Satellite Sentinel Project analysis of DigitalGlobe satellite imagery, taken March 6, 2011 and analyzed by UNITAR/UNOSAT and the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, with additional analysis by DigitalGlobe. This image confirms the intentional burning of 300 structures Tajalei village in Sudan's contested Abyei region.
Satellite Sentinel Project analysis of DigitalGlobe satellite imagery, taken March 3, 2011 and analyzed by UNITAR/UNOSAT and the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, with additional analysis by DigitalGlobe. This image was taken before the intentional burning of 300 structures Tajalei village in Sudan's contested Abyei region.
Students display pro-separation signs in Juba, the capital of southern Sudan. Most southern Sudanese prefer separation from the north. Southerners voted to secede in a referendum in January. Credit: Tim Freccia/Enough
Actor and feet-on-the-ground activist George Clooney is tapping into satellite remote sensing to defuse tensions in Sudan. Credit: Tim Freccia/Enough Project.
George Clooney talks to a village elder in Lul, southern Sudan. Credit: Tim Freccia/Enough Project.
Valentino Deng and George Clooney tour the school that Deng built in his village of Marial Bai. Deng, the main character of the Dave Eggers book "What Is the What," was a former refugee who has returned to Sudan to set up schools. Credit: Matt Brown/Enough Project
Editor’s Update: For the most recent news and information on this project, see www.satsentinel.org.
“The world is watching because you are watching.”
That’s the credo behind the Satellite Sentinel Project, an effort initiated by Hollywood actor and activist George Clooney. The undertaking is a melding of commercial remote sensing satellites and Google Map Maker technology, as well as skilled interpretive specialists, but also tossed in is a healthy dose of human caring to form an early warning system to help curb mass atrocities.
The focus of the Satellite Sentinel initiative is to keep a close eye on a flashpoint of a predicament: The tense border between South and North of Sudan.
An outcome from a January referendum is that oil-rich South Sudanese have voted to secede from the north. Southern Sudan voted by over 99 percent to secede and become Africa’s 55th nation. There is a mandatory six-month period between the voting and the independence of Sudan. That means if southern Sudan becomes a new nation, it will do so on July 9th. The growing worry is that this landmark independence referendum could pitch the country into civil war and spur genocide.
Editor’s Notes: Amnesty International launched a similar effort in 2007 using satellite imagery in an attempt to protect villages from attack at www.eyesondarfur.org. See the article in which Abe Usher explains more about the "fused view" or web-based collaboration.
The Satellite Sentinel Project is an undertaking that involves several groups in collaboration: Not On Our Watch, Google, the Enough Project, the United Nations UNITAR Operational Satellite Applications Program (UNOSAT), the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, Trellon LLC – an Internet Strategy and Development firm delivering social media – and DigitalGlobe, which provides satellite imagery and additional analysis.
Both DigitalGlobe and GeoEye are providing images to the project, making it possible to defuse conflict beforehand. Also a player is Music Television (MTV), saluting the project by pledging to encourage young people “to become peace monitors, inform their friends of the latest happenings in Sudan and be prepared to mobilize support should violence emerge.”
Peer Down From On High
It was actor George Clooney who conjured up the Satellite Sentinel Project during a trip to Southern Sudan. The project was officially launched December 29, 2010. In short, the idea is to peer down from on high using sharp-eyed commercial satellites to both monitor the state of affairs in Sudan and focus global attention on human rights and human security concerns in that area. Kick-starting the project was Not On Our Watch, which provided over $700,000 for a six-month pilot phase to hire private satellites to monitor troop movements, starting with the oil-rich region of Abyei.
“We want to let potential perpetrators of genocide and other war crimes know that we’re watching; the world is watching,” said George Clooney. “War criminals thrive in the dark. It’s a lot harder to commit mass atrocities in the glare of the media spotlight.”
The Satellite Sentinel Project is billed as the first sustained public effort to systematically monitor and report on potential hotspots and threats to security along a border, in near real time (within 24-36 hours), with the aim of heading off humanitarian disaster and human rights crimes before they occur.
War criminals thrive in the dark. It's a lot harder to commit mass atrocities in the glare of the media spotlight.
Indeed, in post-referendum satellite views, the Satellite Sentinel Project has confirmed escalating violence in Sudan’s Abyei region, including the intentional burning of the villages of Maker Abior, Todach and Tajaloi (see Figures 1-2). The militarization of this area that includes evidence of battle tanks and other heavy equipment is seen as contributing to an already volatile situation.
“We have images nearly in real time of the deliberate destruction of a village in Abyei,” explained Clooney. “We have warned for months that the match that could ignite the resumption of war between North and South Sudan resides in Abyei. It is critical that diplomatic efforts be intensified to prevent such an outcome.”
That assessment by SSP was made possible through the analysis of DigitalGlobe satellite imagery. Satellite photos indicate that buildings consistent with civilian infrastructure appear to have been intentionally burned. As of early March, some 100 people in the Abyei region have reportedly died in skirmishes.
“Today, the Satellite Sentinel Project has done what it was created to do: detect threats to civilians in near real time,” said Charlie Clements, Executive Director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School and Director of Human Rights Documentation for SSP. “Now it is up to the international community to quickly use this evidence to turn detection into deterrence.”
Suggested John Bradshaw, Enough Project Executive Director: “Given a consistent pattern of escalating violence against civilians, the United States and its international partners should be prepared to uphold the international Responsibility to Protect doctrine as they press forward for peace throughout Sudan.”
Wanted: The Fused View
The Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI) in Cambridge, Mass., provides research and leads the collection, human rights analysis, and corroboration of on-the-ground reports that contextualize the imagery.
“I think where we are now, we’re in good shape, considering the fact that we didn’t exist with operational capacity as of the beginning of January,” said Nathaniel Raymond, lead for HHI’s role in the SSP. Being in good shape, he told Imaging Notes, translates to better integration and geocoding of on-the-ground intelligence that yields a strong baseline in terms of monitoring both sides of the border.
Raymond said that still to be weighed is how the SSP impacts the situation on the ground, “…whether it puts a leash on the dogs of war.” While the bright and shiny high-tech gear is one thing, “…it doesn’t mean anything if you don’t have a scalable capacity to crunch data and to apply the results of that data-crunching to the technology.” The real challenge, Raymond added, has nothing to do with satellites. “It has to do with how we use them and how we develop a capacity to use them consistently. There’s no quick fix to that. It’s learning as you go,” he said.
Now it is up to the international community to quickly use this evidence to turn detection into deterrence.
All that equates to a “fused view” – that is, combining satellite imagery with on-the-ground reporting from both open and closed sources, including top-notch support from former members of the U.S. intelligence community, Raymond pointed out.
“I think DigitalGlobe has really been the Davy Crockett here…one of the first out into the wilderness,” said Raymond. The commercial satellite imagery provider has provided both product and support, he said, in ways different from working with government.
Right from the start, DigitalGlobe imagery helped the SSP and its collaborators to deepen understanding of and monitor the situation on the ground in Sudan.
The high quality and resolution of the images clearly showed Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) troops in areas of South Kordofan around the oil-producing Abyei region and in other strategic areas along the North-South border. But analysis at that time indicated that the troops did not appear prepared for imminent forward movement.
What does the future hold, perhaps beyond a six-month pilot phase?
“Regardless of what happens with the next phase of this program and this specific mission, things aren’t going to be the same after this,” Raymond suggested. “Still, there’s work ahead in moving beyond public perception that this satellite use is a boutique, one-off curiosity to demonstrate a frontline, mission-critical capability for the human rights and humanitarian community.”
“If we have one moment where the Satellite Sentinel Project affects on-the-ground conditions, then everyone and their mother is going to want to have this in the future,” Raymond said. Furthermore, he flagged the view that the SSP must maintain its independent space.
“We need to be able to be independent of U.S. foreign policy because, when we’re able to influence a foreign policy position that is already in line with protecting civilians, that’s great. When that foreign policy position is not in line with our view of the human security concerns, we need to be a stick. Sometimes we’re a carrot; sometimes we’re a stick.”
Classic Use of Unclassified Commercial Imagery
DigitalGlobe’s Stephen Wood, Vice President of the group’s Analysis Center in Longmont, Colo., said the firm’s satellite constellation and analysts have been busily supporting the George Clooney team and the whole Satellite Sentinel Project in general.
Wood told Imaging Notes that the growth in the number of DigitalGlobe’s constellation, now three satellites, “gives us an ability to respond much faster and more efficiently to events like this.” On the one hand, he said, DigitalGlobe feels a responsibility to help humanitarian organizations “as part of the transparency to shed light on what’s going on.”
But ultimately, from a market position, Wood said that DigitalGlobe’s engagement with the SSP shows others the range of markets the company serves and how satellite imagery can help respond to a wide range of information needs. It was a good match of satellite market opportunity and a humanitarian cause, Wood noted. “The catalyst, frankly, is that we saw a need. We had the assets so that we could help respond…and we did so.”
It has always been envisioned that support of the SSP activity is one of the classic uses of unclassified commercial satellite imagery, Wood emphasized. But today, the trio of DigitalGlobe satellites makes that support possible, he said.
Collaborative Analytic Exchange
As an aspect of DigitalGlobe’s role with the SSP, a team of company analysts are part of a collaborative analytic exchange that has enabled the firm to take a leading role in writing the SSP reports that are being distributed around the world.
“People will often get distracted by those really expensive things that orbit around the earth called satellites. They also forget about the people on the ground who are doing the analysis and the integration. And it’s also the infrastructure that is required to support that,” Wood added. “It’s the processing, the distribution, and all the exploitation…all of that together is really the full story.” To that end, it is part of DigitalGlobe’s challenge, Wood noted, “to continually educate and evangelize what this industry can do.”
Regarding the future, Wood offers his own personal perspective. “We’re off to a great start and committed to do what we can in working with the Satellite Sentinel Project. In terms of how much longer it goes, I think we’re just going to wait and see. The vote has taken place. The referendum is clear. There’s plenty of speculation that there’s a bit longer of a road here. In light of that, we’re not going away anytime soon.” Wood concluded that DigitalGlobe is gaining valuable lessons concerning coordinating and communicating with disparate groups.
“That’s been very educational and we’re learning a lot along the way there. Ultimately, just to be able to figure out how best to respond to dynamic situations like this is a continual learning experience. Every case seems to be a little bit different, too,” Wood said. “It’s never dull.”
By late March, as this issue of Imaging Notes was being readied for publication, the Satellite Sentinel Project continued to release satellite imagery that was assessed to confirm the movement of additional forces backed by the government of Sudan into the contested Abyei region. “Increased reinforcements inside Abyei are exacerbating an already dire situation, not contributing to a solution,” said John Bradshaw, Executive Director of the Enough Project.
Satellite imagery confirmed reports of the deployment of large numbers of northern forces as well as newly fortified encampments. “This should be sounding alarms about the human security of all civilians in Abyei,” added Charlie Clements of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University’s Kennedy School.
While the Satellite Sentinel Project is on the front line of using sharp-eyed satellites to help defuse the situation in Sudan, to what degree the effort is a forerunner of things to come – monitoring other contentious situations – remains to be seen. For now, the endeavor appears to signal a key message: Better, faster satellite imagery makes for better maps, and faster, stronger humanitarian responses to emerging crises, whether in war or peace.
Comments [ 2 ]
It is great to see image analysis being used not only as a way to miootnr and potentially avert current crises but also as a way to study the development of these types of conflicts. Very interesting that much of the data points away from climate and ecological factors contributing to the crisis. Even more interesting that modern streams of thought still may hesitate to move away from convenient factors such as climate and ecology in order to avoid addressing other, potentially less pleasant, contributing factors. It is nice to see such detailed professional work being done. Thanks for the post!