Public Access to Remote Sensing Data For IDP Relief

Questions have been raised about the ability of computerized mapping software to use remote sensing data to automatically count the numbers and distribution of internally displaced persons (IDPs).

The answer is yes, if remote sensing data can be made available, processed, geo-corrected or ‘snapped’ to fit existing computer maps, and then analyzed using multi-spectral technologies that can separate out extraneous visual data and identify particular types of objects or phenomenon such as people (IDPs) or contaminated surface water.

Simply having data is not enough. It also needs to be analyzed. Analytical issues are addressed later, below. First, we look at the pros and cons of open public access to high resolution aerial photographs.

Several foreign governments and corporations are producers of relevant data, with foreign militaries having access to the highest resolution data with the fastest refresh rates, and which is most likely to be geo-corrected quickly by highly skilled professionals.

We have been discussing reasons why foreign governments might be reluctant to share remote sensing data that had been gathered by its military. Five reasons are suggested here:

1. It could reveal methods and capabilities, which could embarrass both the foreign government that collects the data and the government of Pakistan. Sensing data is collected either through satellites or airplane flyovers. If it became known that a foreign government is using aircraft to collect and process detailed data (resolution less than 50 cm) with frequent refresh rates, this could become the subject of political controversy.

2. It would reveal military positions, some of which are poorly situated, poorly designed, poorly supported and obviously vulnerable. Detailed photos could be used to plan attacks. Security forces are interspersed with IDPs in some areas. So are military supplies.

3. Photos can show destruction in civilian areas that would run counter to official statements. It could also show that destruction is greater in scope than had been anticipated, contributing to decreased public support for continued military operations.

For example, although Google Earth has been obscuring conflict areas in northern Sri Lanka, Al Jazeera recently obtained and was able to analyze sequential aerial photos that indicated that airplanes had been dropping bombs in civilian ‘safe zones’ during a period when the Sri Lankan military declared that it was not bombing in those areas. Al Jazeera used remote sensing data to embarrass the government of Sri Lanka.

4. Photos can be used to analyze activities at nuclear sites. The military is most likely tracking Indian satellite locations and fly-over timings in an effort to schedule the movement of sensitive materials at times when those satellites are least able to make accurate observations. But if remote sensing data is readily available from multiple sources, then it becomes easier to identify and scrutinize sensitive military facilities.

5. Photos can show how nuclear sites and convoys of nuclear materials are defended. Nuclear warheads require periodic refurbishment, which is usually conducted at a central location. Helicopter convoys are safer and quicker than land convoys for swapping out warheads. Pakistan is probably using both land and air convoys.

Simply banning geographical information systems (GIS) and remote sensing data in Pakistan may not have much of an effect. Militants can acquire or be given GIS data that has been collected and analyzed elsewhere. It can be transmitted as photographs over mobile phones, sent by fax machines or email attachments. Commercial satellite companies sell high-resolution data openly, as do several governments—not all of which are friendly to Pakistan.

Our next questions concern the benefits and applications of remote sensing data. Here we came up with six benefits and uses.

1. Aid flows are usually uneven, with some of the most critical humanitarian needs not being identified right away. Remote sensing data can show people sleeping in the open, or traveling, or in numbers greater than available resources can manage. It can also help with transportation planning.

2. Aid operations need to know where they can or should set up operations. Not just distribution operations and IDP camps, but also water supply and waste treatment and disposal sites.

3. Local government officials and residents from areas that were evacuated need information on the likelihood that they will have access to shelter if they return home.

4. Damage claims can be supported, confirmed or contested on the basis of remote sensing data. Claims payments have a higher likelihood of being distributed fairly if data is available for review.

5. Land title disputes provide fuel for some of the current security problems in the Swat Valley. GIS systems provide tools for resolving disputes and improving the legitimacy of government.

6. Resource conflicts will arise with water shortages in the future. GIS systems provide tools for water planning, wellhead protection, soil conservation, and other resource management activities.

The UNHCR is taking the lead in operating refugee camps in Pakistan now, supported by the UNHCR’s own GIS unit. While they admittedly lack access to high resolution data (and possibly other tools as well), it may be assumed that UNHCR has enough basic capabilities to achieve most of their GIS goals for supporting current aid operations.

The accuracy and adequacy of underlying GIS data sets is an open question, for example on water quality and water supplies. This data would originate from a patchwork of local sources, national agencies, universities and private sources.

Now would be an opportune time for a review of GIS data for natural resource planning, emergency services and conflict resolution in Pakistan. This review should include a focus on data gaps, quality issues and capability shortfalls. It could identify options for making GIS outputs (including analysis) accessible to the public at low or no charge. The role of universities, NGOs and government agencies as data collectors, verifiers and distributors could be examined. Last but not least, the security issues identified above could be discussed and resolved in a win-win approach.

Google Earth provides many users with their first experience with GIS and remote sensing data. But Google Earth lacks sophisticated analytical tools that have long been incorporated into even the most modest GIS systems. For example, there are tools to block out some color elements and highlight others, which can be filtered through signature systems (like a virus scanner looks for signatures) to identify and count things automatically, such as the number of people sleeping outside.

GIS became more computerized and popular in the 1980s, when it was recognized as a separate profession, the results from which were rarely seen by the general public. Now GIS tools and the ability to specify desired analytical tasks (and in many cases to perform the tasks) have spread into general business and public administration professions.

Not everyone wants to learn how to geo-reference satellite photos, manage soil and groundwater databases and demarcate property boundaries on a computer screen. But many people need access to sophisticated GIS outputs at some point in their lives.

Public-access GIS centres could be set up in each provincial capital to provide free analysis and reports to citizens and municipal officials. GIS could be more widely taught in schools as part of the business curriculum, in recognition of the importance of spatial analysis for business planning, marketing and logistics.

Librarians could be given training in how to operate Internet-based GIS systems and conduct GIS analysis. For example, they could be taught how to print out maps showing property boundaries, or soil classifications, or tube well locations.

The level of effort required for GIS tasks (including processing remote sensing data) runs the gamut from a few seconds to several years. Pakistan could become an international outsourcing destination for GIS system management, data correction and analysis. Clients would include individuals, corporations, governments and NGOs.

GIS work can often be done from home-based offices, which provides flexibility in terms of delivery options and expanded talent pools. As resource conflicts increase and global warming changes geographical features around the world, GIS will become more of a necessity—and business opportunity.

By Anthony Mitchell

Also check the extensive resource page to support Internally Displaced Persons from Swat Crisis

1 thought on “Public Access to Remote Sensing Data For IDP Relief”

Leave a Reply