Is your NGO leveraging satellite imagery the right way?

By Catherine Cheney 08 February 2016

The deployment of Flock 1d Doves from the International Space Station. How can NGOs leverage the power of satellites? Photo by: Planet Labs

For generations, nomadic pastoralists have relied on deep ecological knowledge to find good pasture and fresh water for their herds. But as areas such as the Afar region of Ethiopia come under new pressure — from population growth, land battles and prolonged drought — new approaches to livelihood planning are needed. Thousands of traditional pastoralists in Afar have seen livestock mortality cut in half since they began using digital maps overlaid with vegetation data to find grazing areas for their cattle.

Increasingly, NGOs such as Project Concern International, the California-based international development organization behind this Satellite Assisted Pastoral Resource Management effort, are relying on satellite imagery for the actionable information they need. But while this overhead view is a valued resource for so many global development professionals, there are plenty of cautionary tales. Devex spoke with a range of experts to learn how you can leverage the power of satellites, while avoiding costly mistakes along the way.

Don’t spend money you don’t need to spend

Google Earth’s freely available archived images will be more than sufficient for most NGOs’ purposes. Some organizations waste time and money by failing to understand that just because satellite data is expensive doesn’t mean it will be useful for them.

“Among the NGO community, there is a misconception that satellite imagery is very expensive, even though most actors don’t actually need the images, but the information from the images to make decisions in the field,” said Einar Bjorgo, manager of the U.N.’s satellite program, UNOSAT, which is based at the European Organization for Nuclear Research in Geneva, Switzerland.

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About the author

Catherine cheney devex
Catherine Cheneycatherinecheney

Catherine Cheney covers the West Coast global development community for Devex. Since graduating from Yale University, where she earned bachelor's and master's degrees in political science, Catherine has worked as a reporter and editor for a range of publications including World Politics Review, POLITICO, and NationSwell, a media company and membership network she helped to build. She is also an ambassador for the Solutions Journalism Network and the Franklin Project at the Aspen Institute.

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