News agen­cy from space

How the Media­Tech Hub start-up Vertical52 uses satel­li­te data for journalism

It’s hard to ima­gi­ne satel­li­te TV, navi­ga­ti­on devices, wea­ther fore­casts and, of cour­se, the mili­ta­ry wit­hout them: more than 5,500 satel­li­tes are orbi­ting the Earth in space - inclu­ding about 500 Earth obser­va­ti­on satel­li­tes. Space agen­ci­es like the ESA or satel­li­te ope­ra­tors like Pla­net Labs or Maxar Tech­no­lo­gies record every bit of the Earth’s ter­rain - images that can be very valuable for jour­na­li­stic rese­arch. For exam­p­le, agri­cul­tu­ral or mili­ta­ry deve­lo­p­ments can be tra­cked or who­le swa­thes of land docu­men­ted over a lon­ger peri­od of time from space. The images are now available in such detail that one can make out human beings in them.

The start-up Vertical52 regards its­elf as being the first news agen­cy from space and makes high-reso­lu­ti­on, com­mer­cial satel­li­te data available to jour­na­lists, publishers and NGOs. To this end, the two foun­ders, jour­na­list Mar­cus Pfeil and entre­pre­neur Micha­el Antho­ny, are deve­lo­ping a plat­form for sear­ching, eva­lua­ting and visua­li­sing satel­li­te and radar data.

Mar­cus Pfeil work­ed as a jour­na­list for more than 20 years and was respon­si­ble for award-win­ning rese­arch pro­jects. Micha­el Antho­ny, who ori­gi­nal­ly star­ted out as a jour­na­list, had pre­vious­ly work­ed in the micro­insu­rance busi­ness using remo­te sens­ing tech­no­lo­gy on agri­cul­tu­ral pro­jects in Afri­ca and Asia. Their busi­ness model is based on two pil­lars. To begin with, they are able to pro­vi­de high-reso­lu­ti­on images from space within 24 hours, but the team its­elf can also under­ta­ke com­plex ana­ly­ses and inves­ti­ga­ti­ve research.

Space-based data

Satel­li­te jour­na­lism is still in its infan­cy, but impro­ved access to data means that this form of foren­sic evi­dence is beco­ming incre­asing­ly important. For exam­p­le, at the start of the Ukrai­ne war, it was pos­si­ble to track Rus­si­an mili­ta­ry con­voys in real time. And rese­arch by the New York Times show­ed that the mas­sa­cres of the popu­la­ti­on in Bucha were the work of the Rus­si­an mili­ta­ry. Satel­li­te images iden­ti­fied the bodies of Ukrai­ni­an civi­li­ans lying in the streets. They had alre­a­dy been lying the­re during the Rus­si­an occu­pa­ti­on. It’s not only war cri­mes that can be then shown from such a dif­fe­rent per­spec­ti­ve - this can also app­ly to natu­ral phe­no­me­na such as floo­ding, defo­re­sta­ti­on and the gro­wing impact of drought on forests.

Much of this kind of data is theo­re­ti­cal­ly free­ly acces­si­ble via agen­ci­es and pro­vi­ders, but it’s not easy in prac­ti­ce for ever­yo­ne to make use of. The Vertical52 plat­form pro­ces­ses image requests auto­ma­ti­cal­ly. It sees its­elf as being a cura­tor, co-foun­der Mar­cus Pfeil says. “The satel­li­te data allows us to look into the future. If you want to obser­ve some­thing over a lon­ger peri­od of time, we can set up tas­king - such as obser­ving an Ama­zon warehouse every 14 days,” Pfeil explains.

Rese­arch from abo­ve: forced labour in cot­ton production

One exam­p­le saw Vertical52 sup­port­ing NDR on its report about cot­ton and forced labour. The­re was sus­pi­ci­on from the start that the cot­ton in the fields of Xin­jiang was being hand-har­ve­s­ted by Uyg­hur forced labou­rers - and not by machi­nes as the Chi­ne­se govern­ment was clai­ming. Most of the expor­ted Chi­ne­se cot­ton comes from this regi­on in wes­tern Chi­na. And this is also the loca­ti­on of many of the labour camps whe­re eth­nic mino­ri­ties like the Uyg­hurs are being oppres­sed. Vertical52 com­pared the pho­to­graphs of the cot­ton fields with refe­rence objects in Kyr­gyz­stan and fol­lo­wed the crop rota­ti­ons: what does cot­ton look like from abo­ve? When does it flower? When is it har­ve­s­ted? The White Wall Index, an index from agri­cul­tu­re, was also used. This meant that the cot­ton fields could be pre­cis­e­ly iden­ti­fied in the pho­to­graphs of the wes­tern Chi­ne­se regi­on, - and, in the next step, the fields har­ve­s­ted by hand could be distin­gu­is­hed from tho­se har­ve­s­ted by machi­ne based on the sur­face struc­tu­re. A method that could be sca­led up to lar­ge are­as, accor­ding to Pfeil. “If a rese­arch field is new ter­ri­to­ry for us, we seek sci­en­ti­fic advice to make sure that we are eva­lua­ting in a clean, cor­rect and valid man­ner,” he says. The rese­arch data pro­ved here: about 96 per cent of cot­ton pro­duc­tion in the regi­on is based on har­ve­s­t­ing by hand. So, the pro­ba­bi­li­ty that we in Ger­ma­ny are wea­ring a T-shirt pro­du­ced with cot­ton from forced labour is very high.

The image data is also an important rese­arch tool for NGOs. Vertical52 col­la­bo­ra­ted with Terre des Hom­mes to inves­ti­ga­te the ext­ent of child labour in ille­gal mica mines in India. Child­ren as young as four are dig­ging In disu­s­ed, ille­gal­ly ope­ra­ted and thus unse­cu­red mines for the much sought-after mate­ri­al - and are often buried. Based on satel­li­te and radar data, the inves­ti­ga­ti­on show­ed that the sup­po­sedly aban­do­ned mines in Jhark­hand of eas­tern India had been expan­ding over recent years.

Vertical52 is now plan­ning a third pil­lar for the future: a foun­da­ti­on-based fel­low­ship pro­gram­me will sup­port jour­na­lists in count­ries with limi­t­ed press free­dom by pro­vi­ding assis­tance and know­ledge trans­fer. . Smal­ler local news­rooms with limi­t­ed bud­gets could thus gain access to satel­li­te data-based rese­arch. Becau­se the high-reso­lu­ti­on images from space need expe­ri­en­ced trans­la­tors to bring the sto­ries back down to earth.

Vertical52 will soon offi­ci­al­ly beco­me part of the Media­Tech Hub. The com­pa­ny was sel­ec­ted before­hand for MIZ Babelsberg’s Media Foun­ders Pro­gram­me which is orga­nis­ed in coope­ra­ti­on with the MTH Accelerator.

Image Cre­dit: Vertical54

About MTH Blog

The media technologies of the future are already being used today – not only in the entertainment sector, but also in a wide variety of industries. Christine Lentz meets up with tech enthusiasts, established companies and researchers for our monthly MediaTech Hub Potsdam blog to tell the stories behind the innovative business models.