From disaster victims to slum dwellers, satellite imagery helps pinpoint need

This information provided by Smart Cities Council Compassionate Cities.
Mon, 2016-04-18 15:15 -- Liz Enbysk

Following the deadly earthquake that struck Ecuador over the weekend, causing multiple casualties and injuries, the European Union launched a coordinated effort to support relief efforts. One piece of that humanitarian aid was advanced satellite imagery generated through the EU's Copernicus system to help officials in Ecuador facilitate the assessment of damage in the areas around the epicenter and beyond.

As a NASA post points out, major disasters can temporarily make existing maps obsolete, rewriting river boundaries, shorelines, and land features in an instant. So when disasters strike and first responders need to understand new situations on the ground, the best source of information often comes from the sky. Satellites can tell responders about damages and provide timely insight into things like flooding, fire boundaries, lava flow directions, road conditions and the like.

But disasters are just one of example of how satellite imagery plays an important role today in providing information that may be more difficult or much slower to get via other means.

Pinpointing pockets of poverty
A New York Times piece suggests that satellite images can uncover poverty that more traditional means of data collection may miss. "It is very difficult to randomly sample people in the rural areas of Bihar in India or in a slum like Kibera in Nairobi, Kenya, where even just mapping the streets is its own project," Sendhil Mullainathan writes.

But satellite photos can reveal such things as:

  • Crops in the ground in rural areas, allowing estimates of harvest size and potential for crop failure where intervention of some sort might be necessary
  • Villages where thatched roof dwellings might indicate need
  • Night-time images can point to electrification challenges but also insight on economic activity

“Remote sensing data can be powerful, especially when combined with cheap classification tools like crowdsourcing or machine learning,” Paul Niehaus, co-founder of GiveDirectly, told the Times. “They’ve let us strip cost and time out of the process.”

GiveDirectly is a nonprofit that gives cash to the poor and is using satellite technology in its work.

Green spaces and longer lives
An eight-year study examining lifestyles of 100,000-plus American women used satellite imagery from different seasons and years to determine that living near green spaces could lead to longer lives. Findings linked increased exposure to natural vegetation to a reduced likelihood of respiratory and cancer-related mortality.

Authors of the Harvard University study, published in Environmental Health Perspectives, concluded: "Policies to increase vegetation may provide opportunities for physical activity, reduce harmful exposures, increase social engagement and improve mental health. While planting vegetation may mitigate effects of climate change, evidence of an association between vegetation and lower mortality rates suggests it also might be used to improve health."


This article is from the Council's Compassionate Cities initiative which highlights how city leaders and other stakeholders can leverage smart technologies to end suffering in their communities and give all citizens a route out of poverty. Click the Compassionate Cities box on our registration page to receive our weekly newsletter.

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