2023: Bellingcat, investigating war crimes and more with open source geospatial data - Logan Williams

Tags: python, foss4g, geo

(One of my summaries of the 2023 Dutch conference in Middelburg). (This was the closing keynote, btw).

Full title: investigating war crimes, animal trafficking and more with open source geospatial data. He works with Bellingcat. An open source investigation journalism initiative.

“Open source” isn’t meant in the software way, but it means journalism sources. And then open sources like map info, databases, online photos. You also have gray areas like leaked materials.

Bellingcat’s first well-known investigation was the MH17 airplane disaster, shot down over Ukraine. In the days after the disaster, social media images and posts started to show up. Geolocatable images of the BUK missile system. Dashcam footage.

Investigating individual photos can take a lot of work. Matching scuff marks on the pavement combined with the number of telephone poles in dashcam images… They managed to piece together the timeline and route of the BUK system. The info was even used in the court case in Den Haag.

There are lots of sources of geographical information. Maps, satellite data. Images. Reflections in windows. Vessel/airplane tracking data. Most/all commercial vessels travel with location transmitters enabled. They are currently investigating Russian grain ships that illegally transport stolen Ukrainian grain by swiching off their transmitter for parts of the route. But with satellite image combined with recent webcam footage of ship enthousiasts in the Bosporus strait….

Some other sources:

  • PeakVisor, a website for recognizing mountain peaks. You can also use that on photos you want to geolocate…

  • Satellite (forest) fire data. Villages being burned also show up. And fires due to artillery fire.

  • Combining public government data with geospatial info about incomes to figure out if the government policy helps poor people more than rich people or vice versa.

  • Openstreetmap’s data. You can look for “railroad”, “telephone pole”, “street” and “one story house” in Ohio and get some 100 locations to check out visually.

  • Sentinel-1 satellites survey the earth with radar. In the same frequency used by Patriot missile defence batteries. The radar interference is visible, so you can locate the batteries that way.

  • The sentinel-2 satellite data allows you to look at (amongst others) forest data. Also in Ukraine. So you can follow the damage done to the forests by the war.

So… geodata has lots of uses. Some of them might surprise you. It might have more uses than you initially think of. It can also help Bellingcat. Bridging the journalism side of things and the geospatial tech knowledge and IT knowledge is what his group at Bellingcat tries to accomplish.

The first in-person hackathon: 14-17 November 2023 in Amsterdam. You can also look at for their existing software. logo

About me

My name is Reinout van Rees and I work a lot with Python (programming language) and Django (website framework). I live in The Netherlands and I'm happily married to Annie van Rees-Kooiman.

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