Good Technology: The Satellite Sentinel Project Watches Over Sudan

h4. *There are first world problems like, "should you go for sushi or bánh mi when you get lunch with your ex?" or "which of the six parties happening this weekend is really worth going to?" And there are third world problems, like the lack of clean...

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Mar 13 2011, 8:10am

There are first world problems like, “should you go for sushi or bánh mi when you get lunch with your ex?” or “which of the six parties happening this weekend is really worth going to?” And there are third world problems, like the lack of clean water, or smokey cook stoves, or the absence of civil society infrastructure.

A lot of the technology we talk about on Motherboard solves first world problems, some of which didn't even exist before the technology itself (admit it, whether or not you can check your email from your phone hasn’t been a pressing issue in your life for the last 15 years). So in this new series, we put the spotlight on individuals and companies going the other way, looking for solutions to third world problems using contemporary technology.


The Problem: War is brutal, often pointless, and so often a third world fact of life. Recently, despite increases in the democratization of information, war-crimes and genocide have taken place without international intervention or, often, media coverage.

A Solution: “The Satellite Sentinel Project by George Clooney—combines satellite imagery analysis and field reports with Google’s Map Maker technology to deter the resumption of war between North and South Sudan. The project provides an early warning system to deter mass atrocities by focusing world attention and generating rapid responses on human rights and human security concerns.”

It is, in short, Big Brother, but in the watchful, worried sense. In addition to using satellite imagery, a partner organization called the Enough Project is filing on-the-ground reports.

The latest report, filed March 8th, includes video footage of an intentionally burned village, along with footage of a severely injured man being loaded onto a flat bed truck.

According to Jonathan Hutson, Director of Communications:

The combination of near real-time satellite imagery, on-the-ground reporting and social media advocacy is transforming the way news is gathered and how people use it to pressure policymakers. Will we succeed in stopping a return to full-scale war? It's too early to tell.

Hutson says that since Time broke the story on Dec. 28th of 2010, the Satellite Sentinel Project (SSP) has shown up in the media 1,236 times. The project’s reports have been cited by most major outlets, and referenced by the Council on Foreign Relations’ John Campbell, Nicholas Kristof, and now, us.

The SSP falls somewhere between Wikileaks and the State Department. It lacks the “leaks” anti-government sensibilities, but the project is a good example of individual attempts to gather and disseminate important information. It’s not a grassroots movement, not at all. Funded by George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Google, and others, this is no scrappy organization, but on the other hand, none of the stakeholders could really be considered diplomatic entities.

While satellites have been used before to find evidence of war crimes, this is, according to Hutson, the first time they have been used to “detect, deter and interdict war crimes, including potential genocide in Darfur and Southern Sudan.” It also removes any chance that governments can claim they didn’t know what was happening, a tool with which individuals and hold their government’s accountable.

Last week’s profile on Envaya highlighted the way a group of tech folks from San Fransisco were trying to build civil society from the bottom up. The Satellite Sentinel Project seems to be working in the opposite direction, protecting civilians from the top down.

Read more, get involved, and donate at http://www.satsentinel.org/.