Satellite and geospatial tech for humanitarian crises

A Public Q&A

Dr. Emrys Schoemaker
Caribou Digital

--

In October Caribou Digital convened a discussion around the use of geospatial technology and data for humanitarian crises. We were privileged to be joined by UKHIH Caribou Space fellows Catherine Nakalembe (Associate Research Professor, University of Maryland), David Garcia (PhD candidate at University of Canterbury, Christchurch looking at geospatial technologies) and Stella Chelangat (Geospatial and remote sensing expert) as well as over forty people from different backgrounds and organisations.

A recording of the session is available here.

The discussion focused on the Fellows’ cutting edge research and their work on mapping the geospatial technology for humanitarian crises sector, and covered a wide range of topics from Catherine’s insights into the application of technologies and data, David’s deep understanding of community uses of geospatial data and Stella’s rich experience of using satellite technology and geospatial data for humanitarian response. Amongst others, one underlying theme that ran through much of the discussion was the importance of the bridges and connections between the technical dimensions of satellite technologies and geospatial data and the users and impact of these innovative data sources.

The data is out there

Stella described the importance of satellite data for humanitarian response, saying ‘It allows us to understand the hazards, the services and the needs prior to humanitarian event after humanitarian event.’ but that it also played an important role in anticipatory humanitarian action — ‘particularly in areas that face conflict in Eastern Africa, including South Sudan and Ethiopia’. Stella went on to describe in Kenya, satellite data is available, but it’s application always depends on the use and their knowledge. Catherine went on to describe how at a macro level resources such as the Google Earth Engine and the Sentinel hub, which provides detailed data and analysis exist — as she put it, ‘the resources are out there. You just have to know how to find them’ .

From data to application

But the existence of data does not necessarily translate into application. Catherine went on to describe her perception of the gap between the advanced technical research work producing data and the application of geospatial data, and a sense that ‘nobody wants to do the in-between work. And that in-between work is really important when engaging with different stakeholders’. This is particularly striking from field experience, where she described ‘the chaos of setting up, you know, buildings and structures, giving people support and aid has no relationship with a geographical interface because sometimes there’s even no power or no internet’. This leads to a sense that there is ‘this in-between void between the satellite application and the practical implications on the ground’.

David, drawing on his experience of working with communities, elaborated on this, and how important he found it to view mapping in a social and technical way — ‘So for example, I deal with shapefiles and rasters. At the same time, I have to face the community’. David shared three keywords that helped illustrate the challenge of applying geospatial data in practice: It’s about accuracy, it’s about accessibility and about accountability: accuracy in terms of making sure that information is accurate in response to people’s needs, describing how as needs changed the data didn’t — ‘the imagery focused on the buildings, so we couldn’t trace the reefs, an important part of our long long-term resilience’. Accessibility refers to the presence of really easy to use open geospatial tools — ‘One of my favourites is Field Papers. I just go to the website and then select an area of interest. I select how many A4 papers I want to spread the map over. And then the website generates a map layout based on OpenStreetMap. After printing the PDF, I could lay the maps side by side and tape them together. Our mapping team can then go to do fieldwork without the need for a large-format printer, especially in rural areas’. Finally, accountability connects to the importance of maintaining relationships and accountability to people on the ground, especially given the temporary nature of humanitarian funding — ‘And then funding goes, but it’s the same people that’s doing the work’.

The use of data: ethics in practice

A second theme of the discussion was around the ethical use of data, which is increasingly a concern, particularly to the application of satellite and geospatial data in ways that uphold humanitarian principles.

All three Fellows emphasised the importance of incorporating ethics into the use and application of geospatial technologies and data. David illustrated this with an account of involvement in one of the OpenStreetMap pilot projects in 2013, and how he had to translate the complex concept of ethics ‘in an ordinary way, in an everyday level’ in engaging with both international diplomats and village leaders because ‘people like me who are both international and local, we have to translate this at the local level’. He went on to describe how, faced with a government that was reluctant to share detailed mapping data, the OpenStreetMap community embarked on a community mapping exercise — but in the process came up against opposition from local community to including certain spiritually and culturally significant sites and locations on the map, and had to negotiate the ‘humanitarian imperative’ of saving lives against the local concerns and values around protecting certain sacred spaces. This negotiation highlighted the challenge of translating high level, at times abstract concepts such as ‘ethics’ and ‘humanitarian principles’ into practice — and the importance of negotiating these issues with people themselves — as David concluded, ‘So I suppose there is the focus on ordinary ethics. That is one key phrase. We had to negotiate to have opportunities for both geospatial refusal and knowledge equity.’

The discussion covered a broad range of topics, from specific data availability to the challenges of applying and translating technical data into usable formats to the application of geospatial data for anticipatory humanitarian response — this is a select, edited summary of some key themes. The Beyond Borders programme continues, and will produce a report providing an overview mapping of key issues and opportunities in the sector in early 2022, while the Fellows own research complementing this programme will also be completed at the same time — and we look forward to a second public discussion around these findings. Watch the Caribou Space website and social media channels for more details.

Beyond Borders is funded and supported by the UK Humanitarian Innovation Hub (UKHIH), an initiative working to overcome long standing humanitarian challenges through strategic collaborations, networks, and evidence. The UK Humanitarian Innovation Hub is funded by the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) and hosted by Elrha, a global charity that finds solutions to complex humanitarian problems through research and innovation.

--

--

Dr. Emrys Schoemaker
Caribou Digital

research & strategy; digital technology, media and identity ; development, conflict & governance; Caribou Digital; PhD (LSE)