UNOSAT: a unique UN initiative - Interview with Alain Retiere

18 January 2009
UNOSAT: a unique UN initiative - Interview with Alain Retiere

It is not often that one of the projects of the United Nations is awarded an international prize. This year UNOSAT was awarded the prestigious ESRI* prize, for their outstanding work during the Tsunami Crisis.

We met with Alain Retiere, one of the people behind UNOSAT—the UN initiative to expand direct access to satellite imagery through the Internet and other media tools. The goal is to facilitate the physical planning process of local authorities, project managers and field personnel working in emergency response, disaster management, risk prevention, peace-keeping, environmental rehabilitation, post-conflict reconstruction and social and economic development.

So when did it all start?

It all started in the 1990s when the United Nations, through UNOPS (the United Nations Office for Project Services), was put in charge of the reconstruction of disaster areas and local conflicts in Mozambique, in Cambodia, etc. I was at the time working for UNOPS on reconstruction projects around the world.

One of the things I noticed was that the work to be carried out after either a conflict or a natural disaster was quite similar. In most cases, the infrastructure was often located in high-risk zones, as this is the cheapest solution. However, to preserve the investment made, you need to build roads that will not be washed out when the first flood arrives. To do so, you need the assistance of specialized engineers and other costly expertise, and often people do not have the necessary funds to carry out these studies. The errors of the past would therefore be repeated.

Once you have repaired the infrastructure, let it be schools, roads, etc., you need somebody to administer these territories, since the United Nations cannot do it for ever. However, it is not an easy task to administer a territory and if you do not have accurate geographical data it becomes almost impossible.

There are several ways of obtaining geographical data. You can use the services of a geometer, or study aerial photos, or satellite images, etc. We started by using satellite images. In fact, the satellite photo is less expensive than traditional aerial photography.

We soon realized that quite a lot of people needed this kind of information, but nobody had acquired the necessary know-how. So we said to ourselves that we ought set up a service in order to facilitate access to this kind of application for all the UN agencies, as well as the NGOs working with the UN, in addition to politicians and other local authorities in high-risk zones.

So how do your clients obtain access to your services?

As a general rule, the end-user requests our services through the United Nations. For instance, we provide maps to the humanitarian assistance teams indicating the damage that has occurred during a natural disaster. For almost two-and-a-half years we have been suppliers of maps whenever a natural disaster has occurred, each time showing the impact and the size of the damage caused.

Who are the main users?

It is especially the disaster assistance team that uses our maps during their field missions. When you arrive at the airport of the country that has requested assistance, you are met by the authorities who will give you a report—they will tell you that such and such damage has occurred, that there are so many people missing; dead, etc. You have at your disposal, in fact, quite a limited amount of information. There are no maps explaining the damage, but with our maps you will be able to derive concrete and accurate information. Discussions will therefore be much more constructive.

For instance, in 2004 there was an earthquake in Morocco. We created maps that showed the villages that had been affected by the earthquake, and therefore the relief teams were able to concentrate the relief assistance on those villages that had been completely isolated. The maps proved themselves to be extremely useful for relief assistance as the victims were numerous and the distances to be covered were considerable.

We work with all the different UN organizations, but we disseminate the information through OCHA (the Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs) to all the humanitarian agencies. The first person to encourage the use of satellite maps was the former director of OCHA, Ross Mountain.

Today, we are able to propose satellite images to our partners from all the existing satellite-image distributors worldwide; that is, more than thirteen different partners. The one we tend to use most is Landsat, which belongs to NASA (the National Aeronautics and Space Administration); this is followed the French satellite SPOT.

Being completely ignorant of satellite technologies, I would be grateful if you could explain how it works.

There are two types of satellite. The first one I would compare to a “camera”, as it takes photographs of the Earth. It is placed on an orbit about 400 to 800 km away from the Earth. If the weather is cloudy, this type of satellite is not much use as it takes photos of what it can see, and we are more interested in finding out what is going on underneath the clouds—the towns, villages, roads, etc. In addition, it does not function at night.

That was the reason why another type of satellite was developed using radar technology. The radar satellite sends signals down to the Earth and they are reflected back. The data are then processed and we are able to obtain high-quality images.

Who are UNOSAT’s partners?

UNOPS and UNITAR (the United Nations Institute for Training and Research), working in collaboration set up UNOSAT. Since neither of these agencies had funds, we had to find then. So we decided to participate in a public bid by the European Space Agency. We had contacted ESA in order to inform them about our project, and they thought the idea was so interesting that they decided to include it in one of their public bids. We submitted an offer, and we were awarded our first contract of ?750,000. These funds gave us the possibility of getting started, to buy the necessary equipment. We are treated like any other private business. The people behind the project are quite proud of the fact that we in the UN can be as competitive and efficient as a private enterprise—it is only a matter of organization, motivation, technical skills and efficiency.

UNOSAT has a team of twenty-five persons working on the premises of CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research), benefiting from their infrastructure. CERN wanted to support our work but, as you know, they are not allowed to give us funds, so they told us kindly: “If our equipment and premises can be of any use, we are delighted to be at your disposal.”

When we started our project, our initial budget was US$500,000. Today we are close to US$3 million. We have, in fact, three different financing sources. Our primary source of revenue comes from our users within the UN system. In addition, we have some voluntary contributions from different Member States and then the funds we earn through the European Space Agency.

At the beginning of our business venture we were present at several conferences and international gatherings. Of course, things were not always easy as there were some opposition to the project, but since then we have tried to keep a low and modest profile, while remaining at the service of the international community.

You provided all the maps for the Tsunami Crisis. How did that affect your work?

The Tsunami really gave us quite a lot of publicity. Like most other people at that time, we were away on holiday, but just like any other organization working in the humanitarian field, we had at least one person on stand-by. I was on duty when I heard the news, and I contacted OCHA right away. In a short time, I managed to mobilize colleagues and “friends” and, within a couple of hours, we were capable of sending out the first maps of the disaster. The more complex and detailed maps took us a longer time, but within forty-eight hours we were capable of having detailed maps of the disaster and its impact on South-East Asia. For instance, one of our maps was downloaded from the Internet more than 800,000 times.

I think that you were awarded a prize for the work that you had carried out during the Tsunami Crisis?

We were contacted by ESRI—the equivalent of Microsoft in the field of geographical and environmental software—who thought that the work we had done during the Tsunami Crisis was really exceptional. Therefore, they wanted to honour us with this prize.

Every year, ESRI organizes a huge international conference for the users of geographical data. The delegates are high-level specialists coming from all over the world to discuss matters of common interest.

We were, of course, very honoured, and we dedicate this prize to all our users and the people assisting us in this matter.

So where would you like to go from here?

We are quite a young structure. Now the time has come for UNOSAT to become more institutionalized, and this is one of the reasons why we are trying to increase the voluntary contributions to our budget so that we will be able to have more financial security.

We are an operational service, and we have the disadvantages of being a kind of business enterprise without having the possibility of making any profit, so we really would like to be able to plan our budget in the longer term. Normally, in the UN system one should have the funds available before one can carry out an operation, but we provide services first and get paid later, like a normal business. However, as the Rules and Regulations of the UN are quite strict on this matter, we feel that we also ought to be capable of having some degree of advance planning.

Where would you like to be ten years from now?

We would like to become a common service for all the agencies of the United Nations. There are, in fact, three major agencies we would like to serve: OCHA for the humanitarian part; UNDP (the United Nations Development Programme) during the reconstruction period; and finally DPKO (the Department of Peace-keeping Operations) for the peacekeeping missions.

The most important thing for us is to be of assistance to human beings and to provide them with modern technologies so that the errors of the past will not be the errors of tomorrow. However, we are quite proud about one fact and that is that the UN can be as efficient and effective as any other private enterprise and, in addition to that, there are no other private companies doing the work we are doing …
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* = Environmental Systems Research Institute, Inc.