The UN “Disaster Charter”–what is it and who uses it?

Satellite image of 2013 Colorado flooding (town of Lyons). Image from Digitalglobe, and hosted by Digitalglobe.

Because it’s been a year, I’m taking a little break, but don’t worry, more original content is coming starting tomorrow again.  So you’re currently looking at some of the Clearancejobs.com articles about space I’ve written.  I’ll be interspersing these throughout for a little bit (not long).  This particular article was posted on Clearancejobs.com on 22 January, 2014.

Quick quiz:  What nation has invoked the United Nations International Charter for Space & Major Disasters twice in the past two months?  What, you didn’t know there was a UN “Disaster Charter?”  You don’t even know what the Charter means?  Well the Charter does exist, and you can fully get up to speed on it at the official Disastercharter.org website, right here.

But back to the question and possible answers. Did you answer Vietnam?  Malaysia?  The Philippines?  No fair using the internet for your answer.  But if you did try those particular answers, you’d be incorrect.  The answer is:  the United Kingdom.  That’s right, the UK activated the Charter on 4 December, and then again on 6 January.  There’s been extreme amounts of flooding in the land of jelly babies, tea, and crumpets during these past two months.

What does activating the UN “Disaster Charter” do?  It allows countries facing disasters to request image data collection immediately.  The imagery collection depends on who is immediately available in the satellite pool.  The satellite operator pool consists of many different organizations and companies, including DigitalGlobe, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the European Organisation for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites (EUMETSAT), and about twenty other charter members.  Each of them brings a complement of satellites to help image the disaster area.

Why is the UN “Disaster Charter” important?  Simple—the activation and subsequent actions get images to the affected countries quickly.  This is theoretically a faster process than having to rely on a single national or commercial entity and waiting for their specific satellites to fly overhead at the right time.  The Charter activation allows the affected countries to see where the impact of the disaster and then “rack and stack” emergency resource responses based on the imagery.  To request activation of the Charter, you don’t even need to be a member–the Charter promotes universal access to the satellite resources.  Neat idea, eh?

It’s going to be more exciting and interesting to see how involved with the UN “Disaster Charter” companies like Skybox, Planet Labs, and Urthecast will be.  Such small and relatively inexpensive satellites and their operators might actually be more responsive than the bigger satellite operators.  Skybox wants to stream HD video from their birds—so imagine seeing the disaster area in real-time and how handy that might be.

UNITAR’s Operational Satellite Applications Program (UNOSAT), a sub-branch of the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) is the coordinating agency for all the images collected from the satellites responding to Charter activation.  It also insures the images get to the correct organizations and people (they are acting as collection managers).

For more information about the Charter’s purpose, in a presentation format, just go to this site.

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