Sean Case, is a postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences, at the University of Copenhagen (UCPH). His research at university focuses on different environmental impacts associated with agriculture. However, besides this job, he has been following the Ukraine-Russia conflict on the internet for months. He decided to look at satellite imagery from Google in the Ukraine/Russia border.
Luckily Google just updated their images during July and August and therefore it was possible to get exact imagery just after the attacks.
“Looking at satellite imagery taken from Google Maps I discovered many artillery craters areas close to the Russian border” Sean Case says to the University Post.
You can read the full report here.
Joined forces with investigative journalism group
A few Google searches helped him to look into the methodology of crater analysis. Normally, soldiers are sent to the craters (“on-the-ground” procedures) and place sticks in order to measure their surface and find the origin of the artillery. However, in theory you can do the same just by using the satellite images. You can draw arrows and estimate their size and angle in order to determine the trajectory of the artillery fire. This method is novel because you just need a computer to locate the artillery impact crated fields and the artillery fire.
After getting this idea, Case got in touch with Bellingcat, an open source investigation community.
"They were interested in my initial work, and so we start working together to refine the method and match up our Google Map findings with reports from other social media such as YouTube and VKontakte” he says.
Digital detective work
Together with the Bellingcat investigation team, he analysed a total of 1,353 artillery craters caused by three artillery attacks and compared them with social media videos.
It constitutes the first proof that Russia was behind the attacks.
Everybody can do it
Anyone could do what he did, according to Case.
"I think that the Internet has led to a huge increase in the ways that the public can read and analyse the news themselves," he explains to the University Post:
"Videos can be uploaded to Youtube and pictures to social media within minutes of an important event, and are available to everyone online before news organisations can get to them. As well as this, from videos and pictures on Google maps and Streetview, citizens can identify the locations where the videos/photos were taken, which can sometimes be vital information in times of conflict or following natural disasters. I think that in the future open source, or crowd-sourced data such as this will become more and more important in providing information rapidly, and will also feed in more and more to mainstream news articles".
[Editor's note: Following comments on this article subsequent to publication, the team behind the Bellingcat report would like to clarify the following:]
"1. All of the analysis in the report is based on Google Earth satellite imagery from Digital Globe. Catalogue numbers are available on request.
2. It is true that some distortion will result from the conversion of Digital Globe satellite imagery to the format used in Google Earth. However, the effect of this distortion is small for the relatively short distances (< 20 km) and specific terrain considered in the Bellingcat report. Overall, the distortion effect does not significantly affect any of the conclusions of the report."
Read also an in-depth interview with Sean Case about his Google Earth-based research here.
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