Taking a page from FEMA's playbook, Pakistan has apparently found a startling way to hinder relief efforts for quake victims: Block access to satellite images for the affected area in the interests of its national security. Surely a place like Pakistan would not replicate the kinds of mistakes made here in the US by the US government in the face of the Katrina disaster?
My little maps project, which had as its lofty goal getting useful maps into the hands of those doing disaster relief in Pakistan, merged Thursday morning with efforts by The Citizens Foundation (an aid organization in Pakistan) to get maps to its relief workers. This new consortium succeeded in getting high-rez maps into the hands of relief workers on the ground in Muzaffarabad by the 15th.
It turns out that this was accomplished despite a UN ban on the posting of hi-rez photos of Pakistan on the Internet (which we did not know about), apparently out of consideration for Pakistan's concerns about it's national security interests. We had a very hard time getting the images into the hands of those who could produce the necessary maps, but ultimately it was accomplished.
I emailed Declan Butler, a reporter at Nature, about this, mentioning the problems we were having getting images. He checked into this. This turns out to be because there was a United Nations ban issued on posting such images on the Internet. Declan Butler, tracked it down and wrote about the situation in a Nature story posted early this morning:
Open-access satellite images are revolutionizing responses to disasters. Yet the government of Pakistan has forced aid agencies to remove pictures of earthquake devastation from the Internet.
Three days after the 7.6-magnitude earthquake struck Kashmir on 8 October, the Pakistan government appealed for high-resolution satellite images to help relief efforts. But, apparently to protect national security, Nature has learned that the government has since forced international agencies and relief organizations to remove these images from their websites.
The International Charter on Space and Major Disasters put high-resolution images of the earthquake zone on its website last Friday, then pulled them off hours later. The charter, a consortium of space agencies, was created in 2000 to supply satellite images and data to communities in need of relief following a disaster.
An International Charter spokesperson said: "To best aid relief efforts, we are no longer publicly disseminating pictures of the Pakistan earthquake. Publication of such images would compromise the ability of United Nations (UN) forces on the ground to deliver relief. We hope you understand the situation."
But a senior official at the charter, who asked not to be named, says that the Pakistan government had demanded that no photos be made accessible to the public, because it feared the images could compromise security in the Kashmir region - an area that has long been disputed territory between India and Pakistan. The UN and other aid agencies need Pakistan's cooperation on the ground, and had no choice but to comply, he says.
An hour or two after the story appeared on the Nature site, (which is to say some time in the past few hours) the UN lifted the ban on posting good satellite images of Pakistan.
I hadn't psychologically adjusted to the fact that we really got the maps there in the first place when I read Declan's story this morning, which explained that "the Pakistan government had demanded that no photos be made accessible to the public, because it feared the images could compromise security in the Kashmir region." If the earthquake disaster isn't a pressing issue of Pakistan's national security, then I don't know what is.
Where is Michael Brown now? I guess now we know. But seriously, what were they thinking???
Now that the dam of secrecy has broken and the publically held images will be allowed out, here is where images both public and privately held can be found:
the EU JRC will probably have among the most extensive collections.
Unosat is the UN clearing house for relief images.
DigitalGlobe has at the moment limited recent images because of cloud and rain, and Google is already working with them.
Let me explain one place in which the system is broken. The publically held images were withdrawn from circulation. The business model of the private companies is that NGOs [Non-Governmental Organization] have to pay a fee because some government or munificently funded charity somewhere is picking up the tab for the aid provided. If the UN orders that photos not be posted on the Internet, then who is going to foot the bill for the NGOs to get the pictures? Got it? (Also, I gather that some of the private companies holding photos were observing the UN ban.)
SEE ALSO, Ogle Earth: Pakistan hampers aid efforts by banning high-resolution imagery:
That's a whole week in which aid was needlessly hampered, but at least reason prevailed in the end.
UPDATE: Not wanting to be left behind in the competition for pig-headedness, India apparently takes strong exception to us being able to look in on things in Kashmir. From the Times of India:
NEW DELHI: What was till recently an alarm on the fringes is fast developing into a mainstream worry. One day after President A P J Abdul Kalam placed on record the country’s growing concern about the threat posed by free satellite images, the science and technology ministry said that the government has started taking steps in this regard.
Speaking to The Times of India, science and technology secretary V S Ramamoorthy said, 'What is a matter of great concern is the sufficient resolution provided by the satellite images on Google Earth posing a security threat to various installations'.
At the moment, the ministry, in close coordination with other security agencies, is evaluating the images of the sensitive locations, he said.
The whole world is watching. Are you for people? Or do you priviledge other things above human lives? To both governments, that is really the question.
Given that the UN ban was lifted, I suspect that both governments decided to do the right thing.