The work of UNOSAT is widely known across the UN and its members states and appreciated by scores of humanitarian experts and responders in particular. Although the satellite programme has launched its humanitarian Rapid Mapping Service in 2003, its capacity has been boosted in more recent years by the evolution of technology and the greater availability and resolution of commercial satellite imagery. Today UNOSAT has doubled its team members and its capacity to respond to more requests more rapidly. In over ten years of work and more than 300 crises, UNOSAT analysts can pride themselves with making small and big differences in many impact assessment campaigns, rapid relief operations and complex emergencies involving civilians caught in conflict areas. UNOSAT experts are also deployed to the field in disaster and conflict areas to carry out in-field verification and help UN teams set up and operate integrated GIS solutions.

The most recent example dates of this summer. The 50 day long conflict that took place in the Gaza Strip over the summer of 2014 had devastating consequences including the destruction of a large number of infrastructures. The role of UNOSAT was to support the humanitarian community and the local office of OCHA during the acute phase of the offensive, and later on to use imagery to help estimate the damage in view of the donor conference and reconstruction plan. UNOSAT used very high resolution commercial satellite imagery as the main input to its assessment campaign that started on 24 July and concluded on 24 September 2014. The analytical work relied also on information from UN field workers and one UNOSAT expert was deployed to Gaza for in-situ support. The work focused on infrastructure such as residential and industrial buildings, health and educational facilities, roads, and agricultural areas.

The review of the 367 square kilometers of the Gaza Strip identified 6,761 destroyed, 3,565 severely damaged and 4,938 moderately damaged structures. In addition 7,473 craters in agricultural and non-urbanized areas are also visible in the crisis images. In addition to several rapid mapping products and databases that were shared with UN partners, UNOSAT compiled the findings of its geospatial damage assessment in a report thanks to funding support received from the government of Denmark. The report was released on the web just before the Cairo conference on the reconstruction of Gaza.

The Syrian crisis is the longest humanitarian emergency that UNOSAT has monitored since its establishment in 2001. What started in the beginning as a typical “rapid mapping” exercise to support humanitarian relief planning and the active monitoring of the use of heavy military equipment in urban areas, has become in time a sustained multi-year monitoring operation with hundreds of maps and a very large data repository. UNOSAT has supported all UN agencies active in Syria and neighboring countries, generated dedicated analysis for the commissions of inquiry established by the UN Human Rights Council, and provided the High Commissioner for Refugees with tailored periodic monitoring of critical refugee camps, such as Al Zaatari and many others. UNHCR field office in Jordan says: “The satellite maps and imaging provided by UNOSAT to the UNHCR Jordan operation have been invaluable both in terms of high level advocacy and key operational planning. It has enabled UNHCR to pinpoint the locations of refugees, for use in advocacy, as well as to plan the layout of refugee camps in one of the largest operations in the world. We continue to make use of these satellite images as well for donor reporting, demonstrating to donors the locations of caravans, tents, and other facilities. They are also used in producing information for external relations purposes, including presenting the physical planning aspect of the refugee response to the media and other external parties. UNHCR Jordan has been particularly impressed by the responsiveness of UNOSAT to our requests“.

UNOSAT analysis is also behind the critical work done by the United Nations to monitor the compliance by warring parties in Syria of Security Council resolutions on access to people in need and the prohibition of the military use of schools and hospitals. Each month the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs prepares a report based on monitoring done on the ground but also on UNOSAT imagery analysis of areas that cannot be accessed due to security concerns.

Nowadays, when it comes to areas that are impossible to reach for humanitarian teams, satellite analysis is accurate enough to represent a good substitute for in-field verification. While only ground verification will offer 100% certainty on the nature and extent of damage, satellite analysis has become an excellent proxy because of the very-high resolution imagery widely available today. For example, UNOSAT produced a damage assessment of the city of Aleppo for UNICEF at a time when access to the area was virtually impossible.

During the Syrian crisis, UNOSAT was also requested to “search” for spontaneous IDP settlements created by groups of people fleeing violence. Today’s commercial satellites such as the French Pleiades and the US WorldView are able to “revisit” locations each day, enabling UNOSAT teams to look for groups of displaced people to confirm the presence of settlements and monitor their movements. The resulting information is used by humanitarian agencies to take decisions, prioritise action and coordinate interventions. In some cases this information can shorten considerably the preparation of a life-saving operation.

Other recent examples of crises in Libya, South Sudan and large disasters in Haiti and Pakistan show how UNOSAT work has put satellite imagery to work by helping agencies and national experts access its added value directly when and where relevant.

Since its inception, UNOSAT was designed to become a centre of excellence for the entire UN to take full advantage of technology developments in the areas of GIS and satellite imagery. Its location at CERN and its very close collaboration with CERN IT Division mean that the Programme can benefit from scalable, virtually limitless computing and storing capacity. Born as a research and application centre, UNOSAT is today also and above all an operational capacity centrally located between UN agencies and member states, easily accessible and very responsive. It is also a glimpse of the UN of the future: smart, more efficient and focused on providing help and solutions. A recent comment by UNHCR summarises well this achievement: “UNOSAT colleagues demonstrate a very client-oriented approach, and provide real value”.

Images (from top): Pre and post satellite imagery over Gaza showing the impact of military operations;

a UNOSAT team expert verifies damaged infrastructures in Gaza using an application that sends georeferenced data to UNOSAT servers in Geneva in real time; detail of an IDP camp inside Syria;

the UN Secretary-General at the UNOSAT production centre located at CERN in March 2013.