26 November 2021, Geneva, Switzerland – On Thursday 25th November, the United Nations Satellite Centre (UNOSAT), hosted an online event to celebrate 20 years of operations. The great discussions and testimonies from partners only scratched the surface of the tremendous work achieved so far, and what is to come.
“I am pleased to congratulate UNOSAT – the United Nations Satellite Centre – on 20 years of outstanding support to the United Nations System and its Member States. […] Satellite imagery and analysis is an essential resource for the United Nations and the broader multilateral community. I look forward to the vital contributions of UNOSAT as we work together to achieve a more resilient and safe future for all” - Antonio Guterres, Secretary-General, United Nations
Since 2001, UNOSAT has been providing satellite imagery-based solutions and capacity development to United Nations funds, programmes, specialized agencies, and Member States in support of the achievement of sustainable development. In 2021, the United Nations Economic and Social Council approved a resolution recognizing UNOSAT as the United Nations Satellite Centre. This event was an opportunity to recall the wide range of UNOSAT’s activities over the last two decades, from peace and security mapping to geospatial analysis for Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) and building climate resilience.
“What a ride it has been. […] UNOSAT is truly special within the United Nations system. Its focus on applications of satellite imagery and related geospatial technologies for both operational support to member states and UN sister agencies is truly unique.” Nikhil Seth
After the welcoming remarks by Nikhil Seth, Assistant Secretary-General and Executive Director of the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR), the audience took a trip down memory lane. Alain Retière and Franceso Pisano, who both had a key role in the birth and early development of UNOSAT, joined the current programme Director, Einar Bjørgo, in telling the story of how this journey started.
“All the donors and UN agencies were trying to see how we could connect better emergency with development - how to bridge this gap. And it became obvious for me that one of the key elements to bridge this gap was to create a satellite support system that will help the operations during the emergency phase but without losing the scope that all this information should be used and given back to the local actors for them to be able to incorporate and reduce the vulnerability of their territories.” Alain Retière
Alain Retière explained how UNOSAT started as an innovative solution to bridging a gap between emergency response and development, and the long months of convincing different agencies and organizations to invest in satellite imagery analysis. Landing the agreement with CERN and moving in two barracks linked to the powerful calculation centre was the first major milestone. Soon after, being called to produce satellite imagery derived maps to support the emergency response after the devastating earthquake over Indonesia in December 2003 was the first breakthrough.
“It was a big tsunami – this has happened at the time of Christmas, and everybody was on holiday except for us. […] The first thing I did was to call the International Charter Space and Major Disaster and it was the first time ever that a UN officer was given the authority to command 13 satellites to take pictures of Sumatra.” Alain Retière
Once UNOSAT had established its reputation and shown the great benefits that geospatial technology could bring, the hard work continued. Francesco Pisano, who took over the management of the programme later, told a story of courage, innovation, and leadership. Through countless efforts, the excellent work accomplished year after year was a clear change in standard operating procedures within the UN system: UNOSAT consistently provided timely and tailored support in situations very few were engaging in.
“I can mention here at least a dozen of things that UNOSAT did for the first time ever and some of those things are still living today as golden standards in the industry.” Francesco Pisano
Operational partners then shared their experience working with UNOSAT, from imagery to impact. Hearing from higher UN representatives and field coordinators was very insightful. UNOSAT’s partners described different uses and benefits of geospatial technologies for both traditional usage such as post-disaster emergency responses, to more innovative ones.
From Thailand, the United Nations Resident Coordinator, Gita Sabharwal, shared how valuable the support from UNOSAT’s Emergency Mapping service was in the recent inundations affecting a big part of the country. The objective evidence and assessment provided informed decision-making throughout the emergency response operations in the field and provided a birds eyes view to monitor the situation. This is only one of the most recent examples of the support the Emergency Mapping service provides to UN agencies and national disaster management authorities in Thailand and across the world.
“To tackle the vast geographic scope and long duration of the event, UNOSAT used Artificial Intelligence and developed a decision-making dashboard that we embedded in the UN Thailand website to institutionalize dissemination. The high quality, evidence driven rapid analysis proved invaluable during the emergency, when objective information is typically hard to come by.” Gita Sabharwal
Similarly, Vineil Narayan, head of Climate Change & International Cooperation Division within the Ministry of Economy of Fiji, presented the support UNOSAT provided to Fiji and other Pacific Island nations during the harsh 2020 cyclone season. Tropical Cyclone Harold and Tropical Cyclone Yasa brought heavy rains and strong winds, putting vulnerable communities at risk. The imagery, analysis and data provided by UNOSAT were ingested in the decision-making process by the national authorities within the disaster response cluster system.
“On behalf of the Fijian government, I would like to extend our appreciation to UNITAR-UNOSAT for their timely and effective assistance during national emergencies.” Vineil Narayan
Other emergencies that UNOSAT’s geospatial and remote sensing analysts have been providing support with include situations of human rights violations, as well as peace and security efforts. The long-standing partnership with the UN Refugee Agency was represented by the testimony of Léo Martine, Information Manager Officer within the GIS Support Unit at the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR). Some examples of refugee site mapping were showcased, for which both satellite imagery and analysis were provided, including the use of Artificial Intelligence to extract building footprints, which proved greatly beneficial and quickly processed.
“For the 1st time in UNHCR, we used the tool PulseSatellite that was developed by UN Global Pulse and UNOSAT. This is a tool that uses AI to do the building extraction automatically. […] It was really impressive. It something that matters and makes us gain a lot of time.” Léo Martine
For more innovative usage of geospatial analysis, its application to development issues was presented by Anne-Sofie Gerhard, from the Vanuatu Electoral Environment Project of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). In a country that is geographically vast, with a very limited digital database, with a moving and scattered population, access to verifiable, accurate and geolocated information on the population was key for the implementation of a national biometric ID card system. The close collaboration between UNOSAT and UNDP teams allowed the field officers to have a better understanding of the ground situation and to prioritize and target key areas of the country for the campaigns. What is more, the large amount of data created is already used by other national stakeholders and interest from other countries was voiced to replicate the initiative.
“So, with these new maps and these new datasets it is our great hope that these datasets will become a vital contributor to many departments in the future. […] Our combined strategy has seen innovation and change emerge from disaster and turned reactiveness in Vanuatu into proactiveness – truly changing a risk into opportunity and a positive outcome.” Anne-Sofie Gerhard
Through these testimonies, past and ongoing achievements in the application of space technology were highlighted, which would not have been possible without the long list of partners UNOSAT has worked with throughout the years. After listing the partners and extending UNOSAT’s thanks to them, Einar Bjørgo shared his vision on the role of UNOSAT for the years to come:
“UNOSAT will continue to advance the applications of satellite technologies for the benefit of Member States and sister agencies. [..] The COVID-19 pandemic has opened the eyes of many when it comes to an understanding that satellite analysis can be provided over areas hard to physically get to, thus also contributing to leaving no one behind. The UN system and Member States can rely on UNOSAT being ready to help when needed.” Einar Bjørgo