How do you solve a massive mapping problem in Somalia? With massive 2.0 solutions of course. @refugees

This story about UNHCR crowdsourcing is pretty damn awesome. Found via Firetail’s weekly briefing.

UNHCR – the UN’s refugee agency – wanted to know the location of informal settlements in a corridor of land in Somalia. With this information they could better plan for large movements of people. But, not surprisingly, access to Somalia isn’t easy. So they look to satellite imagery.

They partnered with a range of techie types to crowdsource a solution for analysing a vast quantity of imagery provided by DigitalGlobe.

Using a tech platform already realised, a volunteer geography professor got his undergraduate class to carry out the human work – tagging the images where they saw settlements.

Eventually they ended up with 168 volunteers who took 5 days to process nearly 4,000 satellite images – tagging 250,000 settlements. 

This is a great example of global public service delivery managed by the global public. Talk about participatory global governance. Or about 2.0. Or about a revolution.

The project is detailed here, and information on the technology behind the human work here, from Patrick Meier at iRevolution.

I’d love to hear from UNHCR staffers on the results of this work.



Watching the globe: good governance requires open information, including satellite imagery

In terms of information useful for global governance, security information is often still perceived as closed and secret from the public (until Wikileaks comes along). Although nations and global institutions are opening up data and becoming more transparent, when it comes to security, one assumes the public just don’t have the same access to detailed imagery and intelligence information as to global events.

But wouldn’t it be great if citizens had the same access to the same kind of fancy satellite imagery that you assume the US military has (i.e. you saw it on the West Wing a few times). Imagine if we could actually see what was going on in Sudan, Zimbabwe, Libya… 

“The world is watching because you’re watching”

Presumably this compares very poorly to what national governments have, but in terms of tech tools changing global governance, Satellite Sentinel is pretty interesting.

They’ve used before-and-after satellite images to create compelling stories of what’s happened in Sudan, which could become useful evidence for action against the perpetrators. More immediately, it’s useful information to prove their case that violence is continuing. 


This seems exciting, but have a read of this critical view from Tim Brown (of for Imaging Notes. In it he argues that imagery has often be used and abused in the past, and there’s a danger of information overload. And of course, ultimately information itself doesn’t lead to better outcomes – ‘boots on the ground’ etc. But that’s not really the point of the Sentinel programme.

The one benefit he points out is that the “goal of documenting violence, war crimes and genocide to prosecute is more attainable.”

Perhaps the point is simply that its harder to hide war crimes now. Wherever you are in the world, more and more actors are capable of seeing what you’re doing – not just those wealthy nations with high tech equipment. You already know that it’s wrong, and now you know that people will be able to see what you’re doing. It’s becoming possible for globally concerned movements and activists to observe and document any large scale atrocities that happen anywhere in the world, from anywhere in the world.

Environmental satellite imaging

Similar things are going on in global environmental governance. Google Earth Outreachgives non-profits and public benefit organizations the knowledge and resources they need to visualize their cause and tell their story in Google Earth & Maps to hundreds of millions of people.”

So it’s a bit more of a campaign tool – but if the satellite imagery of deforestation can be provided at regular intervals, who is to say that some bright techie type won’t design some crowdsourced rainforest ‘watch, report’ thing, using hundreds of environmentalists around the world to monitor areas of rainforest and report illegal logging to locals who can confirm and act on it. 

Bright techie type? Anyone?