Creating a Better World

Uncovering slavery using satellite imagery


DigitalGlobe has partnered with a variety of organizations that use the company’s commercial imagery to help fight slavery around the globe. Labor trafficking is the most common type of human
trafficking worldwide, according to Rhiannan Price, senior manager of DigitalGlobe’s Seeing a Better World program.

Labor trafficking is also much easier to identify from space as opposed to sex trafficking, Price said. For example, DigitalGlobe imagery helps NGOs in India and Pakistan identify slave labor camps where bricks are made out of the abundant red clay found in the region. In these often temporary camps, people are forced to spend 15 to 20 hours a day in abysmal conditions operating large, dangerously hot kilns.

“DigitalGlobe’s role is to set up satellite surveillance over those areas,” Price said. “With high-resolution satellites in particular we can identify where those brick kilns are and monitor the comings and goings of large trucks.”

The frequent arrival and departure of large trucks usually indicates the transportation of slave labor, she explained.

DigitalGlobe works closely with its partners, who capture qualitative information on the ground and are trusted by the effected communities to evidence these atrocities. Often, it’s the combination of satellite imagery and on-the-ground reporting that makes the difference. When DigitalGlobe helped the Associated Press break a story about hundreds of slaves on fishing boats off the coast of Papua New Guinea in 2015, satellite imagery was the “smoking gun,” but the images would’ve simply shown boats in the water without the context of nearly two years of ground truthing conducted by journalists.

“Satellite imagery is so powerful because it’s indisputable,” Price said. “It’s hard to argue something is not going on.”

In partnership with the Global Fund to End Slavery, DigitalGlobe also leveraged the power of the crowd to reveal child slavery on illegal fishing boats at Lake Volta in Ghana. DigitalGlobe deployed its crowd of more than one million users to scour satellite imagery of the entire lake and pinpoint ships to identify areas of trafficking prevalence. This data helped show the typical routes of ships on the large lake and identify where the NGO could focus its efforts in working with communities along the shores.

DigitalGlobe offers its services either for free or at a discount to causes that align with its purpose of “seeing a better world.”

“We have assets nobody else in the world has and the capability to do things nobody else in the world can do,” Price said. “We take on that responsibility and commit to living up to that purpose.”

Return to feature story: Modern Slavery

Posted in: Features   Tagged in: Humanitarian Issues, Remote Sensing

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