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Let's Talk Human Rights

What I learned from mapping destruction in Myanmar

By Ian Jespersen '21

Over the summer while I was still searching for an internship, I had reached out to numerous organizations and people trying to find work, to no avail. So, when I learned about the Human Rights Center’s (HRC) project with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Science and Human Rights Coalition, and the University’s Department of Geology and Environmental Geosciences which uses Geographic Information Systems (GIS) technology on a regular basis, I jumped at the opportunity. 

After hearing about the opportunity to use GIS to investigate human rights violations, I knew right away that this would be something I was interested in. As an International Studies Major with a Peace and Global Security concentration, the idea of not only working on an issue in a country abroad, but also learning about human rights violations and crimes against humanity was really interesting to me. The project was focused on tracking the destruction of houses and buildings in Myanmar during the Rohingya refugee crisis in 2017 and the establishment of tents and informal settlements in Bangladesh at the same time. 

As background, the AAAS Science and Human Rights Coalition is a broad network of scientific and engineering membership organizations that see the need for scientists and engineers in the field of human rights. The Coalition has been devoted to facilitating communication and partnerships with human rights practitioners since its launch in 2009. The goal has been to increase access to scientific and technological information by human rights practitioners, as well as broaden the knowledge of scientists, engineers and health professionals on human rights issues, specifically on issues that revolve heavily around science and engineering.   

Since joining the project on Myanmar, I have had to learn a lot about both the technological analysis process and the situation in Myanmar.  The extensive research conducted for the project broadened my knowledge of the history of the Rohingya exponentially, making myself and the other team members  that much more passionate about the work.  Learning about the history of what we were analyzing helped to humanize our analysis. Looking at images of refugees fleeing from repression through satellite imagery provided a glimpse into what the Rohingya people experienced during the start of the genocide, as well as what they continue to go through now, well after the media stopped covering the events. Learning how the GIS software worked was very fulfilling because I was able to master the use of a program I had never even heard of before. 

Throughout my time working with AAAS, my major task was analyzing  a portion of the map from a company that specializes in space infrastructure, such as satellites. There were five of us on the image analysis team, and each of us was assigned a section which we had to review the two satellite images, one before the mass movement of refugees and one after.  We used many different markings such as  “New Informal Structure,” which meant that a new building was created sometime between when the first and second satellite images were taken. While portions of my section also  had many destroyed homes and other buildings, the most common marking was the creation of new buildings, built by or for Rohingya refugees. In my section alone, there were over four thousand changes between the maps in just a matter of months. The project as a whole identified roughly twenty-one thousand changes. These changes ranged from destroyed buildings to roadblocks to new agricultural terraces made to compensate for the influx of refugees. We finalized a brief analysis of the project’s work which I encourage you to read. 

There were a lot of things I took away from this project: whether it be how it helped me prepare for work in the “real world,” or how I’ve learned a whole new set of skills. Working with the people  on this project has dramatically helped me improve my teamwork and develop communication and time management skills. This project challenged me to relearn things I thought I already knew, as well as build capacities I didn’t know I had. Not only did I gain amazing experience in a short timeframe, I also acquired knowledge from investigating the situation in Myanmar which really helped broaden my worldview.  Overall, this project was an invaluable experience that I’m glad I was able to take part in.

Read the brief analysis by the project, Geospatial Technologies and Human Rights: Views of destruction and displacement in Myanmar and neighboring Bangladesh, here.


Ian Jespersen is a 5th year International Studies major and Political Science minor from the Dayton area. Through the HRC, Ian works with the American Association for the Advancement of Science to investigate refugee movement and damage to the area.  With a concentration in Peace & Global Security, Ian hopes to be able to increase the awareness of the connection between human rights and global security.

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