The Documentalist

Google’s GeoEye-1 Satellite Service and Human Rights

Posted in technology by Sarah on January 7, 2010

Image courtesy of http://space.skyrocket.de

In the last year, Google joined forces with GeoEye–the world’s largest space imaging corporation ( Wikipedia) to provide users with access to some of the most detailed images of the earth’s surface currently available. Though GeoEye’s primary customers are United States defense and intelligence agencies, Google acquired exclusive online mapping use of images generated by the GeoEye-1–the company’s flagship satellite–for their Google Maps and Google Earth applications (Wikipedia and loudoni, December 28, 2009).  As Kate Hurowitz, a Google spokesperson observes, “The GeoEye-1 satellite has the highest resolution color imagery available in the commercial market place and will produce high-quality imagery with a very accurate geo-location” (Digital Media, August 29, 2008). Such information could be quite useful to human rights organizations that utilize crisis mapping as part of their monitoring and activism efforts.  Given that crisis mapping engines such as Ushahidi (described here and here) create media mashups that allow users to post events they witness to interactive Google Maps, the detailed imagery from the GeoEye-1 could  increase the accuracy of such information through more precise location information and by providing increased visual detail about the physical context of reported events.  Furthermore, this sort of detailed imaging could serve provide evidence of how areas are ravaged by wide-spread violence by comparing images taken of the area at several different points in time.

GeoEye Foundation Supports Human Rights

Image courtesy of the GeoEye Foundation

Though GeoEye’s main business model is primarily focused on selling contracts to private enterprises, the company also seeks to serve academic and non-governmental organizations by providing free imagery to students and NGOs for research purposes through its charitable GeoEye Foundation.  Since March, 2007, the GeoEye Foundation has provided 90 imagery grants covering 85,000 square kilometers of imagery (loudoni, December 28, 2009).  As stated at the foundation’s Web page, “Foundation awardees have spanned a variety of academic backgrounds, including archaeology, human rights, climate change, forestry, geospatial intelligence, and land cover assessments.”

The GeoEye Foundation is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization founded to support the company’s belief that they have a social responsibility to share their imagery and to support efforts to train future professionals in means of monitoring the earth,which they focus on in three ways (GeoEye Foundation):

  • Fostering the growth of the next generation of geospatial technology professionals
  • Providing satellite imagery to students and faculty to advance research in geographic information systems and technology as well as environmental studies
  • Assisting non-governmental organizations in humanitarian support missions

For an example of how imagery from GeoEye satellites can serve human rights see the Porta Farm Zimbabwe case study published on the Foundation’s Web page.   This case study illustrates how detailed satellite imagery provided evidence of human rights abuses during Zimbabwe’s Operation Murambatsvina (Restore Order).  During this campaign in 2005,  the government confiscated white-owned corporate and private farms, ostensibly to redistribute the land to  black Zimbabweans.  However, in a bitterly ironic twist, during the demolitions of these farms, government officials destroyed the homes and livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of black Zimbabweans who lived and worked on them.  As the case study observes:

The Zimbabwe government began Operation Murambatsvina (Restore Order) in May 2005. This was a program of mass forced evictions and demolition of homes and businesses. The government carried out Operation Murambatsvina in the winter and during a period of food shortage. This increased the hysteria. One UN report estimated the number displaced to be 700,000. In late June, during a several day period, the government instituted forced demolitions at Porta Farm. Local human rights monitors reported that during the disorganized demolition several deaths occurred, including those of children. Bulldozers executed the main demolition process at the end of July 2005.

The images in this case study show the existence of the large and thriving Prota Farm village in 2000 followed by an image of the area after its demolition in 2005.  The new image shows only the village roads roads–all housing and commercial structures are gone, necessitating the displacement of the hundreds of families that had lived there.

GeoEye’s Image Quality and Resolution

The GeoEye-1 satellite is able to produce some of the most detailed images of the earth’s surface taken from space.  As the satellite circles the earth every 98 minutes (loudoni, December 28, 2009), traveling at a velocity of 4.5 miles per second (Digital Media, October 8, 2008), and at an altitude of 425 miles in a sun-synchronous orbit (Wikipedia), the GeoEye-1 is capable of capturing details on the earth’s surface as small as 41 cm, or 14 inches in size.  That said, government security regulations limit commercial images–such as those that appear on Google–to a resolution of 50 cm, or 20 inches.  However, this is still quite detailed, as illustrated by the image below.  This image of of the modern Library of Alexandria (apropo for a blog dedicated to archiving technologies)–was captured on May 30, 2009 at a resolution of 50 cm and demonstrates the level of detail that can be captured for public use by the cameras on the GeoEye-1 Satellite.

The modern Library of Alexandria (Bibliotheca Alexandrina) in Alexandria, Egypt. Image courtesy of GeoEye.com

As of October, 2009, the GeoEye-1 had captured approximately 340 million square kilometers of imagery of the earth’s surface.  It combines two technologies to accomplish this: a military GPS receiver and star trackers, both of which allow the satellite to accurately identify the location of captured images.  Although it is impossible to change the orbit of a satellite once it is in motion, the angle of the GeoEye-1 can be shifted up to 60 degrees by operators on the ground, thus effectively expanding the “range of vision” that the satellite has (loudoni, December 28, 2009).  However, the company’s imaging abilities will soon increase as they are currently developing the GeoEye-2 satellite, which is scheduled to launch by 2013.  This satellite will have an imaging resolution of 25 centimeters, or approximately 10 inches.

The GeoEye satellites are licensed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which is a division of the U.S. Department of Commerce.  Given that satellite images could reveal sensitive information from the point of view of national security, NOAA has the right to pull them, however, it has not done so to date.  But Mark Brender, the head of GeoEye does not feel that NOAA would be able to successfully shutter the cameras on the GeoEye satellites, stating:

In the event that NOAA does cancel service for GeoEye, the news media can contest it as a First Amendment issue, … , because space is non=sovereign.  This prohibits “shutter control” by the government.

Thus GeoEye stands to serve non-government information services well into the future.

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  1. […] January 8, 2010 In the last year, Google joined forces with GeoEye–the world’s largest space imaging corporation ( Wikipedia) to provide users with access to some of the most detailed images of the earth’s surface currently available. Though GeoEye’s primary customers are United States defense and intelligence agencies, Google acquired exclusive online mapping use of images generated by the GeoEye-1–the company’s flagship satellite–for their Google Maps and Google Earth applications (Wikipedia and loudoni, December 28, 2009). As Kate Hurowitz, a Google spokesperson observes, “The GeoEye-1 satellite has the highest resolution color imagery available in the commercial market place and will produce high-quality imagery with a very accurate geo-location”… View the full article […]


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