetia. Satellite images taken before Aug. 10 and again Aug. 19 showed damage occurred to civilian structures after a cease-fire, AAAS reported.

Bromley said funding for these activities is tight, but he sees the use of satellite imagery increasing as technology becomes more pervasive. “We are setting up the way to use this long-term,” he said. “The need is infinite, but basically the credit card is not.”