How using Remote Sensing is a “Game Changer” in Humanitarian response: And do you know you can become a space archaeologist?


The Blue Marble is a famous photograph of the Earth, taken on December 7, 1972, by the crew of the Apollo 17 spacecraft, at a distance of about 45,000 kilometers (28,000 miles).

DID YOU KNOW: It is one of the most iconic, and among the most widely distributed images in human history. That was the dawn of remote sensing, 44 years later and we have never relented on our quest to understand mother earth and conquer space.
Aerial photographs, satellites and now UAV/Drones are technologies that have enhanced our ability to study the earth from above and beyond. Remote sensing has found its way in various fields from military, agriculture, mineral exploration, humanitarian response to just about any activity that occurs on this blue little planet and beyond the horizons.

Remote sensing however is still quite new in the humanitarian field with just 10years…we can consider it a late bloomer on steroids. However, with rapid escalation of conflicts, climate change, population growth; remote sensing is the only humanly feasible means by which we can respond quicker and effectively, and below I explore a few areas that remote sensing is being utilized in the humanitarian field. Within and at the end I site some resources and links to sites that both individuals and NGO’s can utilize.

Remote sensing for Cross border conflicts detection

DID YOU KNOW: The first two months of 2015 saw about 8,300 people die as a result of conflict in sub-Saharan Africa, with just five countries – Nigeria, Cameroon, Sudan, Somalia and Niger – accounting for roughly 90% of these deaths. Over 10 active conflicts are currently in Africa.
Most violence was concentrated in West Africa, where conflict between armed forces and Islamist group Boko Haram, and Boko Haram attacks on civilians, accounted for the majority of conflict deaths.

GIS in Conflict analysis

Most violence was concentrated in West Africa, where conflict between armed forces and Islamist group Boko Haram, and Boko Haram attacks on civilians, accounted for the majority of conflict deaths.

With over 10 conflicts taking place in Africa today, outbreaks of hostilities along international borders can be difficult to predict. Even in cases where the countries involved share a well-known and long-running dispute, escalations often appear to occur with little to no warning.

With the benefit of hindsight, indicators of an impending conflict may be identifiable; however, these are often overlooked as a crisis develops. Satellite imagery and other remote sensing technologies are being increasingly adopted for human rights purposes.

Efforts being undertaken by the Satellite Sentinel Project — tracking atrocities in Sudan — and Amnesty International USA’s Science and Human Rights team have been particularly pioneering in this regard. In 2013 The Resolve with the help of Digital Globe used satellite imagery to accurately locate LRA rebel camps at location called Kafia Kingi enclave at the border of South Sudan.

Satellite imagery of Kony’s reported camp in Kafia Kingi in late 2012 (© DigitalGlobe 2013)

A number of factors can explain observers’ frequent inability to discern the warning signs of an impending conflict. For example, the areas in which such conflicts first erupt are often inaccessible to researchers, either due to their remoteness, bureaucratic or administrative obstacles, or unstable internal security.

Furthermore, indicators that are identified post-facto as having led to a crisis can often appear to be innocuous as they are taking place. Satellite imagery, with its ability to reliably document remote areas over a long period of time, provides away to overcome many of these challenges.

Satellite imagery is a powerful and versatile tool for investigating emerging cross-border conflict. By offering an overhead view of hostilities, it can reveal large-scale trends in remote or inaccessible areas that may not be obvious to ground-based observers.

Successfully leveraging this technology, however, requires planning and implementing a search and analysis strategy that is tailored to both the nature of the conflict and the financial and analytical resources of investigators and/or their institution.

The power of satellite imagery as an analytical tool is likely to increase in the future. Humanitarian organizations and individuals involved in cross border conflict resolution can soon benefit from our new course GIS & Remote Sensing for Cross Border Conflicts Analysis.

Disaster response
Disaster Map

DID YOU KNOW: Each year, disasters around the world kill nearly 100,000 and affect or displace 200 million people. Many of the places where these disasters occur are literally ‘missing’ from any map and first responders lack the information to make valuable decisions regarding relief efforts.
Missing Maps is an open, collaborative project in which you can help to map areas where humanitarian organizations are trying to meet the needs of vulnerable people. This project aims to map before (map ahead) disasters happen, targeting vulnerable communities.

The power of satellite imagery and remote sensing is its ability to freeze moments in time, capturing the image of an area before a flood, earth quake can be used to access the level of destruction. Satellite imagery of a disaster struck area can be converted to shapefile (GIS vector data format) or for instance used in spatial analysis for estimating the population affected in an area.

This is a very rapid and affordable method of natural disaster monitoring that could be useful for local administrations. Flood assessment tool developed through the support the Indonesian Government-BNPB, the Australian Government, the World Bank-GFDRR and independent contributors, utilizes remotely sensed disaster foot prints like floods within GIS to better plan, prepare and respond to natural disasters.

Great organizations like the Humanitarian Open Street Map Team through other international agencies, have revolutionized the way humanitarian organizations around the world respond to disasters, during the Nepal earth quake disaster It took just 48 hours after the earthquake hit Nepal for a global network of volunteer geeks to fill in big gaps (nice visualization here) in the nation’s map for relief workers on the ground using a backdrop of high resolution satellite imagery.

nepal earth quake

Image credit: Digital Globe

In a country known for its poor roads, humanitarian agencies need to know which are still passable? Which patches of land can serve as helipads, or, lacking space, drop zones? Where are the landslides? And how many structurally sound buildings will aid workers fine once they arrive?

Answering those questions is the goal of crisis mapping, which has become an important assist to first responders in many parts of the world. Digital humanitarians using satellite imagery will continue to be at the center of humanitarian response helping the international community to respond accordingly. Geographic Information Solutions is a proud OSM contributor. You too can contribute by becoming a volunteer at www.hotosm.org.

Satellite Imagery to analyze IDP/Refugee Camps

DID YOU KNOW: There are an estimated 59.5 million people displaced by persecution and conflict in the world. This breaks down to 19.5 million refugees, 38.2 million internally displaced persons and 895,000 asylum seekers.
The use of remote sensing to support responses to civilian displacement can prove valuable for site planning, identifying patterns of population change, and capturing key data for program planning and evaluation purposes.

A planned camp, is a displaced population camp of refugees and/or IDPs being serviced by international and non-governmental aid agencies in a specific location. Planned camps can develop from initially self-settled camps in some cases.
Refugees in Syria

Credit map to: Geographic Information Solutions data source from UNHCR

While planned camps are one type of displaced population camp, self-settled IDP and refugee settlements are often of interest to humanitarian and human rights groups as well. These camps occur spontaneously when civilian populations flee a natural disaster or violence to self-selected locations. Self-settled camps can occur organically when displaced populations cluster near a specific location in an often uncoordinated way.

Planned camps often have repeating visual properties and phenomena that reflect the ongoing presence of aid agencies and the sustained provision of humanitarian assistance to a specific population over time. Though these properties and phenomena vary across regions, these characteristics may sometimes even vary within the same region.

Some of these visual properties and phenomena often present in planned camps may include the following:

  • Common types and/or models of civilian shelter structures
  • Established camp perimeter, such as a fence, trench, or official boundary line
  • Agency compounds for staff living quarters, program support structures, warehouses, and administrative buildings
  • Logistics infrastructure such as airstrips, motor pools, and ground transport operations; and
    Repeating arrangements of buildings, which may sometimes include Sphere-standard derived placements of certain infrastructure, such as washing facilities, kitchens, and other civilian-use facilities.                                                                                                                                                                 In all cases, analysts must seek non-imagery data corroborating of the camp’s location and the presence of specific agencies through reliable, often public sources. These sources may include maps, situation reports, news articles, and/or information acquired directly from humanitarian agencies.Zatari Refugee Camp

Space /Satellite Archeology

They say we are a product of our past and literally that’s what archeology is all about, from ancient Egyptians in North Africa to the Mayan’s in South America, it almost seems like all possible ancient discoveries have been made.

DID YOU KNOW: Archaeologists have explored less than 10% of the earth’s surface. Everything we know about our past civilizations comes from a collective area only about the size of Egypt. It’s taken us hundreds of years to explore this much. But in the next 10 years, we can explore the remaining 90%.
Modern a.k.a space archaeologists are for the first time are using satellites to unravel hidden civilizations. Archaeologist Sarah Parcak a pioneer in space archaeology and winner of 2016 TED price, says she has discovered thousands of ancient sites in Egypt, from pyramids to a detailed street plan of the city of Tanis (yes you read that right, the site made famous by the Indiana Jones film Raiders of the Lost Ark) an A-to-Z of the region’s northern capital – all thanks to images from space generated by remote-sensing satellites orbiting 700 kilometers, (or 435 miles), above the Earth.

The infra-red pictures are capable of tracing structures buried deep in the sand. “It just shows us,” she adds, “how easy it is to underestimate both the size and scale of past human settlements”.

The cameras on the satellites are so powerful they can spot objects of less than a meter in diameter.


An ancient streetmap: A satellite image shows a once densely occupied city of Tanis to be littered with underground tombs. Buildings in ancient Egypt were constructed out of mud brick – the material is dense, allowing satellites orbiting above Earth to photograph the outlines of structures completely invisible to the human eyes of even trained archaeologists in ground surveys.


Modern city San El Hagar on the left, with the inset showing the location of ancient Tanis, that was buried underneath the earth. Previous excavations only uncovered a small section of the city.

“It just shows us,” she adds, “how easy it is to underestimate both the size and scale of past human settlements”.


For years, archaeologists have waged a desperate global battle against the looting of ancient sites and the ransacking of humanity’s past. They have pressed government leaders to post police guards at major sites, crack down on the networks of antiquity smugglers, and issue red alerts on plundered artifacts.“The reality is we are losing the battle against looting,” Parcak says. “Archaeologists have limited resources, and we need to scale up big time.”

Sarah Parcak, winner of the million-dollar TED Prize, is equipping an army of citizen-scientists through this crowd sourcing platform to discover and protect ancient sites. They currently have a very interesting campaign to find “Ghost boats” and oil slick in the Mediterranean, having previously contributed in Nepal, Mapping fires in South Africa.

“The reality is we are losing the battle against looting,” Parcak says. “Archaeologists have limited resources, and we need to scale up big time.”
Mapping Forest Degradation and Land use change

DID YOU KNOW: Rainforests once covered 14% of the earth’s land surface; now they cover a mere 6% and experts estimate that the last remaining rainforests could be consumed in less than 40 years. One and one-half acres of rainforest are lost every second with tragic consequences for both developing and industrial countries.
Change detection of Earth’s surface features is important for understanding relationships and interactions between human and natural phenomena in order to promote better decision making. Remote sensing data are used for change detection within urban environments.

One of the effects of urbanization on forests all over the world is a loss of tree canopy. The loss of tree canopy has an important impact on stream water quality, soil fertility, river water levels etc. There are advantages to conducting land cover change analysis from high‐resolution satellite imagery, but the small spatial extents and relatively high price of such images create difficulties for reviewing land cover.

A less costly and more resourceful approach to the mapping of land cover change is to use medium‐resolution images from Landsat, and augment these finding with ASTER data analysis.

Conducting change detection using remotely sensed data requires careful considerations of the sensor, environmental characteristics and processing methods. Accurate spatial alignment of imagery is critical because false results of change detection will be produced if the imagery is not correctly registered. In addition, data should be collected on a consistent temporal cycle, within the same season as a minimum.

Vegetation classification is produced for two different years of imagery‐‐one old and one recent, below we used this to analyze land cover degradation within to River Rwizi in Western Uganda, images taken 14 years apart allowed us to understand areas of the river experiencing the most encroachment pressure from urbanization to help inform targeted government intervention in the areas.

gis uganda (2)


  • Knowledge gap: Very few people have the technical know-how of how to utilize remote sensing in their organizations, even hard core GIS technicians struggle with remote sensing and imagery analysis.
  • Cost: The cost of acquiring high resolution satellite imagery has dramatically decreased over the years; our recent partnership with a satellite industry leader SIIS Imaging, allows clients in East and Central Africa to acquire very high resolution imagery from as low as $35* per SqKm.
  • Awareness: Just like taking selfie photos with our phones is not going anywhere; taking photos of the earth from above a.k.a remote sensing is here to stay, but we need more people working in the humanitarian sector and government agencies to know this and understand how they can use the technology to improve on their work. In Uganda during the campaign trail, drones where used to capture crowds in attendance and woe supporters, it’s unfortunate when a disaster strikes you never hear of the government deploying any of such technology to carryout assessments.

Deploying people to field alone is no longer enough, we need to be ready to respond in a matter of hours not days, and remote sensing is the one trick up our sleeves, we need eyes on the ground before boots on the ground.

The rise of voluntary technical organizations (VTO) as part of the crisis mapping movement is a crucial factor in remote sensing’s more central role in supporting operations that assist displaced populations.

What was once only the domain of UN or government-based experts supporting humanitarian operations at the headquarters level is now considered a standard tool in the humanitarian toolbox.

Quick Links and Resources

www.tomnod.com www.inasafe.org www.hotsom.org www.earthexplorer.usgs.gov www.si-imaging.com www.geoinfo-solutions.com/qgis-training www.openstreetmap.org https://www.ted.com/talks/sarah_parcak_archeology_from_space?language=en