CERN helps with the mapping of natural disasters

The headquarters of UNOSAT, the Operational Satellite Applications Programme of the United Nations Institute for Training and Research, are in an unassuming office, not far from Restaurant 2. There, UN experts are on hand twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, waiting for an emergency message from anywhere on the globe and ready to respond. It was there that experts were called upon to respond to the recent earthquakes in Haiti and Chile, using CERN computing resources to develop some of the first response maps.

In the case of January’s earthquake in Haiti, an SMS message was received at 23:20, Geneva time, on January 12, only minutes after the quake. Immediately, UNOSAT began organizing and downloading satellite images for analysis, to create the very first maps used by relief workers in Haiti.

In the weeks following, UNOSAT members were on shift continually, day and night, working nonstop to develop reports of the damage. UNOSAT also sent two staff members on the ground to verify and improve upon their reports. “Especially in the early days of a disaster like Haiti or Chile, you hear ‘oh, the whole city is flattened,’ but normally, that’s not the case... Using satellite technology allows us to have more objective information available,” explains UNOSAT’s Humanitarian Task Manager, Einar Bjorgo.

UNOSAT downloads data from scientific and commercial satellites to CERN servers. These satellites have a resolution of down to 40 cm, allowing  images with tremendous detail. In the case of Haiti, satellite technology was complemented by aerial photography at 15 cm resolution, and frequently radar data are also used. The collected data are then analyzed by UNOSAT experts.

Rather than relying exclusively on automated computer software, UNOSAT analysts conduct painstaking analyses themselves and have developed innovative techniques to answer questions often difficult to answer using satellite imagery. Their analytical techniques have earned the attention and support of several large companies, including ESRI, Google, and Microsoft, with which UNOSAT works, as well as government agencies, including those from the United States and Switzerland.

UNOSAT reports are used for multiple applications. Emergencies and natural disasters, such as Haiti and the more recent earthquake in Chile, require rapid mapping. Typically, UNOSAT is called in to assist with an average of forty humanitarian emergencies a year, easily three emergencies each month, and remains involved for five or six weeks, long after media attention has died down.

UNOSAT is also called on by the UN to assist in human security and human rights issues. UNOSAT has mapped out conflict zones in Gaza and Georgia, and reported on Somalian pirate activity. Working with satellite archives, UNOSAT is also assisting efforts in Indonesia to re-grow mangrove forests destroyed by the shrimp farm industry, which are vital to protecting the country from major tsunamis such as the one in 2004. Developing countries request UNOSAT’s assistance in geospatial training and mapping to lay out cities, farms, and transportation. There are also pure research projects at UNOSAT, such as developing GIS technologies on the computing grid or studying different geospatial correlates to social and humanitarian issues.

In all of their projects, UNOSAT relies on CERN computing support and IT. “CERN is the secret of our success,” explains Francesco Pisano, Manager of UNOSAT. “If we weren’t here we would have to equip ourselves with such an amount of IT that it would make this venture very difficult to fund from the UN. Compared to other set-ups around the world, we have virtually unlimited computing capacity.”

In turn, what CERN gains in the relationship with UNOSAT is the pride of participating in a project that provides global and humanitarian applications for the Laboratory’s computing infrastructures.

by Daisy Yuhas