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How Journalists Can Track Down Great Satellite Images in Realtime

The container ship, Ever Given, stuck sideways across the Suez Canal and blocking the canal to all ship traffic
View of the 400-meter, 224,000-ton Ever Given container ship, operated by the Evergreen Marine Corporation, while stuck in the Suez Canal recently. Photo: European Space Agency / Copernicus Sentinel-2 satellite

There’s an old saying in journalism: “Show, don’t tell.” Telling is generally a basic recitation of facts. For instance, “Frank noticed it was a sunny day when he stepped out of the house.” Showing, on the other hand, offers details, rather than a straight-ahead “just the facts” sort of approach. “When Frank stepped outside, he was immediately blinded by light, a shocking circumstance given that the sky had been obscured by smoke for the past two weeks.” The first example offers basic, direct information — Frank has gone outside, and it’s sunny. The second provides detail that brings the reader into the story; offering them language that helps to create an image in their mind of what they’re reading.

The best writing creates such images. But sometimes words are not enough. That’s when journalists supplement their writing with photos, offering visual, rather than written images to help provide additional clarity for an audience. Photos are used to accompany articles, and to stand alone with limited text as photo essays. They provide direct documentation of significant issues and can show change over time. In other words, they are an important tool on the journalist’s workbench.

In the past, journalists have been able to travel to story locations to take images that allow a reader or viewer to also witness that story — to take them along. But the pandemic changed that. For the past year, journalists, like almost everyone else, have been stuck at home. Field reporting has been almost non-existent, or at least done from a distance. Getting real-time images under real-time circumstances has been difficult, if not sometimes impossible.

There are ways, though, to find some current images, as well as historic images for comparison. And that was the topic of a recent webinar for journalists hosted by the Resilience Media Project of the Earth Institute’s Initiative on Communication and Sustainability.

Dan Hammer is the founder of Earthrise Media, a nonprofit that offers satellite imagery for news reporting. He says a major problem for journalists is the limited access to quality satellite images. “It would be really great if you could just go to a site and say, ‘I want an image of this world, of this part of the world. And I want it for this time frame and I’m willing to pay twenty bucks for it.’” But, he says, “That doesn’t exist.” It’s not because of technical limitations. Rather, it’s market-based. The organizations that use this information the most, he says, are massive in size — the U.S. military and companies that make up the military-industrial complex. “They are the primary driver of the market for Earth observation data in the United States and independent environmental journalists can’t compete.”

But if you know where to look, says Edward Boyda, you can still find some good satellite imagery, and much of it is free. But before you go looking, you need to know what kind of imagery you want. Boyda is the chief scientist for Earthrise. He says if you’re looking for a ‘big picture’ view — something on a grander scale, that shows perhaps change over time of a cityscape, or something to illustrate landscape change — that would point you toward a public, government-run platform that offers resolution of perhaps 10 meters per pixel. But if you need a finer scale, something with resolution of perhaps just one meter per pixel, you need a commercial source. “And Maxar, Airbus and Planet Labs are the names to keep in your minds there.” Those are the tougher ones to find, says Boyda.

But the images are out there, if you know where to look. Watch the video for a step-by-step guide on finding them. And check out the resources below for more information.

RESOURCES

Satellite imagery resources for journalists: Recommendations from Ed Boyda and Dan Hammer for Earthrise Media

Google Earth Pro. The desktop version includes a historical collection of imagery for the world at multiple resolutions. This is the first place to go to get ideas and understand context for a story. They have a fair use policy for publication. Visual quality is variable.

Earthrise Media. They support environmental and human rights reporting with satellite imagery, mostly longform work with significant investigative or visual storytelling components. Feel free to contact them with ideas: http://earthrise.media, info@earthrise.media.

European Space Agency Sentinel-2 program. Since 2016, the Sentinel-2 satellites have imaged the globe roughly every six days at 10-meter resolution. That’s good quality for viewing landscapes, large industrial works, and towns and villages. The imagery is open source. You can view and download imagery at EO Browser or the Copernicus Open Access Hub.

NASA / US Geological Survey (USGS) archives. Imagery from a variety of sources — from recent aerial imagery to NASA Landsat to declassified photography from the 1960s — is available at the USGS Earth Explorer. This platform is harder to learn than the Sentinel options.

One dataset on Earth Explorer worth investigating is the aerial imagery from the National Agriculture Imagery Program. Look under Data Sets -> Aerial Imagery -> NAIP. The data is collected for the U.S. only, at 1-meter resolution, now typically every two years. It is available for immediate download and the only thing you have to do to get beautiful imagery is to strip out the 4th (infrared) band in Photoshop.

Commercial providers of high-resolution satellite imagery include Planet Labs, Airbus, and Maxar. This is proprietary imagery that can be quite expensive, but the companies have at times and in different ways supported environmental journalism with imagery. If you need to see buildings, vehicles, roads, or small-scale industry or agriculture in detail, you will need the sub-meter-resolution imagery they collect. To approach one of these companies, you might start by looking for a current press contact and emailing a request.

Some special-purpose imagery is open and available for immediate download:

Color correction. Raw satellite imagery needs to be corrected for the light-scattering effects of Earth’s atmosphere. Typically algorithms are applied to deliver a level-2 or surface reflectance product. If you get an image that has not been corrected, you can still apply an ad-hoc color correction. Robert Simmon at Planet Labs explains on his blog steps in Photoshop and the principles behind them to produce beautiful, publication-ready images.

Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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