Interview with Einar Bjorgo, Programme Manager, UNOSAT

5 November 2013

Q: You have been managing UNOSAT for almost a year now and were officially appointed Programme Manager in the spring of 2013. What do you consider as the main achievements, and where would you like to see UNOSAT in a couple of years?

I would say that there are three main achievements during the past year. Firstly, doubling our capacity development output. Secondly, putting systems in place for routinely sharing our satellite-image-derived data, such as flood extents and storm damage assessments, for in-house mapping by our sister agencies, the NGO community and other partners. And thirdly, we have further increased our support to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the various commissions of inquiry mandated by the Human Rights Council.

Our latest addition to capacity development and training is an initiative to further strengthen the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), an East African organization of member states from the region’s disaster risk reduction (DRR) role, by taking advantage of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and earth observation, i.e. satellite and aerial imagery. In addition, we continue supporting capacity development DRR activities in Asia with our partner Asian Disaster Preparedness Centre (ADPC). We are also working with the Government of Chad to improve their groundwater mapping efforts and territorial management. Our targeted and pragmatic training sessions go down very well with beneficiaries typically working in ministries and public sector offices in developing countries.

Q: Over the years, UNOSAT has grown to become one of the main providers of satellite images for the humanitarian agencies in Geneva. Could you tell us what you do and who for?

Since UNOSAT first started providing operational services to the humanitarian community back in 2003, we have steadily increased our support to agencies, such as UNHCR, WHO, UNICEF and, of course, OCHA and other sister agencies. In addition, we work closely with both the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), as well as the NGO community. Our 24/7 on-call system allows for rapid action following requests from humanitarian agencies. When a disaster strikes, the humanitarian community typically calls on UNOSAT to provide analysis of satellite imagery over the affected area so as to have an updated global view of the situation on the ground. Exactly where and how big is the problem? How many buildings have been destroyed after an earthquake and what access roads are available for providing emergency relief to the affected population? We get these answers by requiring the satellites to take new pictures and comparing them to pre-disaster imagery held in the archives to assess the situation objectively and efficiently. Our team of professional GIS experts and satellite image analysts then turn the satellite images into useful products, such as maps, statistics, reports and sharable GIS data for local mapping by teams on the ground who do not have the expertise to analyse the imagery. In this way, the synergies gained from having one entity ― UNOSAT ― do the analysis and then share the results for specific cluster-thematic or sectoral mapping are considerable. It is a pleasure for me as a manager to see the wonderful feedback we receive from our colleagues working in the disaster-affected areas. It seems that our efforts really do make a difference.

Q: Is UNOSAT available to services other than the humanitarians in the UN system?

Yes, absolutely! We work closely with the ICRC and IFRC, but also with international NGOs, like Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) and the Agence d’Aide à la Coopération Technique et au Développement (ACTED). Equally important is our collaboration with national entities from disaster-prone countries. Together with ACTED, we initiated REACH so as to provide more effective information for humanitarian action on the ground and at headquarters. REACH is run by the Swiss NGO IMPACT Initiatives and combines satellite analysis from UNOSAT with ground assessments from ACTED into a state-of-art web-based information portal. It should also be made clear that UNOSAT works as much in the development domain as in the humanitarian domain. For development activities, we work with UNDP and UNEP for example, as well as closely with member states.

Q: Tremendous progress has been made in global mapping. For instance, Google Earth provides satellite pictures. What is the difference between your services and theirs?

Google Earth, and similar tools such as Bing Maps, are excellent for the general public and are also used by a range of humanitarian actors as a geographic platform to show data. One cannot perform geographic data analysis with these platforms, which is why we resort to specialist GIS software tools.

The satellite pictures you see on, for example, Google Earth are in general of very high quality. For example, one can see a high level of detail over large cities, but images are often less clear in the areas in which we and the humanitarian community operate. In addition, the satellite photos you see are typically several years old. We can provide imagery on the same day that the image was taken, while sending out our maps and other products immediately. Those are the main differences: we provide more details and more up-to-date imagery in situations where humanitarians need information.

Q: You are based at CERN. Why is that?

When UNOSAT started as a small project funded by the European Space Agency (ESA) and the French Space Agency (CNES), CERN was very interested to host us as it was a good initiative to demonstrate how IT knowledge and capacity already available at CERN also could benefit the United Nations and non-typical CERN activities. It was evident from the beginning that the investment made by CERN member states in IT capacity for nuclear research could with a minimum of extra effort also benefit the humanitarian and development causes. The economy of scale of UNOSAT hosted at CERN is another example of what can be done with limited additional resources, as long as the will to make something happen is there. We are very grateful to CERN for hosting the UNOSAT operations on its site.

Q: We have an impression that your programme is a kind of public/private partnership. Where does your funding come from, and have you ever been faced with funding problems similar to the other humanitarian organizations?

In fact UNOSAT is owned 100% by the UN. We are the Operational Satellite Applications Programme of the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR), which has its headquarter here in Geneva. However, I like to think of UNOSAT as a good example of “the new UN”. We are an effective programme of highly dedicated specialists filling a much-needed niche making considerable impact by using technology. We work closely with the private sector, since the detailed satellite images we use originate from private companies. I must say that our relations with the private sector work well and it is also interesting to observe that by having relationships based on clear agreements, combined with common sense and flexibility, the private companies we work with are very co-operative and actually play an important role in the humanitarian and development work we do.

With UNITAR being an extra-budgetary independent institute of the United Nations, our funding comes from three sources:
1. Volunteer contributions from UN member states consider our work has a positive and direct impact on humanitarian relief and sustainable development, as well as contributing to much-improved cost-efficiency and accountability;
2. Participation in applied research projects typically funded by the European Commission and foundations;
3. Direct support on a cost-recovery basis to:
(a) sister agencies having a need for UNOSAT services in, for example, development projects, environmental monitoring projects;
(b) member states having needs for capacity development and GIS IT infrastructure development

By the way, check out our new UNOSAT humanitarian rapid mapping video on YouTube.