Opinion: See the most vulnerable — see the human landscape

Satellite image of Kobanî, Syria, taken on October 25, 2014. Photo by: DigitalGlobe

The world is currently experiencing the worst humanitarian crises since World War II. Over 20 million people are at risk of starvation and famine across Yemen, South Sudan, Nigeria and Somalia. Now entering its seventh year of conflict, the Syrian civil war rages on without an end in sight, representing the largest portion of refugees and internally displaced people globally.

To be effective in helping these IDPs, relief organizations must have easy access to relevant and accurate locational data. Insight revealing medical facilities, refugee camps, vulnerable populations, safe zones and other data is paramount to any humanitarian mission. The dynamic nature of a humanitarian crisis necessitates a clear picture of the human landscape at different points in time.

Oftentimes, there is no accurate baseline of data showing past crises, contributing factors and other useful information. Just as defense and intelligence organizations leverage geospatial data to answer complex questions, so too should relief organizations.

In the 2016 Office of the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs report Leaving No One Behind: Humanitarian Effectiveness in the Age of the Sustainable Development Goals, the authors recommend five distinct approaches to reducing long-term vulnerability and generating sustainable, meaningful change. For each of these recommendations, humanitarians need both geospatial analysis of the physical environment and sociocultural understanding of the population. This blend of data constructs a human landscape providing a comprehensive perspective.

1. Reinforce, don’t replace existing capacities and coping strategies.

Over the past decade, advances in high-resolution imagery and data analysis have supported efforts in evacuation planning, monitoring, disaster response, recovery and rebuilding in many regions from Iraq to Indonesia, where immediate response and on-the-ground assessments were difficult at best. Having near real-time monitoring capabilities helps governments, rescue workers and the international community understand and manage political instability and natural disasters.

Human Landscape provides information on public security, conflict, medical facilities, refugee camps, ethnicity, religion and demographics in Syria. Click here to view a larger version. Photo by: DigitalGlobe

A strong point for Human Landscape data, enabling comprehensive views of denied mapping areas, or areas under enemy control, by satellite imagery and other open source data. While sensors collect data from high above the earth’s surface, Human Landscape data enrichment gives organizations ground level information critical to humanitarian mission success.  

Human Landscape points of interest and other data layers are replete with information about public security, conflict, medical facilities, refugee camps, ethnicity, religion, demographics and so much more. The temporal element facilitated by imagery and Human Landscape data is crucial in seeing the full picture of crises.

2. Enter with an exit: Collaborate to reduce and end humanitarian need.

To articulate an exit strategy, humanitarians need reliable, up-to-date information sources. While satellite imagery is great at showing what happened after the fact, it does not always account for what an area looked like before a crisis began. However, coupled with foundational data such as Human Landscape and advanced remote sensing, analysts are able to extract mission-critical information faster than ever before — something particularly valuable when it comes to rapidly changing, often inaccessible environments.

Remote sensing approaches provide information on where vulnerable populations are migrating, how many displaced persons are on the move, what kinds of resources they have access to and what threats and/or risks are nearby. Click here to view a larger version. Photo by: DigitalGlobe

Understanding the extent and specifics of humanitarian need is often a significant unknown. The current food security and IDP crisis in South Sudan underscores the importance of using remote sensing approaches to know exactly where vulnerable populations are migrating, how many displaced persons are on the move, what sort of resources they have access to and what threats and/or risks are nearby. A comprehensive foundational data set is incredibly valuable for intervention planning, but also critical to feasible exit strategies.

Enabling humanitarian aid intervention, post crisis analysis is significantly bolstered by innovative technological advancements in imagery and point of interest data. Future atrocities can be averted with properly coordinated efforts using cutting edge technological capabilities. The most successful missions always begin with the end in mind.

3. Leverage comparative advantage: Strengthen connectivity and strategic leadership.

Tapping into stakeholders outside the usual humanitarian system can be incredibly beneficial. Being inclusive of the private sector will unlock even greater potential to address humanitarian challenges, especially in terms of harnessing technological advances like remote sensing, call data records, social media mining and more.

Within the tech sector, companies such as DigitalGlobe are leading the charge to deliver full scope geospatial information from imagery to information within that imagery, and every bit of insight therein. DigitalGlobe and Lockheed Martin have extensive experience in delivering geospatial intelligence on crisis situations moving quickly to provide near real-time insights as to the reality on the ground.

“Just as defense and intelligence organizations leverage geospatial data to answer complex questions, so too should relief organizations.”

— Rhiannan Price, DigitalGlobe

Together, DigitalGlobe and Lockheed Martin have developed the HelpNow platform to support resource deployment in responding to natural disasters. The platform leverages best-in-class satellite imagery and big data analytics to streamline responses among relief agencies.

Additionally, DigitalGlobe’s Open Data Program is a good example of private sector leadership for humanitarian response. As part of the program, DigitalGlobe proactively releases imagery to support first responders in the immediate wake of a natural disaster. Not only is this critical in terms of timely information for the emergency phase, but it also fosters a community of practice among disaster response agencies and imagery providers improving response capabilities.

4. See the whole picture: 360 degrees of risks and needs.

The integration of Human Landscape data offers a holistic view to humanitarian crises. It provides the opportunities to evaluate local resource availability, identify where at risk populations are, map ingress and egress routes, conduct damage assessments and more.

We live in an era of unprecedented access to information that often allows us to anticipate crises. For example, evidence of enhanced fortifications and the presence of heavy equipment necessary to transport armored vehicles became harbingers of potential threats to civilian populations living near military points of interest in Syria.

By way of needs and risk assessments, the human landscape, composed of satellite imagery and open-source GIS data analyses, is an indispensable resource. It offers a comprehensive perspective across sectors from food security to water availability to human rights abuses.

5. Measure shared results for collective accountability.

Satellite imagery solutions and associated analyses are great conduits to plan interventions, as well as monitor and evaluate outcomes as they unfold on the ground. From start to finish, humanitarians can iterate quickly and as the situation demands with consistent information sources.

The Satellite Sentinel Project serves as a good example of promoting transparency and accountability, plus the associated risks and tradeoffs of doing so in a humanitarian context. The public deployment of remote sensing data and collection technologies during the alleged mass atrocities in Sudan provided insight into challenges these platforms may have in these scenarios.

By advancing the practice of near-real time monitoring and documenting alleged mass atrocities, SSP ensured that when policymakers and the public fail to serve as rescuers, they are still forced to become witnesses.

Of course, imagery still represents a single source of data about alleged events within a dynamic humanitarian situation. Remote sensing analysis alone does not produce conclusive results, only interpretations. However, by combining satellite imagery with open source data and heavily enriching that data, we gain the comprehensive perspective on the human landscape; a perspective we cannot afford to ignore.

With our incredible space technology, we can see the most vulnerable who need our assistance. Let’s make sure the rest of the humanitarian community sees them as well.

For more information on how geospatial and sociocultural data can help answer critical questions about the complex Syrian crisis, take a look at The Human Landscape: Identifying and Understanding Conflict in Syria.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Rhiannan Price

    Rhiannan Price is director of the sustainable development practice at Maxar. Price works with partners across the development and humanitarian spectrum. She focuses on bridging the gap between what is technically feasible and what is needed by global development practitioners.