Opinion: Transforming aid and development with satellite imagery

A nano-satellite on display. Photo by: tacophish05 / CC BY

Satellite imagery is evolving rapidly, with dramatic leaps in the timeliness of imagery, improvements in resolution, and economics influenced by new providers. With this has also come new imagery analytics providers, in some cases eliminating the barrier of having in-house imagery analysis skills. The implications to dramatically improve disaster relief and sustainable international development are profound. Whether providing up-to-date imagery simply for a clear overview of an emergent situation or to survey a large area of interest, satellites offer a cost-effective option to gather information in a non-intrusive way. It is the duty of aid and development practitioners to stay abreast of these trends to bring the most effective tools to their programs.  

Nano-satellites — typically shoebox-sized devices weighing less than 10 kilograms — have invaded space, offering new options for pictures and video. While recent years saw an average of just under 100 successful nano-satellite launches, 2017 is on track to exceed 400 new nano-satellites in orbit. One imaging company, Planet Labs, launched 88 satellites from a single rocket in February 2017. They and other providers can now offer daily image updates of the entire earth’s landmass, and high-resolution imagery is updated at least weekly. Emerging trends include low cost femto-satellites (less than 100 grams), and greater availability of real-time video and picture resolutions from satellites that challenge that from unmanned aerial vehicles.

“Aid and development actors should identify imagery providers that can best support their needs and pre-negotiate an agreement to access imagery before an emergency occurs.”

— Stephen Hellen, director of ICT4D & GIS at Catholic Relief Services

The significant reduction in the size and weight of satellites — and corresponding competition in the commercial satellite arena — is democratizing earth observation data. At the same time, government satellites such as Sentinel and Landsat continue to produce critical imagery that is becoming increasingly accessible through large volume datasets such as those hosted by Amazon Web Services, and emerging platforms for imagery discovery, such as Radiant, which is tailored to the aid and development community.

Satellite imagery offers countless possibilities that will change the way aid and development is planned and operationalized. Here are three ways it can help to improve and save lives.

1. Assist refugees

Near real-time monitoring can track movement and displacement of people and observe the growth of camps. With rapidly unfolding situations, it is difficult using traditional tools to plan support efforts. Satellites provide imagery that is often the lowest cost and most timely for a large area of interest. This can track not only migration, but also which groups have received some types of aid (such as shelter kits), offering insight into who has or has not been reached. Supervising construction of temporary housing is challenging. Imagery that is high resolution and near real-time can optimize follow-up by staff on the ground to improve aid delivery.

2. Improve program delivery

Imagery for impact: Example from the ground

In a program aiming to reduce childhood stunting by providing supplemental food rations in Madagascar, remote community members were not able to travel to food distribution sites consistently. Catholic Relief Services applied a predictive analysis technique, using a digital elevation model to compute walk-times based on terrain. This data was used to optimize the placement of food distribution sites, leading to a significant reduction in walk times and increased consistency in receiving food rations.

Whether drawing from a shuttle radar topography mission or more recent elevation models that provide detailed topographic data on a global scale, digital elevation models have a wide array of possible applications. This elevation data can help better understand agricultural indicators such as the distribution of plants and evaluating where to best plant certain crops; weather and rainfall patterns; evaluation and impact of natural hazards and climate change-related weather events, including drought, landslides, and flooding; and the use of topography to optimize the location of services.

3. Increase situational awareness

Having a clear overview of the recent condition of infrastructure, such as roads and bridges, can assist with operational planning. Humanitarian actors are most effective when they can tailor a response based on an accurate assessment of need in an affected area. High resolution imagery accelerates the response by helping to pinpoint roads and terrain suitable for transporting relief supplies to those affected by the disaster. This is particularly helpful for areas that are too dangerous to deploy staff. Moreover, responders will know how much aid they need if they know the extent of the damage and an estimated number of people affected. Satellite imagery helps humanitarian response to be timely, better coordinated, and more effective.

So what’s needed for aid and development organizations to take advantage of satellite imagery capabilities?

First, it is necessary to understand various imagery options including satellite/UAV, commercial/public, types of spectral bands, resolution, and timeliness. The answer to what to use will be specific to the context of a particular need to find the optimal balance between features and cost.

Second, it is necessary to develop partnerships with providers to access imagery before there is an emergent need. Most commercial providers have a specific offering to support social impact or humanitarian endeavors. In large-scale emergencies, some imagery is often made freely available. Aid and development actors should identify imagery providers that can best support their needs and pre-negotiate an agreement to access imagery before an emergency occurs.

Third, organizations need access to the right skillset to intake, process, host, and use imagery.  For the largest organizations, this may be through in-house staff. Other organizations may find it most appropriate to have an agreement in place with a firm that offers this expertise as a service.

Finally, it is necessary to socialize the art of what is possible with imagery so that actors at all levels understand what resources exist and how they can be leveraged in their sector.

We owe it to the communities we serve to bring our best resources to support their needs. Let’s seize the opportunity of the rapidly advancing science and changing economics of imagery to dramatically improve international development and disaster relief.

See more from our Satellites for Sustainability partner UKSA on earth observation.

What’s the link between satellites and development? Devex, Inmarsat and the U.K. Space Agency take a look in Satellites for Sustainability. We explore the role of space programs and satellite technology in facilitating mission-critical connectivity and ask if it can provide sustainable economic or societal benefits in developing countries. Join us by tagging #Sats4SDGs and @Devex as we make it our mission to discover the link between connectivity and solving global challenges.

About the author

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    Steve Hellen

    Steve Hellen has nearly 20 years of IT experience. He joined Catholic Relief Services in 2012 and leads the agency’s ICT4D and GIS practice. In 2016 he led an update of CRS’ ICT4D strategy to focus on data analytics, scale and enabling programs and partners.