How Drone Technology Is Helping Root Out Corruption Worldwide

Ending destruction and corruption is a big and arduous task - but developing technology means we can get the evidence we need to expose it
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Over 25 years ago, Global Witness carried out its first investigation – undercover at the Thai border and in Cambodia, counting the number of logs from illegally logged trees going over into Vietnam.

Armed with a notebook and a good head for numbers, we exposed how the illegal timber trade was funding the genocidal Khmer Rouge rebels. We used our investigation to call for a temporary closure of the border. This deprived the Khmer Rouge of $90 million a year, and was a key factor in ending 21 years of war that cost at least two million lives.

A quarter of a century on, what drives us as an organisation hasn’t changed. We expose corruption that drives inequality, human rights abuse and conflict – and we campaign to end it. But the methods behind our investigations have certainly developed.

One of the most significant ways in which our techniques have evolved is in our use of technology. Computing and data have become critical tools at Global Witness for exposing corruption. The data comes in many forms and we get hold of it in a range of ways: governments or companies publish it proactively and whistle-blowers leak it. We collect it through satellites, scrape it from websites and pull it together from research by our contacts on the ground.

While our work still takes us all over the world, we often go undercover and there are still a lot of logs to count, there’s a huge amount more we can do from our offices in London and DC. Some recent investigations include a partnership with DataKind UK, where we held a data dive and mined the brand new UK company ownership register. We discovered suspicious networks of companies and money laundering risks that the government are now seeking to rectify. We have used machine learning algorithms to identify mining activity where official datasets are scarce or patchy, and we’ve used real-time ship tracking databases to follow the flow of timber from Papua New Guinea to China.

The list continues to grow. A few weeks ago, we released a new investigation ‘A Major Liability’ which exposed wide scale illegal logging in Papua New Guinea.

This report, supported by the People’s Postcode Lottery, revealed how logging operations in Papua New Guinea appear to be breaking the law by selling off timber from climate-critical rainforests. We analysed examples of four major types of logging and forest clearance permits which accounted for 85% of PNG’s 2017 timber export, and revealed wide spread illegality and destruction amongst these. China, the biggest client of timber from the country, imports most of this timber, and its continued failure to regulate against illegally produced wood is putting its own reputation at risk.

Our research was based on the painstaking analysis of remote sensing-based data from satellite imagery. We identified the areas of canopy gaps, dead vegetation and cleared areas caused by active harvesting shown by the satellites images to tell if a company was logging outside its concession boundary, logging in prohibited areas or building roads wider than legally permitted. We also compared historic satellite images to identify instances where companies were repeatedly logging in previous annual cutting areas – also against PNG’s law if occurring in a managed forest concession.

We used Digital Globe satellite imagery and analysed it using MapHubs – a platform built for NGOs and investigative journalists that combines multiple sources of data and automates tasks. We also flew drones over some of the areas where logging operations have been very destructive and obtained compelling images.

The results of our analysis were shocking. There were a high number of apparent violations of the country’s Forestry Act in major logging operations – all of which hold government permits to export timber. We found that eight companies under the two major logging permits, which together were responsible for 32% of PNG’s log exports in 2017, have broken the law on multiple occasions.

It’s no wonder communities are so concerned about this logging – it is destroying the rainforest that they rely on for food and shelter, and the companies appear to be doing it illegally and with impunity. We were able to provide this ground-breaking evidence to the Chinese government, giving us the opportunity to provide concrete recommendations for how they can protect the rainforest and safeguard their own position as a global trade leader.

Ending this kind of destruction and corruption is a big and arduous task. But developing technology means we can get more of the evidence we need to expose it and root it out, and thankfully we don’t have to spend weeks counting logs ourselves anymore. Instead, we will continue to use open platforms and develop our own machine learning, and apply it to data from drones, satellites and leaks, so the bad guys have nowhere left to hide.

Heather Iqbal is a senior communications advisor to Global Witness, an anti-corruption NGO


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