Using Satellite Imagery to Expose Human Rights Abuses and Support Humanitarian Aid
Space technology has transformed how journalists and investigators gather information to support their reporting. With high-resolution satellite imagery and other advanced technologies, journalists can now access a wealth of knowledge from space to shed light on important issues and uncover the truth.
Space for Journalism Investigations
Space data, including satellite imagery, is used in various ways to support journalism investigations:
- Monitoring human rights abuses: Satellite imagery monitors conflict zones and other conflict areas, providing valuable evidence of human rights violations, such as chemical weapons or the destruction of civilian infrastructure.
- Exposing environmental degradation: Satellite imagery is being used to investigate and report on environmental degradation, such as illegal logging and deforestation, as well as to monitor the impact of climate change on the planet.
- Tracking migration flows: Satellite imagery is being used to monitor migration flows and support the provision of aid to migrants and refugees.
- Supporting disaster response efforts: After natural disasters, such as earthquakes and hurricanes, satellite imagery is used to assess the extent of the damage, identify priority areas for aid, and monitor the progress of recovery efforts.
- Exposing corruption: Satellite imagery is being used to investigate and expose corruption, such as the illegal expansion of mining operations in protected areas and the exploitation of natural resources by powerful interests.
In one of our previous articles, we gave examples of how journalists use space data in their work. One of the pioneers of investigative journalism using satellite data is Bellingcat, a collective of journalists who have revealed many hidden developments worldwide using satellite imagery.
They also provide valuable guides on how to use space data resources for investigations, ground truthing, and story verification. Another example is The Global Investigative Journalism Network which has collected an excellent resource for finding and using satellite images, which can complement other research, possibly providing corroborating evidence.
Monitoring Human Rights Abuses from Space
Using satellite imagery, journalists can provide evidence that might not be obtainable on the ground and help illuminate issues that might otherwise go unreported.
In September 2022, a civilian convoy with a military escort was ambushed by an Al-Qaeda-linked militant group in northern Burkina Faso, resulting in the deaths of at least 27 soldiers and ten civilians. Bellingcat used satellite imagery to locate and count the 95 vehicles destroyed in the attack, which stretched over five kilometres of highway. The geolocation of the wrecked cars in the footage was challenging due to the limited distinguishing features in the semi-arid landscape. However, Bellingcat used Sentinel-2 and Planet satellite imagery to verify the location of the attack and confirm that the footage was filmed at the ambush scene. The satellite imagery revealed the extent of the damage, which is challenging to comprehend with footage alone. Although it was impossible to match all 95 vehicles with those in the footage due to the jump cuts and limited footage, the satellite imagery showed the scale of the attack. The convoy attack highlights the deteriorating conditions in northern Burkina Faso, where access routes into Djibo have been controlled by militant groups, leaving the city’s inhabitants dependent on escorted convoys and air drops for food and medicine.
The journalists of Schemes, the investigative unit of RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service, compared satellite images of Ukraine taken before the full-scale Russian invasion (6 February 2022) and more than six months after the start of the full-scale war (23 November 2022). For comparison, images taken at the same time of day were taken. On 23 November, Russia launched another massive missile attack on Ukraine. According to the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, Russian troops fired 67 cruise missiles and up to 10 Lancet attack drones in Kyiv, Kyiv, Vinnytsia, Lviv, Kirovohrad, Zaporizhia, Kharkiv and Donetsk regions.
As a result, a blackout occurred in the Ukrainian energy system. Millions of Ukrainians were left without electricity, heat, water and mobile communications.
Supporting Humanitarian Aid Efforts
Space data is also used in journalism investigations to support humanitarian aid efforts worldwide. Using satellite imagery and other space-based technologies, journalists can provide critical information about the extent of humanitarian crises, the needs of affected populations, and the effectiveness of aid efforts.
One example is using satellite imagery to track the movement of refugees and other displaced persons. Satellite Earth Observation – SatEO data (both SAR and optical) can be used to monitor and plan infrastructure (e.g. buildings, road networks, hospitals, airports) and identify movements of migrants and refugees across large areas. SatEO can also help predict where new crises might occur, e.g. images of hot spots where border crossings peak to determine where new emergencies might occur.
#EUSpace4Ukraine: Call for Aid Workers and Innovators
Space Technology for Earthquake Disaster Response and Relief
Another way that space data is being used to support humanitarian aid is through the monitoring of natural disasters. When disasters such as hurricanes, earthquakes, or floods occur, aid organisations need accurate and timely information about the extent of the damage and the needs of affected populations. Satellite imagery can provide this information quickly and efficiently, allowing aid organisations to respond more effectively and save lives.
Space Data Emerges as a Game-Changer for Journalism Investigations and Humanitarian Aid Efforts
As technology advances, space data becomes an increasingly powerful tool for journalists to uncover the truth and support aid efforts worldwide. High-resolution satellite imagery, artificial intelligence, and unmanned aerial vehicles are some technological developments that enable journalists to collect more accurate, timely, and in-depth information on human rights abuses and humanitarian crises. The use of space data in journalism has the potential to make a real difference in the lives of those affected by these issues by providing valuable information to aid organisations and policymakers.
ESA Funding Call: Space for Journalism
The European Space Agency (ESA) is offering funding for the development of services related to journalism, media, and reporting that utilize satellite data or space-based technologies. The funding opportunity, known as the ‘Future of Journalism’ Kick-Starts, provides funding for six-month feasibility studies, which may lead to larger-scale projects and pilots. The Kick-Starts are funded at 75% by the ESA, up to a maximum of €60K per contract. For those interested in the call and other ESA opportunities, visit this page.
Featured image credit: Freepik