Right, so George Clooney is part of an effort to use satellite imagery to cast a light on any atrocities that might take shape as the Sudan referendum goes forward.  In short, this project aims to use hig-res commercial satellite imagery, gathered on a pretty regular basis, to document evidence of genocidal or other criminal behavior.  The idea is, as they put it, to create a form of “antigenocide paparazzi” that will bring unwanted attention to atrocities.  As Clooney argues:

“This is as if this were 1943 and we had a camera inside Auschwitz and we said, ‘O.K., if you guys don’t want to do anything about it, that’s one thing,’” Clooney says. “But you can’t say you did not know.”

This is genius marketing, even if you dislike the idea (those of us with good ideas really do need to take marketing more seriously).  And a lot of people dislike the idea.  Blogger Laurenist has a critique under the hilarious title “In Space, no one can hear you say “WTF”?” (genius marketing, people).  A lot of this critique is focused on the fact that the imagery will probably not bring about the sorts of accountability necessary to actually get people to stop unwanted behaviors, at least in part because the imagery is fairly low-res.  Indeed, it is – actually lower-res than the article about the story quotes – 50 centimeter imagery is not 50 square centimeters, but 50 centimeters a side (I work with this stuff).  So it is hard to even see people in these images, unless it is at a time of day where you can pick up their shadows.  It is also focused on the fact that “just knowing” about a problem isn’t good enough to spur action – after all, it is now well documented that the international community was well aware of what was going on in Rwanda right before and during the genocide, and did nothing.  Fuzzy imagery certainly won’t change that.

I agree with this assessment.  However, there is a way to make lemonade out of this particular batch of lemons, because these images could be retasked for something much more useful.  One of the likely points of conflict post-referendum is along the corridors through which various groups move their livestock in the course seasonal migrations for food and water (if you want to drop a big word for it, say “transhumance”).  There are two things this sort of imagery can do for us – it can tell us about the biophysical situation in those corridors – are they still able to support this migration, are they ecologically unbroken or fragmented, are there barriers to movement?  Second, it can tell us how many people and animals are using these corridors, which we can use to measure local carrying capacity, and estimate the challenges that might emerge if these corridors are closed or otherwise challenged.  This would allow for effective humanitarian intervention in areas where these pastoral groups (who are typically left behind by aid and development, and hated by the state, because they won’t stay put and like crossing borders).  Hell, if they are going to drop big dollars on the images, we may as well use them for something useful and actionable.

George, you interested?  I can help set this up . . .