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Remote Sensing for Social Good at the Gates Foundation

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March 23rd, 2017

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IMG_0570On February 22nd and 23rd I joined colleagues from across the spectrum of aid, technology, academia and policy at the Gates Foundation to help launch a new organization called Radiant, focused on the emerging opportunities and challenges of remote sensing for social good. I knew the conversation would be a good one when it began with the lost tomb of Genghis Khan.

A few years ago the keynote speaker, research scientist Albert Lin, discovered that despite being among the most influential figures in human history Genghis Khan's resting place remained almost entirely obscure, buried in the dusty interior of Mongolia. He marshaled a group of satellite imagery specialists, and in a matter of months harnessed the power of the global crowd to analyze and tag that imagery. Hypotheses rose and fell through careful testing. Expeditions were launched. Before too long the site was uncovered and one of history’s great mysteries was solved. From that process grew the company Tomnod and the search for the MH370 crash and much of the commercial end of crowdsourced satellite imagery analysis.

Humanitarians, environmentalists, public health professionals and others have problems to solve which are at least as interesting and of more imminent importance than the search for Genghis Khan's tomb. Yet their problems too often remain stubbornly resistant to comparable applications.  Remote sensing is right now probably the most powerful but least well-utilized data tool available to social good organizations.

This exact problem is of course one of the key motivating factors behind the work of WeRobotics. Drone technology holds tremendous power to let local communities throughout the global South determine what kinds of images of their areas hold the greatest potential to advance development, health and resilience priorities. Rather than waiting around for traditional international organizations to catch up, leadership on this work is being engaged from the bottom up right now.

My own examples in my talk on the first day of the conference focused, for instance, on the capacity of community health workers to make customized, high-resolution local maps of remote areas for healthcare outreach. Others focused on the emergence of micro-satellites for monitoring climate change, biodiversity and habitat loss, mapping of informal settlements to advance property rights, or new artificial intelligence tools applied to wildlife counting, disaster damage assessment and population movements during humanitarian crisis. The limiting factors in these types of applications are less the actual technologies, which continue to improve at breakneck pace, than the social models to enable their safe, effective, cheap and ethical use.

Flying Labs are one key piece of the solution to this problem of bottom-up social models capable of unlocking the power of remote sensing for social good. Radiant is focused on many others as well, from new global data sharing platforms to improving the broad accessibility of image analysis tools to designing derived information products which efficiently focus decision-making. The rest of the summit dug deep into each of these areas and many others, probing for practical rallying points for the social good and image technology communities. The energy of this emerging field continues to build, and WeRobotics is thrilled to be a part of the dialogue.

Written by Andrew Schroeder


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