An interview with UNOSAT’s Einar Bjørgo

Satellite technology in service of cultural heritage

Einar Bjorgo UNOSAT

Photo courtesy of Marit Fosse
Norway’s Einar Bjørgo heads up UNOSAT at the United Nations.

Marit Fosse
Geneva

We don’t think about it normally, but satellite images have a variety of uses beyond what we are used to imagining. Cultural heritage surveillance is one of them. We had a chance to meet with Einar Bjørgo, a Norwegian who serves as director for the Division for Satellite Analysis and Applied Research, manager, UNOSAT and A2030 Unit UNITAR, one of the United Nations’ success stories. 

Marit Fosse: You had a “Library Talk” presentation recently where you discussed UNOSAT’s involvement in the preservation of cultural heritage. Could you talk more about this and what exactly you are doing?

Einar Bjørgo: Sure, with pleasure! It is a project we carry on with UNESCO, and it goes back to the time when we were working for the humanitarian community in Syria. As you know, we use satellite imagery to assess the damage to buildings and infrastructure. One day, we came across damaged historical sites in Syria, and we immediately contacted colleagues in UNESCO. It goes without saying that this was of great interest to them. UNESCO had recently established an emergency unit, so, joining forces, we immediately started to assess the extent of damage of cultural heritage in Syria.

UNESCO provided us with data of the most important historical sites. We also were able to work on an “on-call basis” and, as events were unfolding at the time, we could sometimes denounce rumors about certain historical sites. Certain sites had been reported to be damaged, whereas it turned out to be untrue. Unfortunately, on several occasions, we could confirm the destruction of historical sites, such as the Temple of Bel in Palmyra.

MF: How do you see the situation currently? Is it really as bad as we might think?

EB: Talking about Syria, fortunately, not everything is damaged. However, we also work in Libya and Iraq, as well as in other places, so we are not focused only on Syria. Of course, there has been considerable damage in Syria, and we did issue a report earlier about the situation, and we are going to issue a new report soon. Recently, we issued a report focusing on Aleppo and the old town, and it’s clear that there is considerable damage.

The good news is that several of the sites can be restored, but this is of course going to take time.

Let me just say, at UNOSAT, we are excellent when it comes to looking at satellite imagery and interpreting it. But it’s only when you work with the historians and the archaeologists that you truly understand the immense loss and the true value of what has been totally or partially destroyed.

MF: You mentioned Iraq and Libya. In Libya, there is a civil war going on. How do you see the situation there?

EB: We are assessing some sites. We want to make sure that our technology is available to UNESCO whenever it is required.

The use of this type of technology is unique and highly valuable, especially when you do not have access to the sites, or you cannot send staff into the area. This is very often the case in these complex emergencies.

Therefore, the satellite images are very useful tools. We can also compare the situation before the war or when the conflict started, and then compare it to recent images. By looking back in time, we can also narrow down the time frame and find the approximate time when something was destroyed, and this enables us to know also who was in control of the area at that time.

As we have seen in other places such as in Timbuktu (Mali), the damage done to the cultural heritage monuments became an issue at the International Criminal Court. So, being able to document these things as they happen is very important. If you are not there to take the photos, or if nobody assesses the situation at the right moment and as things are unfolding, we risk not having an image of damage until at much later stage. In the meantime, things may have changed on the ground. So, yes, it is an important technology, and while it is used to document the damage done, even more importantly it is also an advocacy tool.

MF: Listening to you, I have an impression that this is a kind of spin-off of your regular work?

EB: You can say that it’s a kind of a spin-off with many spin-offs. Sixteen years ago, we started focusing on humanitarian projects and supporting humanitarians in situations like earthquakes, floods, etc. Since then, the technology has also improved.

We work closely with the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), looking at refugee camps, helping the HCR plan and manage refugee camps. We are looking at refugees and displaced persons, as well as at capacity development for climate change adaptation to increase resilience in small island states through a project called “Common Sensing,” which is financed by the U.K. Space Agency.

The U.N. Secretary-General is also very supportive of the use of this technology, so for us, this is absolutely wonderful. We are also making sure that the other U.N. agencies have access to this information whenever they need it. So, we are working very closely with a wide range of U.N. agencies.

As I mentioned earlier, we also interact directly with governments, carrying out a lot of training and capacity building so that they can use the technology themselves.

So, yes, I think you are perhaps right when you say that the cultural heritages project is one of the spin-offs. For us, it is a sort of latest example of what we can do, and I’m sure there will be more projects to come, things that we haven’t even thought of yet.

MF: Everybody is talking about the critical financial situation in the United Nations these days. How is your financial situation?

EB: We are part of UNITAR, the U.N. Institute for Training and Research, and our financing is 100% extra-budgetary, with zero dollar-core funding. Everything we do is project-based, and we are fortunate to have donors who are interested in supporting this work. UNITAR’s budget is actually increasing. 

Obviously, we could do a lot more if we had more funds, so if there are donors out there who are interested in supporting the work we do on technology support to the core mandates of sister agencies, especially in developing countries, and training and capacity development or protection of cultural heritage, for example, please do not hesitate to contact us. We can do so much more.

The financial situation has nevertheless been relatively stable over the last couple of years, with foreseen growth, and we cannot complain, for we are doing quite fine at the UNOSAT. It goes without saying that it is hard work, and it is tough. Of course, it is very competitive, but so far, so good. We are known for delivering high-quality work.

MF: For organizations or whoever wants to benefit from your services, what do they have to do?

EB: They can always contact us at unosat@unitar.org. We work mainly with U.N. and governments, but have collaboration agreements with both International Federation of the Red Cross and International Committee of the Red Cross, and many more. For training we work together with the countries we train so that we can design the appropriate training curriculum for maximum impact.

It is important to keep in mind that capacity development takes time. It is a long-term process, and you need to be there over time. This is the reason why we really encourage long-term projects. One example is the water management project in Chad and our disaster risk reduction activities that we have been carrying on in East Africa for several years now.

MF: Is there something else you would like to highlight?

EB: The UNOSAT team has been around since 2001. We have provided services to the humanitarian community for many years now, but we are perhaps not the best communicators, nor very good at public relations.

The reason is quite simple: when you are very busy working with an emergency, for instance, or other difficult issues that can sometimes be a challenge because people’s lives are at stake, you do not necessarily have much time to communicate. The priorities are different! This is the reason why I am very happy to have this opportunity to talk with you.

I would say that being able to reach out to a wide audience is important for us so that people can take note that there is a satellite imagery capacity within the U.N. system, ensuring neutrality and only focusing on scientific assessment, while transferring these skills to member states that would like to benefit from such technologies.

Visit the UNITAR/UNOSAT website at www.unitar.org/unosat.

Follow UNOSAT on Twitter at twitter.com/UNOSAT.

This article originally appeared in the October 18, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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