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Society and communities

Professor Doreen Boyd is using satellites to fight slavery from space

Sometimes great evils are hidden in plain sight. South Asia’s ‘Brick Belt’, which stretches across swathes of Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Nepal, has thousands of brick kilns, and many use slave labour.

Now many of these sites have been identified thanks to Doreen Boyd and her expertise in using satellites to take observations and measurements of our planet.

Professor Boyd is a leader of the Rights Lab, a Beacon of Excellence that brings together 100 University of Nottingham scholars, including observation scientists, geographers, social scientists, engineers and computer specialists with the aim of helping to eradicate modern slavery. She said: “Satellites are orbiting the Earth all the time. There are currently around 1,300, of which 600 are designed to observe the Earth.”

"My work has always been driven by the link between people and pixels."
Professor Doreen Boyd

On the ground

“We initially focused on India, as the Rights Lab had completed in-depth field research there in brick kilns, and we needed verification on the ground that what we think we can see was actually there.

“We obviously couldn’t manually look at the whole of the brick belt as it is huge – but by taking a sample area, we were able to come up with a straightforward and easily replicated statistical approach, which allowed us to extrapolate from a random sample.”

As well as using statistical inference of visual analysis of the satellite imagery, Professor Boyd’s team also used Citizen Science, where members of the public identified slavery areas (such as brick kilns) on satellite images and these were verified by cross-referencing to data.

Artificial intelligence

“Once we had the estimate, the next step was to map the location of every single brick kiln using artificial intelligence. We had to ‘teach’ machines to identify the kilns for us,” says Professor Boyd.

The team trained computers using an algorithm to understand what a kiln looks like.

“Once we had trained the algorithm, we were confident that it could look at other images and accurately spot a brick kiln. We could amalgamate this feature identification with the crowd’s results and have confidence that there are brick kilns in a specific location.”

Professor Boyd and her team used these approaches to map brick-making in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal (2017-19), slavery in fish-processing in Bangladesh (2016-18), deforestation in Mozambique (2019), cobalt-mining in the DRC (2019-20), agriculture in Greece (2019-20), and multiple sectors in Uganda (2020), among other countries and industries.

Tackling slavery from space

Once this method was perfected, Professor Boyd and her team worked with governments, intergovernmental organisations and NGOs to help them use the research to take action against slavery, with new national action plans, lawsuits, inspections, and interventions. For example, in Greece, the research supported the government and NGOs to protect the rights of thousands of exploited migrants. In India, the research accelerated the work of NGOs to liberate enslaved workers and improve working conditions for thousands of people.

Since 2019, the India-based NGO Volunteers for Social Justice (VSJ) has used Professor Boyd’s data and maps to liberate bonded labourers from kilns in northern India. VSJ said: the “map data for Brick Kilns and the training we have received on how to use the data…has been immensely useful to us in our operational activities. Previously no such mapping existed and this constrained our work. The Brick Kiln mapping has revolutionised how we work… [it] enabled us to target attention on specific kilns as well as provide formal evidence we need to gain permission to undertake a raid and then to plan the logistics of a raid".

Professor Boyd’s 'Slavery from Space' programme has been utilized and praised across the global anti-slavery sector, by intergovernmental organisations, governments, and NGOs. One leading NGO, Free the Slaves, said the team’s brick-kiln research showed remote-sensing was a “necessary addition” to prevalence measurement efforts because it “allows NGOs to tackle specific and localized cases.” Free the Slaves explained: “Most companies that operate illegally remain under the radar but are exposed by Slavery from Space.”

In recognition of this sustained impact across several years, the Group on Earth Observations (GEO) ‘Earth Observations for the SDGs’ (EO4SD) Initiative gave Professor Boyd the 2020 GEO SDG Award (Academia), citing her “remarkable efforts to integrate Earth observations to develop new knowledge and practices” for achieving SDG 8.7. This award from a partnership of more than 100 national governments is for “those making an impact on the 17 global goals” (If). The 2020 awards panel was chaired by the director of NASA's Earth Applied Sciences Program.

“The work we are doing is to deliver what we call the Freedom Dividend,” says Professor Boyd. “If slavery ends, we will live in a safer world, a greener world and a more prosperous world and that’s what’s driving our work. My work has always been driven by the link between people and pixels. Looking at what is happening on Earth is something I’ve always done. I’m excited by the prospect that we have used ever-advancing technologies to help eradicate modern slavery.”

Doreen Boyd

Professor Doreen Boyd is an Professor of Earth Observation in the School of Geography and Associate Director of the Rights Lab, leading its Data Programme.

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