Earth Scope

Satellite Censors

Lack of Cooperation Critical Issue
for Emergency Response

Dr. Timothy W. Foresman has a distinguished career in leading spatial technology advances for international environmental protection and management. His career includes serving as the director of the United nations environment Programme’s Division of early Warning and Assessment (nairobi, Kenya) and Digital earth national program manager for nASA (Washington, D.C.). He continues to work internationally with China, Japan, india, iceland, Honduras, and new Zealand, promoting availability of, and enhancing access to, the scientific information needed by decision makers and other citizens for improved environmental management for a sustainable future. He is editor of The History of Geographic Information Systems, 199 , Prentice Hall.

One year ago in early January, I walked along the havoc-strewn shoreline of Thailand with a colleague, professor Nick Faust of Georgia Tech and with representatives of the Asian Institute of Technology (AIT). Our purpose was to get a first-hand perspective on the magnitude of the Indonesian tsunami and, foremost, to define a rapid-response strategy to provide satellite imagery to the United Nations (U.N.) and international relief workers arriving daily throughout the region.

Just three weeks prior to our tour of Phuket, Thailand, and devastated outlying environs, and two weeks prior to the actual tsunami, I had testified before William Wood, III (Geographer for the United States Department of State and founder of the Humanitarian Information Unit) regarding the poor state of affairs for using satellite data and spatial information resources for disaster prediction and response. My assessment resulted from both my previous U.N. tenure and a six-month study on the capacity of U.N. agencies to quickly supply satellite data to those who need it most.

“Bill, the agencies and the people in the field actually doing the work who need satellite imagery to properly coordinate their field work during emergencies still can’t get to this information in a timely manner,” I concluded. “And the more you peel apart the components and policies, the worse it gets.” Bill Wood understood this reality and was one of the rare government officials in the U.S. trying to make major changes in U.S. censorship policies for satellite data to promote the timely release and dissemination of satellite imagery for humanitarian affairs. (See related article on page 14.) His untimely passing last year has left a notable gap in the U.S. government leadership on this topic.

A full range of shortcomings is shared by all nations and by the international community in responding to the critical need for accurate field maps in the form of satellite image-based cartographic products for the areas affected by the Indonesian tsunami. While there were notable instances of data sharing among cooperative humanitarian principals, these positive actions were late in arrival and were clearly not general policy or widespread. Field maps were in limited supply.

Compounding the problem of this censor-restricted environment are corrupt officials, such as a head AIT official who refused to honor a standing agreement of understanding among heretofore cooperating international organizations for the creation of a regional spatial data clearinghouse, and instead instituted a competitive bidding process. This “Ebay solution” resulted in no one using the unique AIT facilities to build up humanitarian information. Competition does not bode well in emergency or humanitarian scenarios and certainly has no place in fostering regional humanitarian clearinghouses for sharing information. Such behaviors are the antithesis of democratization of data.

This scene was found north of Phuket at Hat Khoa Lak, Thailand.

Recently, Dr. Robert Ford (formerly U.S. Agency for International Development’s top spatial data scientist, currently with Loma Linda University) was lamenting the lack of progress in satellite data distribution and access in Honduras, especially after his positive experience with U.S. government-sponsored post-Hurricane Mitch activities in 1998 that had raised awareness throughout the Central American governments and academic communities. “In spite of all our success with the aftermath of Hurricane Mitch, the combination of government secrecy and aggressive commercial monopoly seekers is creating tremendous barriers for getting satellite data to the affected agriculture, academic, and NGO communities,” he suggested during a recent field trip to Tegucigalpa, Honduras. “The grass roots utilization of these data is where the real difference is made.”

More recently in Pakistan, government censors reportedly forced U.N. and international aid agencies to remove from their websites imagery of the earthquake- impacted area, all in contradiction to the “Principles Relating to Remote Sensing of the Earth from Outer Space” (U.N. resolution 41/65 of December 3, 1986) under United Nations Space Law, and other stated international policies (Nature; 2005). While this represents a most egregious case of censorship, Pakistan is certainly not alone. Its neighbor India is likewise paranoid and actively censors access and distribution of satellite imagery for their territory, even post-tsunami. India and Pakistan’s Ministries of Defense dictate the use of satellite information, placing humanitarian uses of satellite information in low orbit on their lists.

So what is being done? Dialog has been ongoing for the past five years within the U.N. community, with inroads being made through the efforts of the U.N. Office of Outer Space Affairs (Vienna, Austria), the U.N. Interagency Steering Committee for Disaster Reduction, and the U.N. Geographic Information Working Group (comprising UNHCR, UNDP, UNITAR, UNESCO, WHO, UNEP, WFP, FAO, and OCHA). The formation of websites for ReliefWeb ( and UNOSAT, as well as the International Charter on Space and Major Disasters, represent demonstrable progress. One year ago, a series of workshops and meetings led to the Kobe International Disaster Reduction meeting where more dialog occurred, but again concrete and universal commitments were lacking. Today, the real application needs in refugee management and armed conflicts are for satellite and spatial data, which are unavailable to the majority of agents in the field and remain mired down within bureaucratic inertia — effectively a censoring situation that has stymied the most enterprising U.N. champions.

pull quote: The agencies and the people in the field actually doing the work who need satellite imagery to properly coordinate their field work during emergencies still can't get to this information in a timely manner.

What about the Global Earth Observation System of Systems? GEOSS offers long-term potential, but its membership is limited to nation state members, not international relief agencies. Also the governance issues for GEOSS data sharing have a long way to go to reach maturation or operational implementation (see Imaging Notes, Fall 2005). This top-down approach suggests that it may be a long time before demonstrable changes at grass root levels are achieved. In the meantime, in place of government leadership, Type II partnerships such as the Global Connection Project formed by Google, National Geographic, NASA, and Carnegie Mellon University have begun providing selective imagery useful to field operatives via the Web. These are not operational programs but are effective nevertheless as ad hoc contributions valuable to many relief organizations lacking either the budget or the expertise to obtain accurate field maps for their humanitarian efforts.

How much better will we be in providing critical field maps for the next humanitarian crises? The good news is that enterprising Type II partnerships appear to be helping fill the void for some humanitarian fieldwork. The bad news is twofold—satellite censorship is getting more complex under authoritarian regimes and commercial monopolies, and the democratic nations are not making up the difference.

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