Constructive Convergence: Imagery and Humanitarian Assistance

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Doug Hanchard

Imagery assessment is a vital tool for humanitarian responders when disaster strikes. Whether derived from satellite, aircraft, unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) or ground views, imagery offers event confirmation and impact, an early assessment and a foundation on which to initiate response planning. The goal of this paper is to illustrate to the technical community and interested humanitarian users the breadth of tools and techniques now available for imagery collection, analysis and distribution, and to provide brief recommendations with suggestions for next steps.

Over the past decade, the humanitarian community has found its growing access to imagery to be valuable and organizational policies are changing to reflect that importance. Humanitarian response organizations have also paved new paths forward when the existing methods were antiquated (some of which are described below). As new methods are adopted, changes in the use of imagery may alter organizational command structures.

Innovative technology, like imagery and the information derived from it, has long been a hallmark of human evolution—but using it wisely has been a challenge. There are legal, political and ethical questions that quickly arise around the use of imagery in disasters. In addition to the legal and ethical issues, humanitarian assistance requires teamwork and collaboration. Responders using imagery must overcome interoperability challenges, develop technical standards, create governance structures and protect both personal privacy and intellectual property. In some cases, those posting or using imagery in the field may be at physical risk. Recognizing those needs, a growing number of volunteer technical groups have an opportunity to design tools that reflect current technical capabilities while addressing the full spectrum of requirements. We can now include imagery contributions from affected populations to a degree never before possible, which raises further opportunities for the design of new tools and processes.

Today’s technologies include public access to satellite and aerial imagery platforms; resilient networks; and larger and faster data storage capabilities at data centers, on smart phones and tablet computers that are capable of manipulating imagery files using surprisingly high-performance applications that reside locally on the device. Such a convergence of capabilities is uncommon. This paper is intended to stimulate discussion on that convergence around the use of imagery in humanitarian response, and to inform readers about the resources available for research in more depth.