Collaborative Southern Sudan Monitoring puts emphasis on potential of commercial remote sensing

UNOSAT is continuing its efforts to support UN agencies and humanitarian NGOs as southern Sudan engages in its independence referendum. Acting in consultation with and in support of several agencies including OCHA, WFP, DPKO, UNDP, UNOSAT is delivering high-resolution satellite imagery and analysis over areas of concern to the humanitarian community. This work is carried out in the framework of applied research on monitoring for human security. After developing applied solutions for operational humanitarian relief since 2003, the UNOSAT programme has been breaking new grounds since 2009 in the area of human rights and human security monitoring with the support of the MacArthur Foundation which funds the entire UNOSAT research in this field and a part of its application to concrete cases in which satellite derived analysis can make a diffference. The MacArthur Foundation "supports creative people and effective institutions committed to building a more just, verdant, and peaceful world".

This activity underscores the potential of today’s commercial very high-resolution satellites to monitor areas of concern to the UN and the international community in general. The satellite industry has responded with enthusiasm to the new challenge laid out by UNOSAT. Even during the holiday period, the Programme has received extensive contributions from DigitalGlobe and European Space Imaging and support from e-Geos, who are leaders in the commercialisation of imagery from next generation earth observation satellites.

On the advocacy front, “Not On Our Watch”, the Enough Project, Google and the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative have engaged in raising the awareness of the public opinion at global scale of the dangers of grave humanitarian consequences should a conflict ignite during or after the referendum. Declarations made by actor George Clooney, also a UN Goodwill Ambassador for peace, and activist John Prendergast resulted in large media attention worldwide. UNOSAT has also received very positive response to this latest attempt to bring out the value of open and public earth observation in complex situations.
 
Explaining how UNOSAT processes the imagery, Senior Specialist Einar Bjorgo says “we draw from an array of computing resources made possible by the advanced infrastructure at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN). Using these resources, as well as state-of-art image processing and GIS software, we are able to acquire, store and analyze high-resolution satellite imagery from an orbiting constellation of six commercial satellites in this specific case.” Lars Bromley, part of the team of analysts working on the imagery, explains that “using these assets together with extensive reporting from the ground generated by UN partners as well as NGO efforts such as Sudan Vote Monitor, one of several Ushahidi deployments, UNOSAT is helping to understand and assess reporting from across southern Sudan”. More specifically, UNOSAT is focusing on threats to human security and possible humanitarian consequences, using satellite imagery to rapidly quantify and detail reporting on these issues.
 
In the week leading up to the referendum, UNOSAT plans to acquire and analyze imagery covering about 40,000 square kilometres in southern Sudan, primarily along the border between north and south. Much of this imagery has been acquired by satellites since early December 2010 and then made available by DigitalGlobe. UNOSAT also plans to commission the acquisition of new commercial imagery in the coming weeks based on reporting and requests from partner organizations.
 
These images and analytical products will be made available as map tiles and Google Earth layers on the UNOSAT Sudan geospatial data download site (http://www.unitar.org/unosat/sudan), and included in public advocacy web sites such as the Satellite Sentinel Project (http://www.satsentinel.org/).
 
Integrating these forms of geospatial techniques ranging from reports delivered from the ground to analyses based on satellites imagery represents the most advanced geospatial human rights observing system attempted to date. UNOSAT looks forward to continued research and development in this arena as it seeks to develop geospatial knowledge systems useful to the human rights, humanitarian, and human security communities.

Photo: Image of Juba, South Sudan, taken by Quickbird satellite