Joe Bullock: AI Research Fellow at UN Global Pulse

UN Global Pulse is am innovation initiative of the UN Secretary General to harness big data, artificial intelligence and other emerging technologies for sustainable development and humanitarian action. UN Global Pulse are engaged in a variety of projects involving AI, both from a policy and technical perspective, and so far Joe has mainly been working on a project, in collaboration with UNOSAT (the UN satellite analysis programme), to analyse satellite images of various locations around the world for humanitarian purposes.

One of the major analysis tasks UNOSAT perform is monitoring refugee camp growth, movement and development at the request of agencies on the ground, such as UNHCR (the UN High Commissioner for Refugees). The first step in this procedure is to count the number of structures in the camp over time by looking at satellite images taken by governmental and private partners. Currently such analysis is performed manually and can take several days, depending on the complexity of the camp and the area covered. Additionally, this analysis is often carried out when camps are highly dynamic, making taking a census impractical, and requiring a count to be made sometimes as often as every week. Joe has been working on automating this process through developing AI based solutions which can count the number of structures in a camp, and classify them into pre-determined categories, as well as provide a roof area map showing the variation in structure sizes and the land covered by a given camp. Since camps vary greatly from location to location, these systems have to be designed with a high degree of flexibility, allowing us to best leverage an image analyst’s expertise, whilst also incorporating information from the teams on the ground. The hope is that these algorithms will reduce the time required to ‘solve’ a camp to a matter of hours, meaning that more accurate analysis can be given to teams in the camps, thus enabling them to better provide those living there with the resources and care they need.

As a result of his work on this project Joe was also fortunate enough to be able to attend, and contribute to the 38th session of the UN Inter-Agency Meeting on Outer Space Activities (UN-SPACE) co-organised by UNOOSA (the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs) and UNOP (the UN Office for Partnerships). He thought that this was a really interesting round table discussion on how the UN is using space related information, such as satellite images and communications networks, for important analysis, as well as work with national and private partners in regulating and collaborating in the field.