Back to news

Building a Satellite-Driven Future for Humanitarian Resilience

Authors: Nicki McGoh, Rhiannan Price

COP28: Can innovation help a shift towards climate action?

COP28 discussions dominated the headlines at the end of 2023. Now, governments and policymakers have returned to their day jobs to kick-off work on the global stocktake - a national-level plan of action due by 2025, that will outline the steps each country intends to take to meet economy-wide emissions reduction targets that are aligned with limiting temperature increases to 1.5 degree.

COP28 saw new pledges to do more to support vulnerable nations that are facing the worst of the effects of climate change and calls to address the insufficiency of climate information and data. Some significant precedents have already been set to improve the quality and availability of information. Under Norway’s International Climate and Forest Initiative (NICFI), Planethas made available over 20 million high resolution, analysis-ready mosaics of the world’s tropical forests to over 10,000 users in an attempt to reduce deforestation and to support reforestation efforts.

However, for those immersed in the everyday realities of humanitarian crises, the language in the agreements reached at COP28 may still fall short of what many had hoped to see.

Since the COP27 discussions in Egypt, the world has seen the hottest year on record, worsening droughts and floods, and extreme weather patterns destroying people’s homes and livelihoods, especially in conflict-affected countries. According to the IRC, just 16 countries account for 60% of global humanitarian need due to the climate crisis exacerbating other poverty- and conflict-related crises.

It is in these places where more support is needed to strengthen climate adaptation efforts and to take anticipatory action to improve preparedness for climate shocks. 

When it comes to improving information on exposure to weather-related events and improving resilience in conflict-affected regions, satellites are an important data source for often large-scale and shifting areas of vulnerability. From mapping to monitoring to predictive analytics, satellite data and decision-support tools provide insights to support a wide variety of humanitarian missions.

Beyond Borders: Unveiling the Transformative Potential of Satellite Technology in Humanitarian Action

Last year, Caribou Space led a piece of research alongside DevGlobal and Satellite Applications Catapult to develop Beyond Borders, a landmark report on the broad spectrum of humanitarian use cases and decision-making processes that could be facilitated by satellite-derived insights.

This work was commissioned and supported by the UK Humanitarian Innovation Hub (UKHIH) - hosted by Elrha - a global organisation that finds solutions to complex humanitarian problems – and funded by the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Development Office (FCDO). UKHIH works to support systems-level change that can bring new ways of working and thinking to the humanitarian sector.

Our research for the report demonstrated over 40 discernible uses for satellite technologies throughout the humanitarian lifecycle ranging from flood early warning systems to infrastructure damage assessment. We also collected information on over 500 applications and solutions that have been developed and deployed across the globe.

We profiled tried-and-tested applications such as Global Disaster Alert and Coordination System (GDACS) which is a platform hosting detailed maps and reports that offers real-time access to alerts, coordination tools and maps for monitoring in the immediate aftermath of a sudden-onset disaster. We also documented conflict observatories that use publicly and commercially available satellite and other forms of data as an accountability mechanism to highlight any violations of international law of crimes against humanity, and tools used for micro planning of health serviceprovision during disease outbreaks.

While applications of satellite data for humanitarian action are wide-ranging and potentially impactful for equitable outcomes, our research showed that the use of these satellite-derived decision-support tools is still relatively low due to barriers of awareness, adoption and acceptance throughout the humanitarian sector.

Future Horizons: New Initiatives for 2024

With continued support from UKHIH, Caribou Space has revisited some of the research findings published in the Beyond Borders report and has convened members of the technical and humanitarian community in a collaborative ideation process over the past three months. This ideation process started by taking time to hear more about current challenges faced by humanitarian decision-makers in accessing relevant and actionable data to support their work.

Through three workshops hosted in Geneva, Nairobi and online, humanitarians discussed systemic constraints and then defined problem statements that they as a community would like to address. Over 50 participants representing local and national humanitarian NGOs, international agencies, donor organisations, technical advisors and solutions providers shared experiences and considered problem statements to prioritise. 

In early 2024, we will be announcing new initiatives that were born out of this process and will now be taken forward by UK HIH.

In parallel, October 2023 saw the launch of NASA Lifelines as a six-year community building initiative to bring together humanitarians, scientists, researchers, policymakers, and affected communities in mission-driven programs. To foster this community of the future, DevGlobal and NASA are rallying experts from around the world to address the barriers preventing humanitarians from fully embracing satellite data and tools in their decision-making. A series of innovative programs including Scientist Speed Dating, Community Murals, Supper Clubs, and Humanitarian Simulations have already been announced or launched. There will also be an “Impact Embassy” expert roadshow, a pitch competition, and a Earth Science Review Board that will offer specialist advice on the investment or programme. These programmes are creatively addressing the challenges outlined in the Beyond Borders report and responding to community feedback with the strength of our stakeholder ecosystem.

Join our community

As both initiatives now move into the new year, we are planning to convene, listen to and build the community of people who are working towards a humanitarian sector that can better leverage the capabilities and insights of satellite data. We know that insights derived from satellite data can provide a more holistic understanding of the economic, social and environmental dimensions of humanitarian emergencies. Our aim is to foster a vibrant, diverse, and global community of innovators using these technologies for humanitarian action and to centre community needs and partnership in our designs and prioritisation as the way to enable lasting change and increased resilience.

Sian White, Director of the UK Humanitarian Innovation Hub said, "We are encouraged by the stakeholder engagement work that Caribou Space has led following the initial Beyond Borders report.

"It has indicated that there is so much potential for earth observation data to improve humanitarian decision making. But we are also at a tipping point – if we carry on with the status quo there will be an imbalance within the sector in terms of who has access to this data, and this will mean that innovative applications of satellite data will continue to be used by a select few.

“The shared ambitions of UKHIH, Caribou Space and NASA Lifelines are to create an ecosystem within the humanitarian sector that supports capacity exchange on this topic and uses a problem-led and collaborative approach to the development of satellite-related innovations”.

Find out more about our work

Author profiles:

Nicki McGoh is Senior Director at Caribou Space and Project Director for the Beyond Borders and leading the ongoing ideation process with the UK Humanitarian Innovation Hub.

Rhiannan Price is Program Lead for NASA Lifelines and Principal Consultant at DevGlobal Partners.

UK Humanitarian Innovation Hub

Caribou Space: Space for Development

NASA Lifelines