The U.N. Uses Satellites to Track Humanitarian Crises Around the World

With help from George Clooney, the United nations embarks on a new frontier in monitoring the world from above

Satellites Sudan
At least 300 buildings at Tajalei village in Sudan's Abyei region were intentionally destroyed by fire, according to Satellite Sentinel Project analysis of this DigitalGlobe satellite image, taken March 6, 2011 and analyzed by UNITAR/UNOSAT and the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative. Flickr user Enough Project

They beam phone and TV signals around the globe. They peer into enemy territory. And since 1972, with the launch of the United States’ Landsat 1, satellites have kept watch over the planet’s natural resources, tracking deforestation and urban sprawl. But they’ve increasingly taken on an urgent new role as human rights watchdogs.U.N. satellite whisperers watch the migrations of people displaced by war in Syria and Somalia to target aid to the right places at the right times. The team, known as UNOSAT, also used satellites to monitor the pace of Ebola treatment center construction in West Africa and to confirm that crowds of people—members of the Yazidi minority—were stranded on Iraq’s Mount Sinjar amid attacks by the Islamic State.

“We are not Enemy of the State and James Bond speed yet,” says Einar Bjorgo, the manager of UNOSAT, which is based in Geneva. “But when I say real time or near real time, I mean we can have our analysis out within six hours after the satellite flew over the area, no matter where on the planet.”

The Satellite Sentinel Project, co-founded in 2010 by the actor George Clooney, scrutinizes Sudan and South Sudan from space, looking for evidence of atrocities and sounding alarms in social and conventional media. In 2011, satellites tipped

Amnesty International to a sharp growth in political prisoner camps in North Korea, helping “provide irrefutable evidence of the existence, location, and scale” of the camps, “which the government can no longer deny,” the group says. Such advances stem, in part, from greatly improved photographic resolution. The first nonmilitary satellites, which struggled to tell a football field from a forest, have given way to models that can distinguish a sedan from a pickup. Another factor is coverage. From 2011 to 2013, the number of nonmilitary earth-observing satellites in orbit grew by 65 percent, from 92 to 152, according to the Satellite Industry Association. That’s nearly four times the growth rate of all satellites, and it means that more corners of the planet are eyed more closely than ever before.

The size of these digital photo albums has soared along with the number of people who can gape at them. In 2008, a U.S. policy change made Landsat images free over the web; more than 20 million have been downloaded. And no longer are mainframe computers needed to handle whopping image files. Thanks to leaps in microchip processing speeds, you can thumb through space-borne images on your smartphone.

As tens of thousands of South Sudanese streamed into Ethiopia last year, UNOSAT identified for U.N. officials the most suitable places for refugee camps. “We’ll provide them information on local conditions, what the ground looks like, where the roads are, where nearby towns are,” says Lars Bromley, principal analyst at UNOSAT. “A lot of that information simply doesn’t exist for the majority of the world—especially not these really rural, really remote areas, which suddenly have to absorb 50,000 people.”In Iraq, satellite experts identified the site of a massacre from a witness who remembered details of the landscape but little else. “In that case,” Bromley says, “we were told something like, They were taken from a building here, driven a few minutes down a road, then got to something that looked like a garbage dump where the grass looked burned. We say, OK...where could this be?”

Andrew Woods, a professor of international law at the University of Kentucky, imagines a future in which satellites reduce war crimes. Focusing on where rebels are marauding in northern Uganda, for instance, the U.N. might drop leaflets that read, Warning: Satellites Are Monitoring This Area. “Like security cameras in a dark alley,” Woods has said, such warnings “can send a clear and strong message to potential perpetrators that someone is watching.”