Published online 19 October 2005 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news051017-12

News

UN opens access to earthquake shots

Relief workers applaud release of satellite imagery.

Click here to see enlarged high-resolution satellite images of the Kashmir earthquake zoneClick here to see enlarged high-resolution satellite images of the Kashmir earthquake zone© Space Imaging

High-resolution satellite images of Kashmir, which was hit hard by a magnitude-7.6 earthquake on 8 October, have begun to reappear on public websites, much to the relief of aid workers.

The pictures were removed last week from all public-access websites belonging to the United Nations (UN) and its relief partners, including the International Charter on Space and Major Disasters (see 'Quake aid hampered by ban on web shots').

“Getting aid to the affected communities has proven extraordinarily difficult. Many of them aren't marked on available maps.”

Mark Jones
editor of Reuters Alertnet.

A senior official at the charter, who asked not to be named, told Nature that the UN decided to ban public dissemination of photos of the area after a meeting on 10 October. The official told Nature that the meeting discussed an official reminder from Pakistan about the political sensitivity of the area, which was issued after the earthquake. Pakistan and India have long fought over Kashmir, and there were concerns that pictures could compromise security in the region.

Tasnim Aslam, a spokeswoman for Pakistan's foreign ministry, told Associated Press in Islamabad yesterday that "No one in the Pakistan government has made a request that such maps be removed." Nature 's sources emphasize that the UN decision was a precaution against a deterioration in relations with Pakistan.

After pressure from relief groups seeking wider access to the images, the UN met again on 17 October, and reversed its decision. It sent a memo to all involved parties on the morning of Tuesday 18 October advising them that the ban on photos had been lifted.

Effective aid

"The decision to free up restrictions on the creation of up-to-date maps of the area is extremely good news for all those charities and agencies trying to direct aid as effectively as possible," says Mark Jones, editor of the London-based Reuters AlertNet, a free information service run by the Reuters Foundation that is widely used by relief workers.

"Getting aid to the affected communities has proven extraordinarily difficult; many of them aren't marked on available maps," Jones says, adding that AlertNet complied with the UN ban so as not to jeopardize its aid work in the region.

Since the ban has been lifted, AlertNet has published detailed maps of the region based on satellite-images, showing, for example, which roads are blocked.

Free for all

The European Union's Response to Emergencies and Disasters centre, which houses one of the largest databases of geographical and seismic information of the zone, marked their photos as 'restricted' after the ban, offering them only to affiliated organizations through a password-protected site. A senior official at the centre, who also asked not to be named, told Nature on 19 October that all restrictions would shortly be lifted.

"I am very pleased that the UN has been able to reverse its decision," the official told Nature. She added that the community has been "starved of pertinent, up-to-date information on remote, inaccessible areas".

The International Charter on Space and Major Disasters made its pictures available promptly on 18 October.

The lifting of the ban is "wonderful news", says Anne Wright, a computer scientist at the NASA Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California. Wright was involved in mapping the damage done by Hurricane Katrina and knows how useful such images can be.

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She is part of the Global Connection, a consortium made up of Google and scientists at Ames and Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, which is now scrambling to access the public images. The group hopes to produce maps of the Pakistan earthquake zone that are more detailed than those currently available.

Such Internet responses to disasters by diverse groups will "make responses to similar events in the future easier and more efficient", says Wright. 

editor of Reuters Alertnet.