Fighting slavery from space

03 Jul 2017 00:15:00.000

Members of the public have been helping experts from the University of Nottingham in their mission to end slavery, by tracking potential sites of exploitation from space.

The University launched its ‘Slavery from Space’ project last month (May), which has been looking for volunteers to help researchers trawl through hundreds of satellite images to identify, and mark brick kilns. This work is focussing on India where the Global Slavery Index estimates there are over 18 million slaves.

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The brick-making industry itself is built upon millions of manual labourers. Up to 68 per cent of the 4.4 to 5.2 million brick kiln workers in South Asia are estimated to be working in forced labour conditions and approximately 19 per cent of the region’s documented brick kiln workers are under 18 years of age, both of which are prohibited by international law.

These kilns have huge potential to be monitored in near-real time because they are visible in satellite imagery.

NGOs have traditionally relied upon ground-based methods to find sites of bonded labour.

Bonded labour is the most common form of modern slavery, and 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 diminishes. They work for no pay and lose freedom of movement. 

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

Dr Jessica Wardlaw from the University of Nottingham Rights Lab, is working on the use of geospatial science to tackle modern slavery.

She said: “Geospatial techniques have now emerged that help NGOs to collect data remotely. The use of satellite imagery, captured almost continuously in both space and time, is an important innovation for the human rights sector.

“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 have turned to crowdsourcing.”

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. 

Volunteers have been tagging locations for investigation on the ground, to help policy makers and NGOs reach more educated, evidence-based decisions. As well as improving our understanding of modern slavery, crowdsourcing 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 the initial set of 396 images. 

Beacons of Excellence

The Rights Lab is one of six Beacons of Excellence launched by the university as part of a £200 million investment in research. It aims to help end slavery by 2030.

Professor Kevin Bales CMG is Rights Lab Research Director. He said: “This project is hugely exciting as now anyone in the world can fight slavery from space, and this is just the beginning.”

Bethany Jackson, a PhD student in the School of Geography at the University, is studying the scale and impact of the brick kiln industry, using a range of satellite imagery and is working alongside Dr Wardlaw.

Bethany says: “Slavery from Space will grow as we add more imagery and seek other signs of slavery in the future. To continue taking part people can also participate in a distance-learning MA in Slavery and Liberation that begins in September and is the first of its kind in the world or take our free online course that includes a unit on the use of geospatial technology to fight slavery.”

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Notes to editors: 

The University of Nottingham is a research-intensive university with a proud heritage, consistently ranked among the world's top 100. Studying at the University of Nottingham is a life-changing experience and we pride ourselves on unlocking the potential of our 44,000 students - Nottingham was named University of the Year for Graduate Employment in the 2017 Times and Sunday Times Good University Guide, was awarded gold in the TEF 2017 and features in the top 20 of all three major UK rankings. We have a pioneering spirit, expressed in the vision of our founder Sir Jesse Boot, which has seen us lead the way in establishing campuses in China and Malaysia - part of a globally connected network of education, research and industrial engagement. We are ranked eighth for research power in the UK according to REF 2014. We have six beacons of research excellence helping to transform lives and change the world; we are also a major employer and industry partner - locally and globally.

Impact: The Nottingham Campaign, its biggest-ever fundraising campaign, is delivering the University’s vision to change lives, tackle global issues and shape the future. More news…


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Charlotte Anscombe – Media Relations Manager (Arts and Social Sciences)

Email:  Phone:+44 (0)115 74 84 417 Location: University Park

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