Entries tagged with “remote sensing”.


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 . . .

New Scientist has an interview with the authors of a recent report that blames food price shifts on financial market manipulation and speculation.  Worth reading – they are quite clear in their argument.

Is this another crisis like the one we had in 2008?

Not quite. Maximo Torero of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) in Washington DC notes that oil, the real driver of food prices and of the 2008 crisis, is relatively cheap, at around $75 a barrel, not over $100 as it was in 2008.

In 2008, both immediate grain prices, and the prices offered for future grain purchases in commodities markets, climbed steadily for months, whereas now they are spiking and dipping more unpredictably, which economists call volatility.

“The market fundamentals – supply and demand – do not warrant the price increases we have seen,” says Torero. Not all harvests have been bad, and after 2008 countries rebuilt grain stocks. “There are enough stocks in the US alone to cover the expected losses in Russia.”

The food riots in Mozambique were not due to world grain prices, he says, but because Mozambique devalued its currency, making imported food more expensive.

So what has been happening this year?

Markets are responding nervously to incomplete information. First there was a series of shocks: Russia’s export ban, lower maize forecasts, then, days later, a US ruling to allow more bioethanol in fuel which seemed likely to further reduce the maize – the main source of bioethanol – available for food. Meanwhile there was no reliable information about grain stocks, which is strategic information that most countries keep secret.

The result was nervous bidding and sporadically surging prices in commodity markets. And that attracted the real problem: investors wielding gargantuan sums of speculative capital and hoping to make a killing. When speculation exacerbated the price crisis of 2008, Joachim von Braun of the University of Bonn, Germany, then head of IFPRI, predicted that it would continue causing problems. “We saw that one coming and it came,” he says. “Food markets have new design flaws, with their inter-linkages to financial markets.”

Volatility also makes it harder to solve the long-term, underlying problem –inadequate food production – by making farmers and banks reluctant to invest in improved agricultural technology as they are unsure of what returns they will get. “Investment in more production alone will not solve the problem,” says von Braun. As long as extreme speculation causes constant price bubbles and crashes, either farmers will not get good enough returns to continue investing in production, or consumers will not be able to afford the food.

“Without action to curb excessive speculation, we will see further increases in these volatilities,” he says.

h/t to Resilience Science

This is very interesting, but what I found intriguing about this article was the researchers’ suggestion for how to address this uncertainty – transparency and information about supplies via remote sensing:

All the major producers already use remote sensing technology to watch each other’s fields. If countries would reveal just once what stocks they hold, says Torero, the satellite images can be used to calculate whether those stocks have risen or fallen, as growing conditions change. “All we need to know is the baseline,” he says. Reliable information about stocks could offset unwarranted jitters about crop failures, such as the ones that are contributing to the current market volatility.

Von Braun goes farther: he says there should be a global technical organisation that keeps track of world grain stocks and production, and which decides, using complex computerised models of world food markets, what range of grain prices are actually warranted by real supply and demand. Then if speculation starts to drive prices up out of this band, countries could intervene on markets, buying and selling just enough to counter speculative pressure. “This doesn’t stop speculation, just extreme speculation,” he says.

He thinks it would take a fund of $20-$30 billion to do the trick. In September the World Bank extended a $2 billion fund to respond to food price crises, but that is aimed at helping the poorest survive price spikes rather than intervening to stop them happening.

You may or not like the idea of a global organization or fund, but the idea of actually monitoring the supplies of the commodities to examine if pricing reflects actual market dynamics (supply/demand controlled for expected future conditions) is fantastic and already possible.  The only people who would lose here are those whose only skill set is in exploiting the uncertainty and lack of information in the market for their own profit – especially those willing to exacerbate uncertainty and opacity to generate larger profits.