First results from satellite watch over Sudan

Images did not detect any large-scale army movement Copyright: FlickrDigitalGlobe-Imagery

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The first satellite images of Sudan aimed at preventing and monitoring human rights abuses during the recent referendum have been released.

The Satellite Sentinel Project was launched just before South Sudan voted on separation from the North (9–15 January). By hiring satellite capacity, the human rights organisation Not On Our Watch was able to photograph the land and hoped to deter and monitor any armed conflict.

Speaking after the release of the data, Steve Wood, a vice-president of DigitalGlobe, the US-based satellite imagery company that supplied the images, told SciDev.Net that the geographical scale and amount of imagery collected and made available were unprecedented.

"Around 750,000 square kilometres were photographed in 30 days," he said.

The images and analysis, released last month (27 January) revealed that company-sized units of Sudanese Armed Forces equipped with light armour and artillery were deployed in South Kordofan around the disputed oil-producing Abyei region and in other strategic areas along Sudan's volatile North−South border.

But it found no evidence of the army moving forwards.

"Neither side in this conflict is preparing for imminent forward troop movement," said Jonathan Hutson, director of communications at the Enough Project, a project collaborator.

Wood admitted it was impossible to say whether Satellite Sentinel contributed to the lack of conflict so far, but he believed that it helped to stabilise the situation and de-escalate tensions.

The project did not catch any of the small-scale conflicts and violence reported by the media over the past month. But Hutson told SciDev.Net that the project was focusing on detecting large-scale army movements and atrocities such as the burning of villages.

Nathaniel Raymond, director of operations for human rights documentation at Harvard University, said that areas where small-scale fighting occurred can now be p

ut through higher scrutiny. But he warned that any satellite imagery has resolution limitations.

Such large-scale projects might only be suitable for monitoring a predictable, large event, such as the referendum in Sudan, said Susan Wolfinbarger, a senior programme associate at the American Association for the Advancement of Science who works on Eyes On Darfur, a human rights initiative that uses satellite imagery to monitor atrocities in Darfur.

The main limitation of such projects — large or small — is the lack of intelligence from the ground, said Wolfinbarger. Without reports on where to focus efforts, the cost of purchasing imagery — US$10–25 per square kilometre — can "quickly get out of hand", she said.

But commercial digital imagery companies are moving in the right direction, said Wolfinbarger, citing DigitalGlobe and also the GeoEye Foundation, another US-based company that allows non-governmental organisations free use of imagery for purposes such as disaster response.

The Satellite Sentinel was conceived by the film star George Clooney and funded with US$750,000 from Not On Our Watch, an organisation that brought together private companies, universities and the charitable sector in record time to raise awareness and implement satellite monitoring in almost real time.

Never has commercial imagery been made freely available so quickly, said Wood, adding that having an international star on board contributed to the speed at which project came together.

"Our killer app [application] is not the new technology, it's that we're developing a new model for collaboration," he said.

Although there are no plans to expand the project, the recent unrest in Egypt and Tunisia might have been candidates for similar projects, Wood said.

Hutson said the project showed how we could respond more effectively to disasters, disease outbreaks and ecological issues. "We're trying to prevent war before it happens … it's the world's first open-source platform for waging peace," he said.

Investigators from Harvard University in the United States will evaluate the project later this year.  

Link to the Satellite Sentinel Project's first report [4.3MB]

Link to video of George Clooney in South Sudan