You are not logged in. LOG IN NOW >

In Identifying Atrocity, Many Hands May Make Fast Work: Crowdsourcing Satellite Imagery

BY Nick Judd | Monday, September 12 2011

Volunteers picked out likely human shelters in some 3,700 individual images of this area of Somalia to test the idea of distributing the work of imagery analysis; this is a map of the shelters they identified. Image: Courtesy Patrick Meier and Tomnod.

Despite reports from U.N. officials, the Syrian government denies that as many as 2,600 people have been killed there during anti-government protests, instead pushing its own narrative of events — and with investigators unable to see for themselves, it's hard for the world to know the truth.

New ways of managing satellite images and distributing the task of examining them may change that, in Syria and elsewhere. With the help of a new method developed over the past month, Ushahidi's Patrick Meier and a team from Amnesty International USA will distribute the task of investigating possible human rights violations in Syria as viewed from the air, Meier reported on his blog Friday.

Volunteers from a group called the Standby Task Volunteer Force Satellite Team will look for evidence of destruction, thinning the stack of images for professional analysts to parse by identifying the ones that show clear signs of violence: Burnt and darkened buildings, roofs missing from homes, roadblocks, military equipment in residential areas, and other evidence that the scene in Syria is one in which civilians are coming face to face with a brutal regime. When at least three volunteers tag the same feature — say, three people identify the same black speck as a blown-out building — it will go to Amnesty International USA imagery analysts for expert review. The hope is that this will save time for professionals while ensuring that the situation in Syria gets the same attention that other possible sites of human rights violations are already getting.

Satellite imagery is a powerful tool in the arsenal of activists seeking to document atrocity. Most recently, in Sudan, the staff at George Clooney's Satellite Sentinel Project worked for weeks to gain attention for imagery they obtained that they said was evidence of mass graves for people who have died during ongoing unrest in one of that country's southern reaches, South Kordofan. Their most recent imagery lends support and context to findings from a week-long investigation that civilians had been killed by airstrikes in the region as the government seeks to assert its authority there following South Sudan's separation from Sudan.

But Satellite Sentinel is devoted to Sudan, Meier writes, and other expert satellite imagery analysts have more work than man-hours. Fortunately, there are alternatives: Thanks to platforms like Tomnod, which manages the distribution of images to volunteers and aggregating what they tag in those images, it's possible to crowdsource the work of identifying areas that really warrant an expert's time. Meier and the Standby Task Volunteer Force Satellite Team tested out this method late last month by asking volunteers to identify a certain type of shelter in images of a road from Mogadishu to Afgooye in Somalia — one of the largest urban areas in the country, Meier writes, thanks to displacement from war and famine. They identified some 9,400 shelters — data created not to answer any questions about Somalia, Meier told me in a later email, but to test out using volunteers to pore through thousands of images and identify the ones that deserve more attention.

"The point of the pilot was to try something new and in the process work out the kinks so when the UN is ready to provide us with official dedicated tasks we don't have to scramble and climb the steep learning curve there and then," Meier wrote to me in an email at the time. Later in the email, he wrote: "We chose that particular corridor because it is already of interest to the humanitarian community. But the output of this trial run is not for our humanitarian partners to create situational awareness. It's purely for internal evaluation purposes."

Meier anticipates this project will reveal more such "kinks," he writes on his blog, but says the potential for this methodology warrants the effort.

SBTF volunteers will work on the project this month with the Amnesty International USA team, Tomnod, and the imagery provider Digital Globe. Meier writes that it'll be up to Amnesty International USA to decide how and when the results are revealed publicly.