Game Changing Humanitarians and the Satellite Sentinel Project

In its January issue, Boston Magazine profiles Harvard Humanitarian Initiative’s Michael VanRooyen and his efforts to train a new breed of aspiring humanitarians.

The article by William Wheeler, titled “The Saving Game,” focuses on Satellite Sentinel Project’s work and successes as a truly innovative game-changing tool. Wheeler writes: “'The SSP is an example of what technology can do for humanitarianism,' says VanRooyen. 'It’s non-CIA, non-state-sanctioned surveillance — it’s crazy that this is the future.'”

VanRooyen’s “superhero résumé,” including work in Zaire, El Salvador, Rwanda, Haiti, Somalia, Sarajevo, and Sudan aptly prepared him to cofound Harvard Humanitarian Initiative in 2005. HHI combines data-driven research, new technology, and field work into a single academy designed to build a better humanitarian.

In December 2010 when George Clooney and Enough Project Co-founder John Prendergast initiated the Satellite Sentinel Project with HHI, the U.N. Institute for Training and Research, Enough Project, DigitalGlobe, Trellon, and Not on Our Watch, VanRooyen had the opportunity add satellite imagery capacity to his new humanitarian force’s repertoire.

The SSP team at HHI is run by Nathaniel Raymond and is composed of four staff members and 10 interns who monitoring the fighting in Sudan via DigitalGlobe satellite imagery. Staff-member Issac Baker is an expert at spotting evidence of human rights abuses. “His colleagues say he has superhuman vision because he can see on satellite photos what they cannot: curlicue tracks in the tank-trampled grass, trucks and other menacing vehicles painted mud red to match the color of the road they’re traveling on, or a line of troops marching on a village.”

In the past year, SSP warned civilians of attacks in Kurmuk, provided evidence of mass graves and body bags, and accurately predicted the Sudan Armed Force’s invasion of Abyei, which was later called “perhaps the most clearly forecast crisis in history.”

Raymond explains how SSP fits into VanRooyen’s vision of game-changing tools for humanitarians.

“Traditional human rights reporting is: We parachute in if we can get access — for three to four days, three to four weeks after the thing happens — and then we tell you sad stories about what [a random villager] saw when the people on the truck came to his town… Now, we’re messing with them as they’re moving…Our greatest, greatest goal is to get out in front by a couple hours and be able to say to the civilian and humanitarian community: ‘Get the eff out, this is happening.’”