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Satellite Images Help Aid Groups Track Atrocities

WASHINGTON- Amnesty International and the American Association for the Advancement ofScience (AAAS) are collaborating on Eyes on Darfur (, a Website that shows before and after satellite images of areas the Washington-basedhuman rights organization believes are, or could be at risk of, being undersiege.

AAAS isusing images from Longmont, Colo.-based DigitalGlobe?sQuckBird satellite, Dulles, Va.-based GeoEye?s Ikonos and the Earth RemoteObservation Satellite (EROS-B) owned by Tel Aviv, Israel-based ImageSatInternational, said Lars Bromley, director of geospatial technology and human rightsat AAAS in Washington.

Thesatellite images are processed and classified using Erdas Imagine softwarecreated by Erdas Inc. of Atlanta.

Eyes onDarfur began as a pilot project with a $100,000 budget for AAAS to cull througharchived images of the region and compare them to more recent images to produceclear examples of change in the landscape, Bromley said. AAAS searched areasbased on reports to Amnesty International from the region.

?We took alot of their on-the-ground reporting and our job was to review that informationand figure out where the event took place,? Bromley said. ?Then we?d search theimagery to match it up. We came up with a whole set of examples.?

The initialchallenge was matching descriptions on the ground with archived images becausethe area never was well-mapped, Bromely said. Over time,village names have changed or language barriers have led to multiple spellingsand pronunciations of the same town. AAAS analyzed about 200 locations to matchhumanitarian workers? reports with archived imagery and obtain coordinates so Earthimaging satellites could be pointed in the correct direction when calledupon in the future, he said.

Since then,the program has taken on two roles: to respond to reports of an attack on theground by ordering new images that are compared to archived images of the samelocation, and to routinely capture images of 12 villages identified as at riskof attack by Amnesty International.

?We werereally looking for a way to both get information out publicly and providestrategies on the ground,? said Ariela Blatter, director of AmnestyInternational?s Conflict Prevention and Response Center.

The primaryrequirement for the imagery is that it have at least one meter resolution sothat building and infrastructure changes can be detected, Bromley said, addingthat the half-meter resolution imagery available now via DigitalGlobe?sWorldView satellite?- and soon to be offered by GeoEyeafter the Sept.6 launch of GeoEye-1?- will further improve the analysis of Darfur activity.

Those two,the newest satellites?subsidized by the U.S. NationalGeospatial Intelligence Agency, will draw more than half of their business fromthe government and have multiple commercial customers within and outside theUnited States.

Foranalysis purposes, monochromatic images work just as well as multispectralimagery, Bromley said. He acknowledged, however, that color images such as those to beoffered by GeoEye-1 look better on the Web site.

AAASmonitors the positions of Earth imaging satellites and can quickly identifywhich satellite can cover the Darfur region on short notice in response to areported flare-up, Bromley said. Images have been turned around as quickly as24 hours, but some larger orders can take a week or two, he said.

Theconstant monitoring of the 12 threatened villages allows for what AmnestyInternational calls a ?global neighborhood watch? to help prevent attacksthere.

Blattersaid that earlier this year militias backed by the Sudanese government attackedthe town of Abu Suruj, which was not identified as threatened, and causedextensive damage in two nearby towns that were being monitored, Saraf Jidad andSilea. Before and after images of those two villages are posted on the Eyes onDarfur Web site, offering the viewer the option of seeing damaged areasidentified with bright red dots.

Eyes on Darfur is relying upon EROSB imagery as it routinely monitors the 12 villages. ImageSat charges AAAS forthe first 10 images and provides the next two at no charge, Bromely said. Thegoing rate for images is about $2,000 each, he said. The program is fundedthrough 2009, due to a grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthurFoundation.

AAAS also is monitoring other areasusing satellite data. The organization monitors reports of ethnic cleansing inBurma and analyzed images after reports of intentional destruction ofopposition party homes in Zimbabwe. In October, AAAS released results of itsanalysis of destruction caused in the August clash between Russian and Georgiantroops in South Ossetia by satellite images taken before Aug. 10 and thosetaken again Aug. 19.

Bromelysaid funding for these activities is tight, but he sees the use of satelliteimagery increasing as technology becomes more pervasive. ?We are setting up theway to use this long-term,? he said. ?The need is infinite, but basically thecredit card is not.?

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Becky Iannotta

Becky Ianotta is a former SpaceNews reporter covering space industry and policy news from 2008 to 2009. Becky earned a bachelor's degree in English/Journalism from the University of Miami. She spent five years as an editor with the Key West Citizen in Florida before joining the SpaceNews team. She later wrote for Air Force Times before taking her current position as communication director for Mother's Against Drunk Driving.