Graduate Uses Technology to Help Fight Human Rights Abuses

Wolfinbarger photo

While satellite images of towns and cities are being seen by more and more people thanks to online resources like Google Maps, the technology offers more than a view of a neighboring backyard or a childhood home.

Specialists like Eastern Kentucky University alumna Susan Wolfinbarger, a senior program associate for the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Geospatial Technologies and Human Rights Program, are using satellite technology to monitor human-rights abuses and assist with crisis intervention around the world.

High-resolution digital images taken from satellites are now capable of showing analysts trees, military machinery, burned-out homes, blocked roadways, mortar damage and even larger groups of people.

Wolfinbarger, who earned bachelor’s degrees in geography and Spanish from EKU in 2004, recently reviewed satellite images of towns in Syria released by Amnesty International, which commissioned a satellite imaging company to take the photos and document existing situations in the war-ravaged country as part of its ongoing efforts to prevent human rights abuse. She appeared on the PBS program “NewsHour” to comment on the findings.

She does similar human rights analysis with satellite imagery worldwide. The AAAS program has documented village destruction in Darfur, armed conflict in cities in places like Libya, mass graves in Afghanistan and oil spills in Nigeria.

“By documenting human rights abuses, we provide scientific proof to support the claims of victims,” Wolfinbarger explained. “Many times there is no proof other than the victim’s word that an abuse has occurred. For example, in refugee situations, such as Darfur, people are forced to flee the destruction of their villages and travel great distances to seek shelter in camps. Being able to use satellite imagery to find the village and to prove that it was destroyed is a powerful tool when telling the stories of victims and to aid in seeking redress.”

Wolfinbarger’s first international experience came during her time at Eastern when she took part in a Kentucky Institute for International Studies study abroad program in Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands.

“That was the first time I had ever been on an airplane or left the country,” the Irvine native said. “I also did a senior thesis where I did field work in Oaxaca, Mexico. These opportunities made me really fall in love with research and learning more about the world outside of my day-to-day life.”

She went on to earn advanced degrees in geography (a master’s from George Washington University and doctoral from Ohio State University) but, according to Wolfinbarger, the path to her career as a geographer definitely began at EKU during her first class with Dr. David Zurick.

“I cannot say enough how wonderful the geography department at EKU is,” she said. “Dave is responsible for me becoming a geographer. I took his Geography 101 class and was mesmerized every day by the amazing things he taught us about the world. It is a rare thing for someone to be able to captivate a room full of undergrads!”

Published on September 06, 2012