Harvard Researchers Monitor Violence in Sudan

A team of researchers from Harvard University is collaborating with Google and a humanitarian group led by George Clooney to implement a monitoring system that will watch for violence in southern Sudan.

The Satellite Sentinel Project—a joint effort by the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, the Enough Project, the U.N.’s Operational Satellite Applications Programme, Google, and Trellon—will analyze satellite images of areas of southern Sudan in the hopes of preventing human rights violations, such as potential genocide attacks, before they escalate.

“This early warning system has a profound implication for monitoring and responding to emerging crisis,” said Jonathan J. Hutson, director of communications for the Enough Project.

Funded by Not On Our Watch, a humanitarian organization founded by Clooney, the project is the first sustained, public effort to observe happenings in Sudan in near real time.

“We are the antigenocide paparazzi,” Clooney said in an interview with Time Magazine. "We want them to enjoy the level of celebrity attention that I usually get. If you know your actions are going to be covered, you tend to behave much differently than when you operate in a vacuum.”

Sudan has been riddled with violence since 2003 when a conflict broke out in the Darfur region of the country. That conflict has been widely described as genocide, and the international community has been roundly criticized for its sluggishness to intervene.

While the conflict in Darfur has since quieted, violence threatens to erupt again in southern Sudan, the focus of the new project. Voters in that region will go to the polls Sunday to determine whether the region will secede from northern Sudan.

Observers are concerned that secession may reignite a decades long civil war that ended with the signing of peace accords in 2005. The monitoring system being put in place by the University and human rights activists aims to prevent such a recurrence.

According to Harvard Kennedy School Professor David H. Yanagizawa-Drott, the University’s role in the project is two-fold: research and evaluation of the system’s effectiveness and human rights documentation.

As the director of system wide research and evaluation, Yanagizawa-Drott will interpret the images and assess ways in which technological development can help prevent potential political problems in Sudan.

Among other things, the satellite images will monitor troop movement in Sudan. The images are analyzed and viewable to the public on the group’s website, which went live on Dec. 29, 2010.

“It’s the first open source platform to stop the war before it happens,” Hutson said. “A better, faster analysis of images makes for a stronger, faster responses.”

Charlie Clements, Executive Director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, will lead the project’s human rights documentation to contextualize the data collected from the satellite images.

“We may see 30 trucks, but have no way to know whether they are army trucks or food program trucks,” he said. “We will analyze verbal reports to contextualize the information so that our sources are reliable.”

“We hope that by letting the perpetrators know that the world is watching, the harm they inflict will be minimized or prevented,” Clements added.

The tool also has many practical applications in the environmental arena and in the field of global health. Hutson said the satellites not only spotlight emerging crisis in Sudan, but also track climate changes, famine, and outbreaks of diseases.

In addition to gathering field reports and policy analysis, Hutson said the project aims to get the public involved by pressuring policy makers to respond quickly to human rights atrocities.

“The main goal of the project is to send out a message to the public,” Yanagizawa-Drott added.

The Harvard Humanitarian Initiative is a University-wide center that provides expertise in public health, medicine, social science, management, and other fields to promote humanitarian assistance. According to its website, the center aims “to relieve human suffering in war and disaster by advancing the science and practice of humanitarian response worldwide.”

—Staff writer Jane Seo can be reached at janeseo@college.harvard.edu.

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