The DLR Center for Satellite based Crisis Information (ZKI): Current status and considerations for the future

Harald Mehl, Head of Unit - Civil Crisis Information and Geo Risk, German Aerospace Center (DLR)

Stefan Voigt, Senior Researcher / Teamleader "Humanitarian Relief & Civil Security", German Aerospace Center (DLR)


The Center for Satellite based Crisis Information (ZKI) of the German Aerospace Center (DLR) is continuously extending its activities in research, training and operational services to support the use of satellite-based information for disaster management, humanitarian relief efforts and civil security matters. ZKI is engaged in many German and European research and development (R&D) activities. The German Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES) project DeSecure and the European Seventh Framework Programme (FP7) projects Services and Applications for Emergency Response (SAFER) and linkER are currently the most prominent ones among those activities. DLR has formally joined the International Charter Space and Major Disasters in October 2010 and is thus further strengthening the support to international disaster response. The experience in the aftermath of the devastating disaster of the Indian Ocean Tsunami 2004, the Pakistan Earthquake in 2005 or the Haiti Earthquake in 2010 shows that the international community applying satellite information for rapid disaster mapping and assessment is diversifying and is increasingly lacking coordination during extreme disaster situations. In this paper we suggest to establish an international working group, based on the UN-SPIDER network to elaborate and agree to rules of engagement, standards, code of conduct as well as collaborative coordination procedures to improve global efficiency and coherence in satellite-based crisis mapping following extreme disaster situations where many international responders are involved.

ZKI – Current status

General aspects, research and development activities

DLR and its ZKI are continuously working towards further developing the space capacities for the use in the civil security domain, namely crisis- and disaster relief, humanitarian work and security of the citizen. The main activities of ZKI are R&D, data and operational service provision, as well as training and exercises for relief personnel, decision makers, and other stakeholders involved in emergency and humanitarian operations.

In the R&D domain, ZKI has recently completed the coordination and research work of a collaborative project called “DeSecure”, with German partners from industry, academia and public bodies, studying the development and improvement of rapid mapping and space-based emergency response support methodologies. DeSecure was one of the German “De” projects supporting the German contribution to Europe’s GMES initiative, within which DLR is also very actively supporting the qualification and development of the Emergency Response Services (ERS). In the framework of GMES/ERS, DLR/ZKI contributes significantly to the coordination of the respective rapid mapping services through the “SAFER” project, as well as through major contributions to the “linkER” service contract. This service contract was awarded by the European Commission to support the implementation of the GMES/ERS with all 27 member states of the European Community as well as with the respective services at the European Commission’s Directorate General for Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection (DG ECHO)/Monitoring and Information Center (MIC) and the External Relations Directorate General (DG RELEX). Furthermore, DLR engages in the foreign policy oriented GMES services such as GMOSAIC, addressing international monitoring and policy support topics. In the domain of early warning, DLR, together with its partners, has developed and successfully completed the implementation of the German Indonesian Tsunami Early Warning System (GITEWS) for the Indian Ocean during the years following the devastating tsunami in the Indian Ocean in December 2004.

ZKI operation of services, training and exercises

ZKI continues to further expand the operations of its 24/7 rapid mapping and emergency response services. The GMES/ERS activities form a significant part of our current work at ZKI. Since the last 1 ½ years, GMES/ERS has been activated more than 60 times and the implementation within the European crisis response system is progressing. DLR coordinates the rapid mapping activities within GMES/ERS, which includes not only the operational dispatching and supervision of respective production work, but also covers the planning and implementation of updates, standards and extensions of the rapid mapping services within GMES. Beyond the processing, analysis and mapping work ZKI implements DLR’s support to the International Charter Space and Major Disasters, formally signed by DLR in October 2010. DLR contributes with data from the TerraSAR-X radar satellite mission, as well as through coordination, project management and value adding services to the Charter.

Over the years it has shown that one of the best ways of facilitating the use of satellite mapping products in the emergency management and crisis response community is the engagement in dedicated exercises and trainings at all levels, addressing decision makers, field practitioners, situation centre staff and other stakeholders in the domain. DLR/ZKI is very active in this field and has prepared and conducted a substantial number of exercises and trainings recently, starting from in-house training activities of emergency response staff, exercises with the GMES community of satellite service providers as well as with the national, European and international user community from the civil protection and the humanitarian sector. Exercises have proven to be a very good and essential tool to not only train emergency procedures, but also to identify gaps and possible places for improvement in the analysis and information generation chains, as well as in the application domain of space-based crisis information.

General considerations for improved global coordination of rapid mapping activities in the international response to extreme disasters

General aspects

While a few years ago civilian satellite based crisis information and rapid mapping activities for civil protection and humanitarian purposes were provided by only a few expert centres worldwide, this situation is changing rapidly. Various national, governmental and non-governmental, regional as well as global actors and networks were formed and are more and more engaging in rapid satellite assessment during major crisis situations. These entities are coming from research and academia, industry, public bodies as well as from different UN organizations, etc. The entities operate at different scales and through different communities. While the International Charter Space and Major Disasters (1) has a clear focus on the provision and global synergistic use of space resources, the UN-SPIDER programme, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2006 (2) aims at global networking, information sharing as well as local and regional capacity building in the domain of space technology for disaster management and emergency response. Beyond those, there are various national and regional/supranational activities such as the European GMES initiative (3) with its “Emergency Response Service” (4) or the Sentinel Asia initiative (5) seeking to achieve regional coordination and cooperation in the field of space technology for disaster response in Asia. Globally speaking, the Group on Earth Observation (GEO) is supporting the development of data sharing and application portals (6). With all these initiatives and the multitude of actors in this field, the awareness and the availability of space-based resources in disaster management increased significantly over the past years. Data access became easier and will continue to become easier. Furthermore the response time of space systems has noticeably improved.

Having said this, these positive developments also have lead to a significant drawback, when it comes to global coordination of efforts during extraordinary disaster or crisis situations, when large numbers of organizations and relief actors are engaging in the relief work as well as in the satellite and geospatial assessment activities. The aftermath of the Haiti earthquake in January 2010 has shown clearly that the sheer number of maps and analysis products, the sometimes severe inconsistencies (thematically and graphically) and the diversity of the hundreds of mapping products posted on ReliefWeb (7) for this event, lead to a confusion, irritation and discouragement of those users which were supposed to be supported by the mapping and satellite-based analysis products. Similar observations could already be made during the days and weeks after the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean as well as during the major Pakistan earthquake in 2005.

As a result of these developments and the ever increasing and diversifying activities in the domain of satellite-based mapping for disaster and crisis management it becomes clear, that the community of space data providers, analysis and mapping centres/networks need to identify, agree and adopt common rules of engagement and coordination to improve coherence, effectiveness, quality, usability and reliability of international space response for extraordinary disaster situations.

Current situation in global coordination

Currently there is no single mechanism in place to warrant proper coordination of international efforts in the response to extreme disasters or crisis events within the geospatial and satellite domain. The different organizations involved, coordinate with each other on an ad-hoc basis, according to personal knowledge and understanding of the individuals involved. While most of the individual organizations and networks within themselves have clear rules of engagement, quality assurance, training, etc., such rules are missing on an international and global scale. Telephone conferences and e-mail lists, as well as a multitude of individual web sites serve as information-, data-, and product exchange tools. The map section of ReliefWeb in its current form basically hosts mapping and analysis products which become available for a specific disaster without having the capacity to verify, validate or aggregate information which may be in some cases redundant, poorly displayed, or in the worst case wrong or contradicting.

Of course, this type of ad-hoc coordination and best-effort based placing of products has been the best possible way of collaboration within the relatively young community of space-based disaster mapping. However, the community and the respective activity level have grown over the last years. Therefore it is time to make a further step towards a better global coordination, standardization and collaboration in rapid mapping for extreme disaster events, involving a large number of international actors.

The way towards generally accepted rules of engagement, standards and coordination

What could be done

The following considerations address the whole community of geospatial information providers and processing organizations making use (even if only partially) of satellite imagery in a rapid response mode for extreme disaster situations, producing information and mapping products meant for public and generic use in this context. Whenever rapid mapping centres generate maps for individual users only, without publishing them on the web, or when it can be ensured that only local or regional actors are involved in the assessment and response work for a given local disaster, no further coordination among international networks and/or organizations is needed. Having said this, probably 90% of the work being carried out globally today in the domain of rapid space-based disaster response mapping will remain unchanged, as it is assumed to be guided under local, regional or individual mechanisms or contracts ensuring the required quality, standardization and responsiveness. The strong need for a global coordination, harmonization and quality assurance emerges for those estimated 10% of the global rapid mapping efforts, dedicated to the before-mentioned extreme disasters, involving a multitude of responders and actors. In those cases, the community urgently needs to move from ad-hoc coordination to a structured way of professional response at a global scale. The community is mature enough to take a next step as well as a next level of quality and coherence.

The challenge resides with the diversity and complexity of the individual players involved, as well as with the heterogeneity of the different data provision mechanisms and the many different technical, organizational and political aspects of the satellite-based rapid mapping activities, especially during large scale events. In order to reach a next level of cohesion in this context, it is suggested to elaborate a minimum level of rapid mapping standards, clear rules of engagement and a code of conduct, which all actors need to respect when engaging under the umbrella of this international collaborative frame. Beyond this, it is absolutely vital to establish a tool for international coordination of the satellite mapping community, without creating a new monolithic institution, claiming the right of command and control for international response efforts. To avoid the formation of such an institution it is suggested to move towards the establishment of clear rules, standards and collaboration through an international working group which has the mandate of elaborating, defining and possibly reviewing such rules, as well as setting up a virtual coordination platform coordinated jointly and during individual events e.g. on a rotating and largely collaborative basis.

Defined capacities and contributions

To start with, a mandated group of international key actors, with representatives from a number of countries, from the UN, and possibly even large international bodies or well recognized NGOs would need to sit together and elaborate jointly the basic rules of engagement, standardization, coordination and collaboration under this international space response framework. The UN-SPIDER programme could be used as the basis for organizing and facilitating the work of this international working group. Such a working group would probably be established for the duration of a year or two, with working meetings every three to six months, elaborating the aforementioned key elements of coordinated international collaboration within the space-based mapping response domain:

  • Definition of capacities and key contribution to be coordinated within the process: data provision, processing, analysis, validation/quality assurance, field support, coordination, etc.,
  • Definition of rules of engagement, standards and code of conduct,
  • Establishment of an internationally accepted, non-discriminating and effective coordination and collaboration mechanism.

It is extremely important to note, that through the establishment of this working group, none of the existing mechanisms, networks, or services should be replaced or marginalized. It is more that these different efforts should be brought together in an effective way, for an even better synergy and coherence in the case of extreme disaster events. The INSARAG Guidelines (8) as well as the UNDAC Handbook (9) may serve as reference documents and examples on how such collaboration may be guided and established.

Coordination, training, exercises and certification

Especially the improved and structured coordination and collaboration will be the key to success in the efforts of establishing a global mechanism of satellite based rapid mapping, without imposing on the individual freedom of action of all contributing parties. However, it is considered a must to establish a collaborative environment of all the existing networks (Charter, GMES, Sentinel Asia, GEO…) where trust and joint work for the greater good are the key drivers in managing and coordinating the global efforts during an emergency operation.

Different ways of organizing a collaborative coordination could be considered for such a mechanism. These could involve a principle of rotation for the coordination of joint efforts within the mechanism, based on a pool of trained, experienced and certified coordinators from different organisations globally. Furthermore, a common coordination platform, such as the Virtual OSOCC on ReliefWeb (7) used among the international relief field teams, will also play a key and central role in setting up this agreed and accepted global coordination.

A good way of achieving internationally agreed standards and common rules is to train everyone according to common guidelines and agreed procedures. Only if the established rules and guidelines are well implemented, well known and adopted by all major actors in the community, the mechanism will work. Thus, training, exercising and certification of the respective capacities which are defined within the mechanism will help to raise the common understanding and ensure that the code of conduct is adopted, quality goals are met and that the minimum level of standardisation is achieved.

Conclusion and perspective

Concluding these considerations it has to be acknowledged that the international community in space- and satellite-based disaster mapping and crisis response has already achieved remarkable progress in responsiveness, capacity and efficiency during the past years. As a result of this progress and in sight of the fast development of DLR/ZKI during the past years from a research entity to an operational crisis mapping service, it is recommended to aim for a commonly accepted global mechanism for coordination of the rapid mapping community in case of extreme disaster events. It is understood that such coordination can only be established on an international and multilateral basis, with all major actors taking on their responsibility, contributing a good part of their respective capacity to the global efforts and agreeing to the setting up of a light and efficient cooperation mechanism.
It is recommended to establish an international working group, with a clearly defined high level representation of the relevant groups and experts, to develop, agree and establish international rules of engagement for space-based rapid mapping efforts at the global level. The community is ready to take the next step and time is short, as the next extreme disaster event can happen tomorrow.