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Unlocking satellite technology for humanitarian crises

Satellite technology holds promise for humanitarian response, but changes are needed 

Humanitarian crises are becoming increasingly complex. At the same time, rapidly developing technology means humanitarian organisations have access to more data than ever before, allowing them to unravel this complexity.

Satellite technology holds incredible promise to help us deal with humanitarian emergencies, but the sector needs to make changes to maximise its transformative potential.

The emergence of the concept of the humanitarian-development-peace nexus in the past decade has demonstrated the overlapping impact of what were once considered separate issues.

Climate-related shocks, protracted conflict, political instability and structural inequality all contribute to current humanitarian crises, with the picture further complicated by Covid-19.

Over the same period, the digital age has matured. Three technologies – satellites, sensors and smartphones – generate huge volumes of data about every aspect of daily life.

Accompanying advances in processing power and data science are enabling that data to be turned into intelligence that was unimaginable 20 years ago.

Service providers have developed solutions to support agricultural productivity, estimate crop yields, and promote disaster risk financing to address the impacts of crop failure.

Space and satellite technologies could transform how humanitarian organisations address humanitarian crises, helping them to better deliver aid to vulnerable people, monitor rapidly developing situations and react to escalating crisis situations.

There has been an explosion in satellite applications and solutions designed to support decision -making and action by international organisations, first responders and governments all over the world.

For example, the global coverage of satellites makes it possible to connect or monitor any two points on earth – no matter how distant they are from each other, how remote either point is or whether they are in areas affected by conflict.

Non-profit organisation iMMAP developed an application to map new informal settlements in Colombia; the American Association for the Advancement of Science researched how to detect impending cross-border conflict.

NGOs such as Amnesty International have leveraged satellites to observe military operations against Rohingya people in Myanmar; and the Norwegian Refugee Council has used satellite images from DX Open Network of the destruction of refugee camps in Tigray, Ethiopia.

However, despite such innovations, uptake of these technologies has been slow, with little documented evidence of their impact in the humanitarian sector.

Often scrambled together during humanitarian operations, input data is scant and frequently inaccessible to those who need it.

Lack of understanding about existing solutions and coordination between different stakeholders mean that it is often difficult to know what data exists, which organisations own it and how the data could be used.

As a result, many humanitarian operations lack important types of information, including data on areas affected by crises, malnutrition, damaged infrastructure (such as buildings and roads), and refugees and persons of concern.

Caribou Space, part of the Caribou Digital research and advisory firm, has been working with space agencies, development organisations and the satellite industry.

Their focus has been on how to use satellite technologies to generate positive outcomes through improved communications, better-informed decision -making and enhanced situational awareness.

When it comes to the use of satellites for humanitarian emergencies, Caribou Space is optimistic about the potentially transformative role of the technology.

But with the sector rapidly nearing the point at which data availability should no longer be a problem, the firm believes the focus should be on how to make solutions more accessible and more contextually relevant for those who use them.

As a first step, Caribou Space proposes opening up a dialogue between satellite application developers and humanitarians, so they can learn more about each other’s requirements, capabilities and constraints.

This would allow the creation of context-aware workflows that ensure the technology is used where it offers the most value and best practices are applied.

The firm highlights that there is more to do to make humanitarian organisations aware of the potential of this technology and to build capacity to integrate it effectively into their decision -making.

Work on both the supply side (among product and service providers) and the demand side (among product and service users) could lead to much wider application of space and satellite technologies to address humanitarian emergencies.

Caribou Space was part of a consortium of organisations including the Satellite Applications Catapult and the United Nations Institute for Training and Research, which wrote the report Beyond Borders: Satellite Applications for Humanitarian Emergencies.

The report was commissioned 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.

This article is based on an op-ed by Caribou Space originally published on Devex.