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Author(s): John A. Quinn, Marguerite M. Nyhan, Celia Navarro, Davide Coluccia, Lars Bromley and Miguel Luengo-Oroz


The coordination of humanitarian relief, e.g. in a natural disaster or a conflict situation, is often complicated by a scarcity of data to inform planning. Remote sensing imagery, from satellites or drones, can give important insights into conditions on the ground, including in areas which are difficult to access. Applications include situation awareness after natural disasters, structural damage assessment in conflict, monitoring human rights violations or population estimation in settlements. We review machine learning approaches for automating these problems, and discuss their potential and limitations. We also provide a case study of experiments using deep learning methods to count the numbers of structures in multiple refugee settlements in Africa and the Middle East. We find that while high levels of accuracy are possible, there is considerable variation in the characteristics of imagery collected from different sensors and regions. In this, as in the other applications discussed in the paper, critical inferences must be made from a relatively small amount of pixel data. We, therefore, consider that using machine learning systems as an augmentation of human analysts is a reasonable strategy to transition from current fully manual operational pipelines to ones which are both more efficient and have the necessary levels of quality control.

This article is part of a discussion meeting issue ‘The growing ubiquity of algorithms in society: implications, impacts and innovations’.