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Satellite and geospatial technology for humanitarian crises

Author: Dr Emrys Schoemaker

Caribou Digital convened an online Q&A session on the use of geospatial technology and data for humanitarian response.

In October 2021, research and advisory firm Caribou Digital convened an online Q&A session on the use of geospatial technology and data for humanitarian response

The session was hosted by Dr Emrys Schoemaker, a researcher at Caribou Digital.

The panellists were three UKHIH Caribou Space fellows: Catherine Nakalembe (Associate Research Professor, University of Maryland); David Garcia (PhD candidate, University of Canterbury, Christchurch, looking at geospatial technologies); and Stella Chelangat (geospatial and remote sensing expert).

They were answering questions from more than 40 people from different backgrounds and organisations.

Watch a recording of the Q&A session. 

The discussion focused on the fellows’ cutting-edge research and their work on geospatial mapping technology for humanitarian crises.

It covered a broad range of topics, from the availability of open source data and humanitarian access to commercial resources; to the challenges of applying technical data and translating it into usable formats; and using geospatial data for anticipatory humanitarian response.

An underlying theme was the importance of building bridges and connections between developers, humanitarian responders and users, both in terms of raising awareness about available resources and analysing the risk of using them.

The data is out there

Speaking about the importance of satellite data for humanitarian response, Stella said, ‘it allows us to understand the hazards, the services and the needs… prior to and after a humanitarian event.’

She added that it also played an important role in anticipatory humanitarian action, ‘particularly in areas that face conflict in Eastern Africa, including South Sudan and Ethiopia’.

Stella described the situation in Kenya, where satellite data is available, but its application depends on users’ knowledge.

She stressed the importance of open source information that was available over time, citing Digital Earth Africa as an example in this area.

Catherine spoke of the importance of people who act as 'connectors', providing guidance on available applications and acting in a 'bridging’ function between developers, humanitarian responders and local people to communicate what products and solutions are available.

She gave examples of macro-level resources such as the Google Earth Engine and the Sentinel Hub, which provide detailed data and analysis, and Radiant Earth, which offers training. ‘The resources are out there. You just have to know how to find them.’

From data to application

But the existence of data does not necessarily translate into application.

Catherine believed there was a gap between advanced technical research work producing data and the application of geospatial data.

‘Nobody wants to do the in-between work. And that in-between work is really important when engaging with different stakeholders’, she said.

This was particularly striking in Catherine’s experience. She described ‘the chaos of setting up buildings and structures’ to support people, but where ‘aid has no relationship with a geographical interface, because sometimes there’s even no power or no internet’.

Catherine believed that there was a ‘void between the satellite application and the practical implications on the ground’.

Drawing on his experience of working with communities, David elaborated on this, and how important he found it to view mapping in a social and technical way. ‘We have been making not only maps, but also map -makers.’

According to David, three keywords define the challenge of applying geospatial data: accuracy, accessibility and accountability.

To respond to people’s needs, information has to be accurate – as people’s needs change, the data must also change.

Accessibility refers to the availability of easy-to-use open geospatial tools. One of David’s favourite tools is Field Papers, which allows users to create printable maps based on OpenStreetMap.

Finally, accountability concerns the importance of maintaining relationships and being accountable to local people, especially given the temporary nature of humanitarian funding.

‘Funding comes and then funding goes, but it’s the same people doing the work’, David summed up.

The use of data – ethics in practice

A second theme of the discussion was around the ethical use of data.

This is an increasing concern, particularly the application of satellite and geospatial data in ways that uphold humanitarian principles.

All three fellows emphasised the importance of incorporating ethics into the use and application of geospatial technologies and data.

David touched on the challenge of translating high-level and at times abstract concepts such as ‘ethics’ and ‘humanitarian principles’ into practice, and the importance of negotiating these issues with local people.

He described how OpenStreetMap had worked with villagers on a community mapping exercise, but local people opposed including certain spiritually and culturally significant sites on the map.

They had to navigate between the ‘humanitarian imperative’ of saving lives, and local concerns and values around protecting certain sacred spaces. ‘People like me who are both international and local, we have to translate this at the local level,’ David said.

Building a better future for all

At the end of the session, the panellists were asked what technical and social improvements they would like to see in the field of satellite and geospatial technology for humanitarian response.

Stella mentioned going beyond the technical aspects of using geospatial data to provide more linkages to policy development; Catherine wanted to see a vetting or filtration process to reduce duplication of effort in developing similar applications and avoid confusing users; and David highlighted the need to ensure the safety of people doing geospatial humanitarian work and democratising knowledge in regions where human rights are being eroded.


Beyond Borders is funded and supported by the UK Humanitarian Innovation Hub (UKHIH). 

UKHIH is an independent entity hosted within Elrha and fully funded by the UK Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office.



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