In DepthRemote Sensing

Researchers spy signs of slavery from space

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Science  22 Feb 2019:
Vol. 363, Issue 6429, pp. 804
DOI: 10.1126/science.363.6429.804

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Doreen Boyd remembers the first time she saw a hint of slavery from space. A satellite image from 2017 of the state of Rajasthan in India showed a brown oval that looked like a dusty high school track. But it was nothing so innocuous: She knew it was a brick kiln, one of tens of thousands across South Asia that are often run on forced labor. Boyd, director of the data program at the Rights Lab at the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom, realized such imagery could help her tally the kilns, enabling organizations on the ground to target slaveholders at the sites. "You can't see slavery directly, but you can infer it," she says. A surge in the number of Earth-observing satellites, along with improvements in algorithms that can interpret the deluge of data they provide, are putting modern slavery under a spotlight. This week, at a conference in New York City sponsored by the United Nations University, computer scientists, slavery experts, and policy strategists presented the latest efforts in their fields and brainstormed ways to work together. Some 40.3 million people are held in bondage today, according to the latest estimates. But finding them is hard. Boyd estimates, however, that one-third of all slavery is visible from space, whether in the scars of kilns or illegal mines or the outlines of transient fish-processing camps.