US Government stated that it would fund the collection of data on the conflict in Ukraine. In addition to creating a framework for the prosecution of war crimes, the move will share critical real-time data with humanitarian organizations.
The newly established Conflict Observatory will use open source investigative techniques (OSINT) and satellite imagery to monitor the conflict in Ukraine and gather evidence of possible war crimes. External organizations and international investigators will be able to access the database, a US State Department spokesman said in an email.
Conflict Observatory partners include the Yale University Humanities Research Laboratory, the Smithsonian Cultural Rescue Initiative, the PlanetScape Ai artificial intelligence company and Esri, the geoinformation systems company, according to a State Department press release. The observatory will have access to commercial satellite data and images from the U.S. government, which will “allow civil society groups to move faster, to a speed previously reserved for U.S. intelligence,” said Nathaniel Raymond, a Yale School teacher. Global Affairs and Fellow of the Humanities Research Laboratory.
Raymond himself is no stranger to using technology to investigate conflicts and crises. More than a decade ago, he was the operations director of the Satellite Sentinel project, co-founded by actor George Clooney, who used satellite imagery to monitor the conflict in South Sudan and documented human rights abuses. It was the first initiative of its kind, but it would have been too costly and resource-intensive to replicate by other organizations.
“This work is very time consuming,” said Alexa Koenig, executive director of the Center for Human Rights at the California Law School in Berkeley. “I think in terms of money and capacity we are at a time when many of these organizations really need to think about the information environment in which they operate. Open source information can be invaluable at the pre-trial stage, as you are planning either humanitarian aid or a legal investigation. ”
None of the data that the observatory will use and disseminate is classified; satellite imagery will be taken from the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency’s (NGA) commercial contracts with private companies. But having access to many types of data in one place, rather than extending to many different objects, and being able to analyze them will make it powerful. Although the observatory will use publicly available data, it has no plans to make its data open source, unlike many other humanitarian projects, according to Raymond.
“The level of detail and speed of image data collection in some cases means it can be relevant to those seeking to attack civilians and protected infrastructure such as hospitals and shelters,” he says.
Raymond is particularly aware of such risks. While he was at Satellite Sentinel, a report released by the group could have led to the abduction of a group of Chinese road workers by the People’s Liberation Army of South Sudan (SPL-North). Although the image was deidentified by removing longitude and latitude, Raymond says locals were able to identify the terrain and determine where the road crew is.