Fact-checking the fog of war

Guest post by Benjamin Davies

Fact: War is complicated. But knowing where armed actors are and in what number is about more than what army has what weapons – that information can also alert at risk civilians to impending attacks and pressure policy makers to protect them.

Access to that information has almost always been the sole domain of militaries and intelligence agencies – or at least it used to be. Over the past year, the Satellite Sentinel Project has documented the key aspects of a military build-up by the Sudan Armed Forces and their alleged crimes against civilians in Sudan, one of the world’s most volatile regions. With each report, we ensure that citizens and policymakers alike – from Khartoum to Beijing to Washington – have equal access to the same clear, timely, and accurate information that would have once been classified.

Harvard Humanitarian Initiative’s work on behalf of the Satellite Sentinel Project marks the first sustained, public effort to use satellite imagery and analysis in near real time to protect vulnerable people and capture evidence of mass atrocities. This project is rooted in the belief that satellite surveillance and public documentation of violations of the laws of war can deter perpetrators, help hold them to account, and pressure the international community to respond faster.

David Crane, former Prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone, spoke directly to the transformative effect that the use of publicly available technologies can have on abusive governments.

“With the advance of modern technology, particularly those technologies that were once unavailable to nongovernmental organizations, and the proliferation of social media, these governments can no longer sweep such actions ‘under the rug’. To put it more bluntly, they ‘cannot get away with it’.”

Though tools for making sense of open source data and satellite technology are at the core of the Satellite Sentinel Project, it is our ongoing development of the first technical standards and code of ethics for the emerging field of “protective humanitarian technologies” that is our most crucial contribution to date.  It is not enough to just collect data: people need to be able to make sense of it safely, accurately and responsibly.

The Harvard Humanitarian Initiative’s work in Sudan, which begins over 400 miles above the earth’s surface, shares the same goal as Craig’s efforts to help individuals reliably make sense of an increasingly complex, digital world.  Whether taking pictures over Africa or checking facts from San Francisco, both projects have the same objective of making sure the facts –and the human beings who live and die by them– always come first.

-The Satellite Sentinel Team at Harvard Humanitarian Initiative






0 thoughts on “Fact-checking the fog of war

  1. Ben,
    This is a solid piece. I’m impressed by this and, of course, by the work being done.
    You’re involved in something very important.
    Best wishes,


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