How satellites help monitor projects from afar
Monitoring the implementation of field projects is a recurrent challenge often aggravated by security concerns, logistical problems and budget constraints. Most agencies are confronted with it and some are taking measures to solve it. UNITAR has studied how available satellite and on-line technologies can help decrease the cost and increase the monitoring capability in the field from afar.
Field experts engaged in implementing development and post-disaster projects know very well that any infrastructure implementation process entails benchmarking and monitoring of progress against plans. This may turn into a serious operational challenge as UN agencies and programmes are often responsible for projects in remote regions and unsafe areas. Despite the danger, though, the imperative of accountability to donors and to recipients implies the duty to inspect project sites and be able to report on progress made. In addition, in some cases it may be necessary to keep a vigilant eye on implementing contractors.
In most cases the lack of security and the high cost of official travel are additional limitations to project monitoring and they are usually overcome by prolonging the intervals between in-situ checks, with the negative result of making corrective action difficult and untimely.
The use of satellites allows for remote monitoring between in-situ trips in a cost-effective and accountable manner using reliable on-line technology combined with UNOSAT expert analysis. UNOSAT, the UNITAR Operational Satellite Applications Programme, has been testing a user-friendly On-line Project Monitoring System allowing for detailed periodic project monitoring in any part of the world. This solution has been designed as an optimal complement rather than a replacement of in-situ monitoring, especially when implementation occurs in remote and unsafe areas or when travel budgets are limited.
Tests conducted since 2011 have shown that the solution is reliable and accurate especially when combined with in-situ periodic visits. The type of activity to be monitored determines also the accuracy of the observations, with settlements, infrastructure and road building offering the best results. Capitalizing on these tests UNOSAT has developed a service capacity that is today at the disposal of all UN agencies and programmes. The service, dubbed SwiftView, combines in a single web-based map-browser the “view from above”, using regularly updated satellite imagery, with the “view from the ground”, using geo-tagged photos and videos acquired on-site by staff, field workers or social media users. A specific application for iPhones, iPad and Android devices called UN-ASIGN has been elaborated by UNOSAT with its partner AnsuR of Norway for the purpose of enabling field workers and eventually the crowd to add photos in real-time.
How it works
Each activation of SwiftView, and its on-line map, are designed specifically for each user. As a first step UNOSAT experts discuss with the requesting agency the monitoring requirements. Once these are defined, a plan is drawn that includes location, geographic extent, duration and periodicity of the monitoring and the cost. A typical case would involve monitoring a building site of 1 square kilometre (the size of Jerusalem Old Town, or Lucca in Italy, or Bruges in Belgium): UNOSAT would set up an on-line map accessible only by the requesting agency and would in addition deliver 4 reports a year at planned intervals. These reports detail the changes in a narrative section complemented by satellite screenshots and photos from the ground. The total overall cost per year is less than 20,000 US dollars.
The on-line map is easy to use and serves as a platform for both ground photos and multiple satellite imagery covering the location being monitored. In addition to the 4 status reports, the requesting agency can access the on-line site to view the most recent visual information on the project site including photos from implementing partners and satellite imagery with related analysis by UNITAR/UNOSAT. Ground photos can be annotated before uploading.
UNOSAT trains the implementing (user) agency in the use of both the on-line platform and the simple smartphone app “UN-ASIGN”. The app records the exact location of the photo/video, time-stamps it and automatically uploads it a dedicated UNOSAT server hosted securely at CERN in Geneva.
A clear benefit or remote monitoring stems from less exposure of personnel in the field to risk and security threats, but financial and administrative savings are also part of the main benefits.
By combining remote monitoring and in-situ missions, implementing agencies can schedule their implementation monitoring plan in advance. The remote monitoring reports are less likely to be postponed or altered by last minute logistical problems. Ground photos and videos can be stored on-line and offer a retrospective implementation history that can be consulted at any time. As a result implementing agencies can plan and review corrective measures when needed.
In almost all cases, the remote monitoring is less expensive than in-field missions. When these missions require security arrangements and more than one person, the difference in cost can become very large. In most cases an optimal combination of remote monitors and in-situ missions would result in a more affordable yet more performing project monitoring plan. In some cases the use of this mix can spare the implementing agency unplanned cost caused by errors or malevolent actions on the project site.
The visual information provided by satellite and ground imagery is objective and adds an impartial documented dimension to project monitoring that reflects on the relation with in-field contractors and donors alike. Excerpts from the UNOSAT periodic reports can be used to illustrate donor reports and project reports.
What it looks like
The most appreciated feature of the monitoring service is its ease of use and handy visualisation. In this example, satellite imagery and ground photos were used to check the execution of a road construction project. The on-line platform, accessible only to the implementing agency, gathers both satellite images and ground photos. The platform includes GIS tools to select images, measure features on the ground and zoom in and out. In addition the requesting agency receives four periodic analysis reports from UNOSAT in pdf format.
The beginning of the project is documented in an image of the project site before construction starts, as shown above. This image and related photos are also useful to keep a record of the situation before the project.
After two months, the construction of the road is clearly visible in the satellite image above. The new image showing the road can be compared on-line with the image before the construction using a “swipe tool” built into the on-line map. The tool allows the user to superpose the two images suing the computer mouse. The user can easily print out these images to make personalised maps or export the image to a document or a PowerPoint presentation to illustrate the status of the project on the ground or prepare a mission to the project site.
Ground photos and videos taken by field workers or even volunteer citizens using the UN ASIGN application for smart phones are automatically geo-tagged and uploaded to a server that displays the location of the photos as blue icons on the on-line map. The requesting agency can use these photos/videos to look at the project site from different angles, see details close-up and read the annotations made by partners in the field.
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