…Based in a nondescript suite of offices near Harvard Square in the Boston suburb of Cambridge, Raymond heads a small team of staff and student volunteers who monitor events on the ground in the heart of what is practically a war zone. Every day Raymond and his staff meet in what is dubbed the “situation room” and news and reports from Sudan are analysed. They also pore over satellite pictures and compare them with a database of previous shots, looking for changes such as new military roads or camps, or troops on the move.
One day last week, SSP staffer Brittany Card was analysing news stories from Sudan describing a governor visiting two camps that were listed as mobilisation points for the People’s Defence Force, a militia group widely used in repressive actions by the government. SSP imaging expert Isaac Baker traced out two rectangles to cover each camp. “We don’t have a recent collect on that,” observed Raymond. Baker began to tap out a request for fresh satellite imagery as Raymond and Card discussed which camp to monitor if only one picture could be taken. “The one on the east,” she said eventually. By using such advanced satellite imagery and being able to commission and take photographs within hours of receiving reports from the ground, SSP can genuinely plot and analyse the course of the conflict. “We don’t move the pieces on the chess board. But we have to figure out what they mean,” said Raymond.
SSP’s work was initially conceived as mostly gathering evidence that might be used in any future war crimes tribunal for Sudanese leaders. But the imagery was so accurate that it could also be used to monitor claims about massacres and mass graves. After someone on the ground described watching bodies being buried in a mango grove in the town of Kadugli, SSP was able to document the site from the air. It also uncovered what appeared to be body bags lying in freshly dug pits elsewhere in the town.
It has also shown troops surrounding towns and burned villages. In one astonishing set of images, it even captured an Antonov transport plane – from which Sudanese forces regularly roll out bombs – caught in mid-flight with plumes of smoke rising where the explosives had been dumped on civilian targets.
In September last year, the group’s analysis revealed what appeared to be an imminent attack on the town of Kurmuk in the Blue Nile province. Photographs revealed at least 3,000 troops equipped with tanks, artillery and attack helicopters. That prompted SSP to issue a warning, giving an opportunity for many to flee.
For Raymond and his team, it was a turning point: they were no longer just observers, but were able to have an impact. For a humanitarian group operating thousands of miles away from the crisis, this was new territory.
“No one is doing what we are doing right now. It is a splitting the atom moment for the human rights community,” said Raymond. However, the experience of Kurmuk – which did later fall to the army – also came with a sense of danger and great responsibility. “What if we get the direction the force is going wrong? You could have walked the civilian population right into them,” he said.
There is already talk of the group’s methods being applied to Syria, or to other nations caught in the turmoil unleashed by the Arab spring. It has overturned the idea of what investigating human rights abuses means.
“It is no longer enough just to stand at the graveside snapping pictures; that doesn’t cut it any more,” said Raymond.”
Random Hacks of Kindness is holding a their third “hackathon” on Dec 4th and 5th, 2010. Hackathons are “a global gathering of hackers in many locations around the world, coming together in real time for a marathon weekend of coding around problems relating to natural disaster risk and response.”
“Random Hacks of Kindness (RHoK) is all about using technology to make the world a better place by building a community of innovation. RHoK brings software engineers together with disaster relief experts to identify critical global challenges, and develop software to respond to them. A RHoK Hackathon event brings together the best and the brightest hackers from around the world, who volunteer their time to solve real-world problems.”
RHoK was developed by a team from the funded by Google, Yahoo!, Microsoft, NASA and The World Bank.
Led and founded by Patrick Meir and Jen Ziemke, the crisis mappers network is “leveraging mobile platforms, computational linguistics, geospatial technologies, and visual analytics to power effective early warning for rapid response to complex humanitarian emergencies.
The International Network of Crisis Mappers (CM*Net) was launched by 100 Crisis Mappers at the first International Conference on Crisis Mapping (ICCM 2009) in October 2009. As the world’s premier crisis mapping hub, CM*Net catalyzes communication and collaboration between and among crisis mappers with the purpose of advancing the study and application of crisis mapping worldwide.”
The 2010 conference of crisis mappers is held in Boston in October 1-3.
Amnesty continues its Human Rights monitoring using Satellite technology as they observe the Kyrgyzstan crisis…from space. Satellite images document about 1,650 shells of burnt houses and (hauntingly) identified over a hundred SOS signs painted on city streets (click on image to below for a closer look). Quoted from the report:
“Satellite images released and analyzed by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and Amnesty International’s Science for Human Rights Program show the dramatic impact of the recent violent events on the city of Osh in southern Kyrgyzstan. The new findings were released shortly after a top U.N. official warned the Security Council that ethnic tensions in Kyrgyzstan continue, along with fears that there could be another wave of violence in the strategic Central Asian state.
To document the violence and help clarify the extent of the devastation, we conducted a damage assessment – based on satellite images – of the city of Osh, Kyrgyzstan and surrounding neighborhoods. The analysis serves to corroborate the reports of widespread arson and to quantify the scale of destruction. The images confirm that while most of the city remains largely intact, where present, the damage is severe. Large swaths of buildings in the city appear to have been destroyed, a pattern which is repeated in the northern and eastern suburbs. Additionally, on numerous occasions the letters “SOS” appear on roadways and athletic fields throughout the city. In fact, the total count of “SOS” messages within this study area is 116.” Read the announcement here: http://blog.amnestyusa.org/asia/satellite-images-reveal-massive-destruction-in-kyrgyzstan/
InSTEDD integrates social and technological processes and applications for humanitarian relief, crisis, disaster response, and disease detection. “InSTEDD’s mission is to harness the power of technology to improve collaboration for global health and humanitarian action.” After listening to InSTEDD chief engineer Eduardo Jezierski‘s keynote at The Information Systems for Crisis Response and Management (ISCRAM) conference in May 2010, I later met Luke Beckman who runs the response operations in Washington D.C.
These experts are part of an innovative team developing open source solutions to respond to complex humanitarian issues. InSTEDD runs their iLab in Cambodia that both develops technologies and educates users in the Mekong Delta and South East Asian region. There could be a preparedness strategy here - educate communities on technological practices and usage before a crisis such that afterwards the response processes are already in place. See an overview of InSTEDD’s tools and technologies.
You need to know about Ushahidi – they are currently among the most important groups applying ICT in the human rights/humanitarian arena. “The Ushahidi Platform allows anyone to gather distributed data via SMS, email or web and visualize it on a map or timeline. Our goal is to create the simplest way of aggregating information from the public for use in crisis response.”
Ushahidi was used in the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake to receive text messages from those in need, create web-based visualization maps showing where those messages originated from, and filter those messages for the appropriate NGOs.
“Ushahidi is a free and open source project with developers hailing from Kenya, Ghana, South Africa, Malawi, Netherlands and the USA working on it.”
Ushahidi means “testimony” in Swahili. See http://www.ushahidi.com/