School of Information Sciences -- Faculty Publications and Other Works

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IDCC24: International Digital Curation Conference 2024

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Satellite imagery is used for citizen-based monitoring and societal verification in the context of nuclear non-proliferation and arms control agreements by an expanding community of analysts (e.g., Al-Sayed, 2022; Mian et al., 2017; Niemeyer, 2009). The use of satellite images by non-state actors in order to examine the development of, for example, weapons facilities has been facilitated by the increasing availability of satellite data from a variety of sources (e.g., “Trainspotting, with Nukes; Open-Source Intelligence,” 2021). This type of monitoring can be applied to a broad range of activities, including carbon emissions, human rights, disaster response, and archaeology (e.g., Casana & Laugier, 2017; Couture, 2020; Dekker et al., 2022; Farfour, 2019; Parcak, 2019).

This poster will report on the preliminary results of a qualitative study consisting of in-depth semi-structured interviews with data users (i.e., analysts and researchers) who use satellite images for citizen-based monitoring and societal verification activities. During interviews, participants were asked to discuss their use of satellite imagery, including topics such as search and discovery, access, data sharing and reuse, and open data. They were also asked to reflect on how they evaluate the trustworthiness of data and how they construct their understanding of risk in the context of satellite image use for monitoring and verification activities. Interviews were recorded and transcribed for analysis.

This poster explores the following research questions:

1. How do analysts who use satellite imagery for citizen-based monitoring and societal verification activities evaluate the trustworthiness of their data?

2. How do those analysts construct their understanding of risk in the context of citizen-based monitoring and societal verification activities using satellite imagery?

Preliminary findings suggest that users of satellite imagery build relationships with data providers, and make evaluations of trustworthiness on the basis of those ongoing relationships—with both commercial and open access data providers. Because the number of organizations that can provide high-quality satellite image data is small, people tend to develop and build relationships with multiple providers over long periods of time.

Data users view the work of monitoring and verification as inherently risky, with high stakes for both correct and incorrect interpretations of satellite image data. Interviewees describe the risks associated with satellite image use as just one among many risks that they take on when they engage in this work.

We argue here that trust in data providers, and in one’s own ability to evaluate the quality of the data provided, is essential for the work of analysts and researchers who monitor satellite images for nuclear non-proliferation and the enforcement of arms control agreements. In an area of data use that is inherently risky, users are attuned to potential risks that could arise from their data use, but view data-related risks as less significant than risks that arise in other parts of their work.


This research was funded by a grant from the Deutsche Stiftung Friedensforschung for the Citizen-based Monitoring for Peace & Security in the Era of Synthetic Media and Deepfakes project (2023-2025). Additional support from the Einstein Center Digital Future.


[journal article] Al-Sayed, S. (2022). Revisiting Societal Verification for Nuclear Non-proliferation and Arms Control: The Search for Transparency. Journal for Peace and Nuclear Disarmament, 5(2), 496–506.

[journal article] Casana, J., & Laugier, E. J. (2017). Satellite imagery-based monitoring of archaeological site damage in the Syrian civil war. PLOS ONE, 12(11), e0188589.

[journal article] Couture, H. D. (2020, August 11). How to Track the Emissions of Every Power Plant on the Planet from Space. IEEE Spectrum.

[journal article] Dekker, R., Koot, P., Birbil, S. I., & van Embden Andres, M. (2022). Co-designing algorithms for governance: Ensuring responsible and accountable algorithmic management of refugee camp supplies. Big Data and Society, 9(1). Scopus.

[online magazine] Farfour, M. (2019, December 11). Remote Sensing for Documenting Human Rights Abuses. Crisis Evidence Lab | Amnesty International.

[magazine article] Mian, Z., Patton, T., & Glaser, A. (2017). Addressing Verification in the Nuclear Ban Treaty. Arms Control Today, 47(5), 14–22. JSTOR.

[journal article] Niemeyer, I. (2009). Safeguards Information from Satellite Imagery. Journal of Nuclear Materials Management, 37(4), 41–48.

[book] Parcak, S. H. (2019). Archaeology from space: How the future shapes our past (First edition). Henry Holt and Company.

[newspaper article] Trainspotting, with Nukes; Open-Source Intelligence. (2021, August 7). The Economist, 21. Gale Academic OneFile.

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