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Published: June 30, 2015

Can space-based technology enhance the security of aid workers?

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Francesca Chiaudani is the Research and Programme Assistant at the European Interagency  Forum (EISF). She holds a BA in Diplomacy and International Relations from the University of Trieste (Italy) and a MA in International Studies from Durham University (UK). Prior to joining GISF, Francesca has completed internships with the UN Mine Action Service, the EU Delegation to the UN in New York, and a Geneva-based NGO covering UN Human Rights Council sessions. She is currently a member of  Youth Beyond Disaster’s Focal Team for the World Humanitarian Summit.


In the last years, we have witnessed a proliferation of space-based technologies, notably satellite imagery and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Such technologies have been gaining momentum within the humanitarian field, being increasingly used both by international organisations, such as the United Nations, and NGOs.

In this regard, in its 2014 report on World humanitarian data and trends, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA) describes space-based technology as useful in delivering ‘unique operational benefits’, referring to its implementation in mapping refugee camps, assessing flood monitoring and damages, supporting conflict analysis and response planning. In countries affected by natural disasters, conflicts or other crises, remote sensing can help aid workers to identify which areas are the most affected by violence or which areas are difficult to access. Hence, remote sensing could provide valuable information, which could be fed into organisations’ security risk management framework to increase staff safety.

The recent earthquake in Nepal provides a striking example of how remote sensing technology can be used in emergency response. After the quake, a significant number of volunteers and expert users of remote sensing technologies joined forces in identifying humanitarian needs and mapping damaged areas. For instance, the British Red Cross, the American Red Cross and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) / Doctors Without Borders used information derived from their existing mapping projects, which are run in partnership with OpenStreetMap, an online data sharing and crowd-sourcing platform. Volunteers from OpenStreetMap used open source mapping technology to analyse satellite imageries of areas affected by the earthquake, marking damaged buildings and roads. Aid workers could then organise relief efforts, prioritising areas depending on the information collected and combining this information with reports from assessments on the ground. The Nepal Red Cross, together with Kathmandu-based ‘Kathmandu Living Lab’ have also engaged in mapping exercises through OpenStreetMap.

In the weeks following the earthquake in Nepal, further mapping assessments have been carried out by numerous other actors. For instance, UN OCHA mobilised the Standby Task Team Force, an online pool of volunteers, who assessed street maps and earthquake damages based on the latest available satellite imagery. REACH, a joint initiative of ACTED, IMPACT Initiatives, and the United Nations Operational Satellite Applications Programme (UNOSAT), conducted a mapping assessment of mountain areas difficult to access, such as the Langtang Mountain Valley, situated in Rasuwa District, north of Kathmandu. The assessment exercise gathered information on displacement, damages to services and access constraints.

While the emergency in Nepal shows how remote sensing technologies can be a useful tool for rapid assessment in case of a disaster, remote mapping and satellite imagery have certainly the potential to enhance the safety and security of aid workers. Indeed, information on road access can be of particular help when delivering aid. In fact, a report from the World Health Information (WHO) identified road accidents as a significant threats aid workers face when deployed on the ground. Thus, up to date and factual information on road access, such as presence of landslides, or other circumstances affecting road system, can help avoid unsafe road tracks. It can therefore help humanitarian teams to better prepare for aid delivery in remote and hard to access areas. In addition to that, satellite imagery could help locate where aid is most needed, thus allowing humanitarian workers to plan delivery routes and potential alternatives in case a planned route is not safe to transit.

Taking everything into account, as humanitarian aid delivery is still carried out by workers on the ground, remote sensing technology can be used to better coordinate efforts and to generally build up a better response to emergencies. It could also provide security risk managers with valuable information that can be used to increase the safety of workers in the delivery of aid.


Aid Worker Security Report 2014, Unsafe Passage: Road attacks and their impact on humanitarian operations, Humanitarian Outcomes, August 2014, https://aidworkersecurity.org/sites/default/files/Aid%20Worker%20Security%20Report%202014.pdf

How ‘crisis mapping’ is helping relief efforts in Nepal, BBC News, 6 may 2015, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-32603870

How Nepal’s earthquake was mapped in 48 hours, Wired UK, 28 April 2015, http://www.wired.co.uk/news/archive/2015-04/28/mapping-nepal-after-the-earthquake

How AI, Twitter and digital volunteers are transforming humanitarian disaster response, Wired UK30 September 2013, http://www.wired.co.uk/news/archive/2013-09/30/digital-humanitarianism

Humanitarian UAV Missions in Nepal: Early Observations (Updated), iRevolution blog3 May 2015 http://irevolution.net/2015/05/03/humanitarian-uav-missions-nepal/

This is How Social Media Can Inform UN Needs Assessments During Disasters, iRevolution blog, 24 February 2015,  http://irevolution.net/2015/02/24/proof-social-media-situational-awareness/

The Open Source Maps That Make Rescues in Nepal Possible, Wired, 8 May 2015, http://www.wired.com/2015/05/the-open-source-maps-that-made-rescues-in-nepal-possible/

Virtual aid to Nepal, Foreign Affairs,1 June 2015,  https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/nepal/2015-06-01/virtual-aid-nepal

UNOSAT, 2015, Putting it All Together – How UNOSAT Makes Sure Earthquake Relief and Early Recovery in Nepal can Count on Integrated Geo-Spatial Information, ReliefWeb Update http://reliefweb.int/report/nepal/putting-it-all-together-how-unosat-makes-sure-earthquake-relief-and-early-recovery

WHO, 2004, World report on traffic road injuries, available online at http://www.who.int/violence_injury_prevention/publications/road_traffic/world_report/en/

Background readings:

OCHA, 2014, World Humanitarian Data and Trends, available at http://www.unocha.org/data-and-trends-2014/downloads/World%20Humanitarian%20Data%20and%20Trends%202014.pdf




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