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Fighting Slavery from Space

Fighting Slavery from Space

It's easy to think that slavery has been consigned to the pages of history – but unfortunately, that's far from the truth. Modern slavery remains a pressing human rights issue, with the Global Slavery Index estimating that 46 million people are currently enslaved globally. While efforts to eradicate modern slavery have stepped up, new methods are needed to tackle this evolving practice. This June, the University launched an innovative new initiative in our mission to end slavery – by tracking potential sites of exploitation from space. 

Slavery can't hide from satellites

According to the Global Slavery Index, there are 18 million slaves in India, making it the country with the highest number of slaves in the world. Focusing on the brick-making industry in the country, which is built upon millions of manual labourers, the 'Slavery from Space' project is using satelitte imagery to identify potential sites of slavery. 

Help us end slavery

Our researchers are asking members of the public to volunteer to help them trawl through hundreds of satellite images to spot sites of slavery. 

Become a volunteer →

The most common form of modern slavery is bonded labour, which happens when a person is forced to work to pay off a debt, setting their bodies and labour as collateral against a sum that never diminshes. They work for no pay and lose freedom of movement. Up to 3.5 million brick kiln workers in South Asia are estimated to be working in forced labour conditions and approximately 19% of the region's undocumented brick kiln workers are under 18 years of age – both are prohibited by international law. 

It can be difficult for antislavery workers on the ground to find sites of slavery. But with the emergence of geospatial techniques NGOs now have help to collect data remotely – and brick kilns have huge potential to be monitored in near-real time because they are visible in satellite imagery. 

Remote locations, conflict and politically unstable areas can make it hard for antislavery workers on the ground to find sites of slavery.

"The use of satellite imagery, captured almost continuously in both space and time, is an important innovation for the human rights sector," said Dr Jessica Wardlow from the University's Rights Lab. "Satellite imagery has never been more cheaply or freely available from sources such as Google Maps. But while satellites successfully automate data collection, computers remain inferior to even the most untrained human eye for analysing images to identify patterns. 

"Currently the growth in volume of satellite images easily outpaces the amount of human resource available to process it. So we've turned to crowdsourcing to help us run the project."

Brick kiln work in Asia

Painting a precise picture

The 'Slavery from Space' project is part of the Rights Lab, one of the six Beacons of Excellence launched by the University as part of a £200 million investment in research. It aims to end slavery by 2030 and has 15 anti-slavery projects that span all University faculties – including this geospatial project, a project to design slavery-free supply chains and a locally-based project to make Nottingham the world's first slavery-free city. 

The primary objective of 'Slavery from Space' is to paint a more precise picture of the prevalence of slavery in areas where experts both know and don't know it's happening. 

"This project is hugely exciting," said Professor Kevin Bales CMG, Rights Lab Research Director.

Anyone in the world can now fight slavery from space – this is just the beginning.

Volunteers have been tagging locations for investigation on the ground, to help policy makers and NGOs to reach more educated, evidence-based decisions. As well as improving our understanding of modern slavery, using crowdsourcing to recruit volunteers can engage the online community and raise awareness of modern slavery. 

By the end of June the Nottingham team had a complete data set – volunteers had added 6,026 classifications to an initial set of 396 images. 

Join the movement to end slavery

'Slavery from Space' continues to grow as we add more imagery and identify more signs of slavery. You can help us achieve a slavery-free world by becoming a volunteer for the project. 



Later this year, you can also take part in our free online course, 'Ending Slavery: Strategies for Contemporary Global Abolition'. Over a four-week period, join our experts to debate and shape solutions for the next phase of the contemporary anti-slavery movement. And if you want to delve deeper into the key concepts and challenges of slavery and human rights, our distance-learning Slavery and Liberation MA – the first of its kind in the world – is open for registration.