November 9th, 2012
What if you could witness a crime taking place from space, and even step in to prevent it?
A group of researchers at Harvard’s Humanitarian Initiative are trying to do exactly that.
As the nation of Sudan faced a complex crisis — a secession of the southern region that threatened to boil over into a civil war in 2011 — Nathaniel Raymond and his team at The Signal Program were carefully monitoring the conflict.
Their methods were uncommon. Using donated satellite imagery — the kind normally used to observe environmental conditions or create maps — the team tracked the movements of troops, military vehicles, and resources in near real-time, and used that information to alert humanitarian groups on the ground.
But it’s a process fraught with challenges, from imperfect imagery (imagine a cloud passing by just as you’re trying to spot tank movements), to the ethical questions that come with intervening in a conflict remotely.
So how does a group of civilians at Harvard go about monitoring an unfolding humanitarian disaster from space?
Our producer Frances Harlow spent a day with the team at the Signal Program to find out how they work.