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Detecting Human Rights Violations with Satellites: CPG Fellow Proposes a New Approach

Human rights organizations often use satellite imagery to verify reports of a mass human rights violation, such as the destruction of a village in a remote or inaccessible area. Current practice for using satellite imagery is generally reactive and costly: organizations must first receive reports identifying where a violation has occurred, then order high resolution commercial satellite imagery of that location and employ trained imagery analysts to interpret the images. While serving as a Fellow of the Museum’s Center for the Prevention of Genocide from February to May 2013, Dr. Andrew Marx of the US Department of State tested a more pro-active and cost-effective approach to using satellite imagery to detect mass human rights violations.

Dr. Marx’s approach uses free and publicly available mid-resolution images provided by NASA satellites. He theorized that destruction of villages by burning would produce a change in the reflectivity pattern of the affected area that could be automatically detected with the NASA imagery. During his fellowship, Dr. Marx successfully tested his methodology by comparing images taken of Darfur between 2000 and 2008 with a database of 2,666 villages in Darfur that were reported as destroyed during that period. The comparison not only confirmed that his methodology could detect villages that had been burned, it also provided new insights into the Darfur conflict during the period examined. While the location of the burned villages is already known at approximately an annual basis, this study provided the first comprehensive documentation of when villages were destroyed within as little as a two week period, thus showing more specific and accurate patterns of violence than were previously documented. Although Dr. Marx screened for patterns consistent with the burning of villages, he theorizes that other types of destruction associated with human rights violations cause reflectivity changes that can also be detected using mid-resolution imagery.

Each NASA satellite image covers an area far larger than that captured in a high-resolution image, and NASA satellites currently capture the entire Earth’s surface every eight days. The NASA images are free and publicly available within 24 hours of when they are taken.  Consequently, Marx’s methodology could facilitate near real-time monitoring of large areas at risk of mass human rights violations. When the NASA images of those areas show changes consistent with such violations, human rights organizations could follow up by obtaining high resolution imagery of the areas where those changes occurred. Violations could then be detected before they were reported by other sources.

Read Dr. Marx’s paper on his findings. 

Palantir Technologies assisted Dr. Marx to produce visualizations of his research data during his CPG fellowship. Watch a video they created illustrating the destruction over time of villages in Darfur from 2003-2008:

Village Burnings Detected, Month to Month: Darfur, Sudan: 2003 to 2008