Hosted at CERN, UNITAR's UNOSAT program examines global satellite imagery for humanitarian use. Whether they're providing maps for disaster response teams or assessing conflict damage to help reconstruction, their detailed reports are vital tools for aid workers. But how can satellite imagery help during a health crisis like the Ebola outbreak?
UNOSAT unites satellite data from space agencies and commercial operators worldwide in order to provide unbiased, objective maps and reports. Be it a natural disaster in Pakistan or a refugee crisis in Sudan, UNOSAT is - quite literally - an impartial observer of world events. The Ebola outbreak, however, was a special case: "The World Health Organization is mounting a substantial campaign in west Africa, building Ebola treatment centers and distributing personnel across the affected countries," says Einar Bjorgo, UNOSAT manager. "However outbreaks are arising in areas that are extremely remote and where information is limited and often outdated... that is where we come in." UNOSAT is providing brand new, high-resolution maps - custom made for the WHO teams - which are directly accessible on their internal information systems.
UNOSAT and CERN
The CERN IT Department is the host to the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) Operational Satellite Applications Programme (UNOSAT), a UN entity. This partnership allows UNOSAT to benefit from CERN's IT infrastructure whenever the situation requires, allowing the UN to be at the forefront of satellite-analysis technology. Specialists in geographic information systems (GIS) and in the analysis of satellite data, supported by IT engineers and policy experts, ensure a dedicated service to the international humanitarian and development communities 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
"This is one of the many advantages of being based at CERN," explains Samir Belebbes, who is working on the UNOSAT Ebola efforts. "We can download all the satellite images here, process them from their raw data format, and then we put them on a CERN server that feeds an interface for WHO workers on the ground. They are able to access specific satellite maps straight off the interface - a great tool especially in areas where computing power and bandwidth are limited."
UNOSAT launched its Ebola efforts by activating the Disasters Charter. "The Charter ensures that UNOSAT receives free satellite imagery from national and international space agencies in the event of a natural or technological disaster," says Einar. "The Ebola outbreak merited the activation of the Charter - a first for such a health emergency - and now satellites from every continent are supporting the fight against Ebola."
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Every year is a busy year for UNOSAT but, so far, 2014 has been especially eventful. Earlier this month, UNOSAT released a detailed damage report following the summer conflict in Gaza. This unbiased report has already been used by both sides of the conflict, and has aided in international reconstruction planning.
In addition to their Ebola initiative, UNOSAT teams are combing through satellite images of Ethiopia in search of potential locations for refugee camps. What areas have existing water resources? How can the sites be accessed by road? These are the questions the UN Refugee Agency is asking as they look for new sites with UNOSAT support.
After the immediate logistic support has been accomplished, UNOSAT will continue to collaborate with WHO teams in west Africa. "We will be following up on the construction of Ebola treatment centers, providing new images of the centers at WHO-requested intervals," explains Einar. "This is a means for us to follow up on the centers once construction resources have been distributed." Without taking a step outside of CERN, the UNOSAT team will be keeping us updated on the most remote parts of the outbreak area.
- Katarina Anthony, writer, CERN