UNOSAT partnership with CERN: when high tech research supports the humanitarian cause

CERN has hosted UNOSAT, the Operational Satellite Applications Programme of UNITAR, since 2002. With the renewal of the hosting agreement in December 2008, this relationship increased in quality, evolving from a hosting arrangement to the beginning of a promising partnership leading to joint projects.

In concrete terms, UNOSAT acquires and processes satellite data to produce and deliver information, analysis and observations to be used by the UN or national entities for emergency response, to assess the impact of a disaster or a conflict, or to plan sustainable development in the face of climate change. The main difference between this programme and other UN undertakings is that UNOSAT uses high-end technology to develop innovative solutions.

One of these innovations has been the creation in 2003 of a new humanitarian rapid mapping service that is today fully developed and has been used in over 100 major disasters and conflict situations, and produced over 900 satellite derived analyses and maps. This work implies the rapid acquisition and processing of satellite imagery and data for the creation of map and GIS layers which are then used by the headquarters of UN agencies to make decisions, and in the field during emergency response to coordinate rescue teams and assess the impact of a given emergency. This type of maps was of great use in the aftermath of the Asian Tsunami for example, or in responding to the Pakistan earthquake in 2005. More recently, similar maps were also used to monitor the impact on infrastructures of the Israeli incursion in Gaza. There are tens of less publicised crises every year in which the UN is involved because of their humanitarian consequences on thousands of innocent civilians in developing countries. UNOSAT supports the work of relief workers and NGO volunteers with timely and accurate analysis of the situation on the ground, and responds to their requests from the field whenever a particular kind of geographic information is required.

 

The work of UNOSAT is not only about emergencies, although the maps you can see on the web all refer to humanitarian assistance. This publication policy is linked to the need for humanitarian workers to access maps from various field locations by simply connecting via internet or via satellite telecommunications to download the maps prepared by UNOSAT on the premises of CERN. Yet a large number of maps and analyses are not publicly available on the UNOSAT website because they are part of project activities done in partnership with UN agencies like UNDP (development), IOM (migration), WHO (health) or UNEP (environment).

Once the emergency is over, the work of the UN continues with assistance to governments in rehabilitation and reconstruction. UNOSAT remains engaged beyond the emergency phase by supporting early recovery and recovery activities that are undertaken to help local populations go back to normal after a disaster or a conflict. Satellites can be very helpful in these circumstances: think of the work required to reconstruct an entire cadastre, for example, without appropriate geographic information, or to plan the rehabilitation of road and rail network without accurate information on the extent of damage suffered.

Besides offering an exceptional working environment and allowing regular contact with worldwide recognised research team in the field of computer science, the collaboration with CERN offers precious advantages at every step of the maps production, from the acquisition of data, their storage, their processing to their distribution.