Satellites to the rescue

Imagine a few years back – cell phones were reserved for a selected few, you could still keep up with your e-mail inbox and official correspondence would go via regular mail – or telefax for the technologically advanced.  For emergency managers, though, communicating updated information to and from the field within short timeframes was not an easy task.

Since then, we have seen a small revolution in terms of access to information technology tools. One element that has built up gradually over the last 10 years is the UN’s use of satellite imagery in support to emergency response. The opportunities this technology brings to humanitarian relief operations are best illustrated through examples:

When cyclone Nargis passed over Myanmar in May 2008, the Irrawaddy delta was severely flooded from one of the most damaging flood surges in recent history. Due to the limited presence of international actors in Myanmar at the time, there was almost no verifiable field information coming from the affected areas, except for what was immediately observed from satellites. Two days after Nargis had passed, detailed satellite damage assessments on flooded areas and affected population was available at minimum cost to the international humanitarian community – and that over an area where no major field assessments where to take place for several weeks due to the access restrictions by the Government in Myanmar. 

Likewise, during the Sri Lanka conflict in the winter of 2009, the international community had close to no access to the civilian population trapped between fighting Government forces and Tamil Tigers. With that 25-year long conflict drawing to an end, the civilian population was forced onto an increasingly narrow strip of land bordering the sea, and the UN had no good estimates on even the number of civilians forcefully kept there. Again, satellite imagery proved to be the solution. Through frequent updates and detailed photos acquired from space, the UN Humanitarian Coordinator in-country, OCHA and other operational actors had access to detailed assessments of the dynamic situation, including population estimates that later were found to be spot-on.

The now widespread use of satellite imagery among key UN humanitarian actors, such as OCHA, UNICEF, and UNHCR is made possible through a program that came to light in 2001. The UN Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) is host to UNOSAT (UNITAR Operational Satellite Applications Programme), providing state-of-the-art satellite solutions to sister agencies, UN member states, and the Red Cross movement, as well as NGOs. Based in Geneva, UNOSAT has close ties to humanitarian actors and routinely provides satellite image analysis during natural disasters and complex emergencies, even using the same technology in support of human rights assessments.

The challenge is now to ensure that the increasing demand for such assistance is met from both a technological side, making sure relevant imagery is available in time, and from an institutional side, as the growing demand requires fostering efficient partnerships. To respond to this challenge, UNITAR’s UNOSAT programme works closely with a range of data providers and with the International Charter Space and Major Disasters with which UNOSAT has official status as “UN User Intermediary.” This status enables UNOSAT to trigger the Charter to gain access to free and timely satellite imagery during natural disasters. UNOSAT also receives support from the US Department of State’s Humanitarian Information Unit, which includes very high resolution satellite imagery. Other partnerships include collaboration with CERN, the European Nuclear Research Organization – a bit odd you may think, but remember that it was at CERN the World Wide Web was invented as a research tool for scientists to share results and discuss their projects. The IT support received from CERN is as good as it gets – important for fast downloading and extensive processing of satellite imagery. Other partnerships are developed through European research programs as well as with the private sector (for example Google). The analysis of satellite imagery during natural disasters is often done through partnerships, while, for conflicts and politically sensitive situations, the UN’s own capacity at UNOSAT takes care of the full process, always using scientifically proven methods in a transparent manner.

In addition to the UN, NGOs are also starting to use the tool in emergency operations. The introduction of satellite image portals like Google Earth and Microsoft VirtualEarth has demystified satellite imagery and greatly helped to advocate for and raise the awareness of this technology, including for emergency operations.   One more general and interesting  question is how countries will face the fact that nowadays anyone with a credit card and Internet connection now can purchase detailed satellite imagery over any location in the world

It is important to know that the use of commercially available satellite imagery is fully legal under international treaty law. UNOSAT only uses scientific and commercial satellites. The way imagery is used is nothing like James Bond movies or the TV series “24,” but compared to what was available even just ten years back we have experienced a quantum leap. In addition, social networks are playing an increasing part in benefiting from this technology. In Myanmar, UNOSAT worked with a group of volunteers called GISCorps, while relatively new phenomena such as Twitter have the potential to contribute much-needed field validation and feedback with unprecedented short turnaround times.

One should also keep in mind that humanitarian satellite image mapping provided during emergencies occurs in an operational context that does not provide the comfort of time and theoretical digression available in academic contexts. The challenge is and remains of course to deliver good maps and analysis within the short timeframes required, typically a few days. For its success in this work, UNOSAT received the UN21 Award in 2006. This is a separate aspect of geospatial information, most often very different from  academic studies that take months or years to conclude, or scientific validation processes that are not faced with the requirement to deliver usable outputs in short time frames.

Moving to integrated solutions, where satellite imagery is combined with GPS technology and satellite communication, new initiatives, such as HumaNav, are designed to ensure efficient management of UN agencies’ vehicle fleets while at the same time improving security of field staff through real-time monitoring of their location as well as providing advanced alert procedures.

In short, UNOSAT is a centre for satellite imagery at the service of UN sister agencies and a good example of how the new UN can deliver competitive results in a timely, transparent and technology-enable manner. This new attitude stands as an example of the evolving role of the UN as a system and a logic outcome of the decade-old vision of a UN capable of addressing more complex challenges while working hand in hand with the private and scientific sectors.