Sudan under anti-war satellite surveillance

George Clooney's Not On Our Watch group, Google, the U.N., and Harvard University hope to deter, or at the very least record, anticipated Sudan violence with satellites and Internet eyes.

Candace Lombardi
In a software-driven world, it's easy to forget about the nuts and bolts. Whether it's cars, robots, personal gadgetry or industrial machines, Candace Lombardi examines the moving parts that keep our world rotating. A journalist who divides her time between the United States and the United Kingdom, Lombardi has written about technology for the sites of The New York Times, CNET, USA Today, MSN, ZDNet, Silicon.com, and GameSpot. She is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not a current employee of CNET.
Candace Lombardi
4 min read

The Satellite Sentinel Project, launched today, will be monitoring Sudan from above and sharing information with the world in near real-time in an effort to deter violence.

The oil-rich southern region of Sudan is poised to hold a referendum on January 9 that could decide whether Sudan remains one country, or becomes politically divided into north and south entities. Many expect that there will be violence leading up to the vote, as well as after it, and that the Sudan could once again descend into chaos as it did during its 20-year war in which an estimated 2 million people were killed as of 2005.

The Satellite Sentinel Project aims to deter that violence--or at the very least act as a recorder of war crimes should they occur--by pointing cameras aboard commercial satellites at the region starting today. Through satellite imagery analysis and crowd-sourced mapping, which can be viewed via programs using Google Maps and Google Earth, the eyes of anyone with an Internet connection will be able to watch what is happening in the border region of northern and southern Sudan in the coming weeks.

The project is being conducted through a partnership with the Operational Satellite Applications Program (Unosat) from the the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (Unitar), Harvard University's Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, Google, Internet software company Trellon, and the Enough Project anti-genocide organization.

It's being funded by the aptly named Not On Our Watch, a humanitarian advocacy organization whose founding members include actors George Clooney, Don Cheadle, Matt Damon, and Brad Pitt; film producer Jerry Weintraub; and human rights lawyer and former State Department aide David Pressman.


Clooney and John Prendergast, a journalist, human rights activist and Enough Project co-founder, have been acting as spokesmen for the Satellite Sentinel Project. Through interviews with national publications, opens letters to newspapers, and press statements, the two launched a media campaign today to draw attention to the satellite mission.

"Previously, when mass atrocities occurred in Darfur, the Government of Sudan denied its involvement. Since photographers could not get access, it took years to amass evidence of genocide. But now we can witness in near real-time and put all parties on notice that if they commit war crimes, we will all be watching, and pressuring policymakers to take action," Clooney and Prendergast said in a joint statement today.

"We want to cast a spotlight - literally - on the hot spots along the border to record any actions that might escalate the chances of conflict. We hope that if many eyes are on the potential spoilers, we can all help detect, deter and interdict actions that could lead to a return to deadly violence. At the very least, if war crimes do occur, we'll have plenty of evidence of the actions of the perpetrators to share with the International Criminal Court and the UN Security Council," Clooney and Prendergast said in their statement.

Commercial satellites have been tapped to collect visual data of the region and have the ability to capture incidents like village burnings or razings, large movements of people, and bombings. Each organization involved has a specific role in how that data is used in the coming months, according to the Satellite Sentinel Project.

A team of Unosat employees expert in satellite analysis will examine the images from offices in Geneva, Switzerland, in conjunction with Google and Trellon employees, according to Unitar.

"This unique monitoring and alert system is based on commercial and publicly available satellite imagery and has the potential to contribute to the prevention of a possible war in Sudan. In case conflict ignites, the humanitarian consequences can be monitored from space, a service that Unosat has been providing to the international community since 2003," Unitar said in a statement.

Google and Trellon have collaborated on analysis and Internet tools to make the collected satellite information also available to the public. Meanwhile, workers from the Enough Project and the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative will contribute field reports from the ground in the Sudan.

"Google technology is increasingly being used by individuals and organizations to support disaster response and humanitarian causes. The Satellite Sentinel Project is an important undertaking and we're proud that Google Map Maker, a tool that enables users to contribute and edit map data for over 190 countries and regions around the world, is being used as its mapping platform," a Google representative said today in an e-mail to CNET.

Not On Our Watch, for its part, has provided enough funding to run the program for at least six months and is acting as a media conduit to shed light on the issue and encourage political action to deter the violence.

In addition to the images and mapping, the Satellite Sentinel also has a blog about the situation in the Sudan and is posting the field reports from workers in organizations like the Enough Project.