Satellite images are powerful tools for discovery and analysis, plus provide vivid illustrations. There is real potential for investigative journalists to make greater use of these space images, although they have used them to report on conflicts, climate change, refugees, forest fires, illegal mining, oil spills, deforestation, slavery and many other topics.
Imagery, as one expert put it, “is independent of the official line of thinking.”
Among other benefits, images are great for showing change over time, such as retreating shorelines, growing islands or lost vegetation. Examining images can complement other research, possibly providing corroborating evidence.
This GIJN resource includes ten places to go for pro bono help and free images, including high resolution images.
Several on the list are non-profit organizations, but GIJN also has learned that some of the largest commercial firms are prepared to help journalists and provide images (see below).
Given the technical issues involved, reporters may be well advised to seek expert help.
“I’d rather have journalists spend their time and effort in doing the story and crafting a great piece than sitting at a computer and scratching their heads saying what can a Sentinel 2 image do that a Landsat 8 image can’t,” commented one veteran in the field who works for a group that helps journalists.
He and others who work regularly with satellite imagery believe that journalists can do much more with satellite images.
GIJN’s exploration of this subject begins below, with these sections:
- Getting Inspired
- Organizations That Work With Journalists
- Selected Resources for Free Satellite Images
- Resources on Using Images
- Inventories and Related Resources
GIJN keeps this resource updated. Immediately below are some exceptional supplementary materials.
How to Use Satellite Imagery in Your Next Investigation is a 2021 update on this subject by Anusuya Datta, Executive Editor, Geospatial Media & Communications.
Tracking “Dark Ships” with New Satellite Technology, a 2021 article by Datta, describes how recent commercial innovations in synthetic aperture radar (SAR) sensors and new technologies like space-based radio frequency (RF) mapping have added new dimensions to maritime monitoring.
For a good basic introduction to the topic try this article by Anne Hale Miglarese, founder and CEO of the Radiant.Earth, a Washington, DC nonprofit applying satellite imagery to global development issues.
Satellite Image Guide for Journalists and Media by Pierre Markuse covers topics including resolution, colors, tools and more, including helpful Twitter links.
How to use open source satellite data for your investigative reporting, by Ben Heubl, provides the basics (and more) on accessing, understanding and handling open source satellite data.
Fact-checking with open-source satellite images. Part 1 of Ben Heubl’s May 2020 OSINT satellite training guide.
Advice from ABC News: how to get started with satellite journalism An interview with Mark Doman, journalist and producer on the digital story innovations team at ABC News on how to get started with satellite imagery.
How to Find the Most Recent Satellite Imagery Anywhere on Earth, a flow chart by Joe Morrison.
The advantages of using the open source QGIS, mainly to discover higher resolution images, are described here on the Sector035 website.
The value of satellite imagery for investigative journalism should grow as the quality of the raw material improves.
Smaller and cheaper low-orbit satellites increasingly are providing images with more detail, taken more often and of more places. With over 175 satellites, one US company, Planet creates daily high-resolution images of all the earth’s landmasses, 58 million square miles. High-resolution images of one square meter per pixel show features such as roads, buildings and the average color of crops and forests. Resolutions now measured in the tens of centimeters show even more, furthering the possibilities.
For inspiration, here are examples of stories based on satellite imagery.
Satellites can reveal global extent of forced labor in the world’s fishing fleet, is a 2021 study by US academics showing, “By combining expertise from human rights practitioners and satellite vessel monitoring data, we show that vessels reported to use forced labor behave in systematically different ways from other vessels.” Ongoing work in this area is done by Global Fishing Watch.
Major investigative exposes by satellite imagery over the years, is an article written in 2019 by Aditya Chaturvedi in Geospatial World.
Paradise in Trouble: Illegal fishing in Latin America Mongabay, a popular environmental news site, partnered with Colombia’s Cuestion Pública, Ecuador’s El Universo, and Chile’s Ciper. They used satellite monitoring in places where suspicious activities and illegal fishing were observed, comparing the findings with other sources to identify which vessels had a history of illegal fishing and which companies were behind them.
Environmental Monitoring of Conflicts using Sentinel-2 data by Wim Zwijnenburg of the Dutch peace-organization PAX, discusses “how access to open-source imagery, and particularly Sentinel Hub, has been instrumental in highlighting the links between conflict and environmental damage.”
Many substantive tips on gathering and using satellite images are contained in a 2019 Bellingcat article Torching And Extortion: OSINT Analysis Of Burning Agriculture In Iraq written by Zwijnenburg.
Reuters Graphics Editor Christine Chan presented Satellite Imagery as a Reporting Tool at IJAsia18.
One recent report that caught our eye was done by Estacio Valoi of Oxpeckers Investigative Environmental Journalism about contested land in Massingir, a rural area on the border between South Africa’s world-renowned Kruger National Park and Mozambique. See description of how drone and satellite images were used.
The New York Times used Planet Lab images to show dramatically how the CIA expanded an airbase in Africa to use for drone operations. Also check out Times article: Satellite Images and Shadow Analysis: How The Times Verifies Eyewitness Videos.
At GIJN’s 2017 conference in South Africa, Joel Konopo of the INK Centre for Investigative Journalism in Botswana explained the value of a purchased satellite image that was used to prove that construction had taken place at the presidential compound. “Using satellite imaging, we found a number of vehicles and military activity within the compound, despite the government’s continual denials,” said Konopo.
Also worth noting is regular use of satellite images for investigations by Bellingcat, a UK-based non-profit. Bellingcat in 2018 used satellite images for an in-depth report, “Nefarious Negligence: Post-Conflict Oil Pollution in Eastern Syria.” In another story, Bellingcat proved that Iran was widening and lengthening the runway at a strategic airfield.
Another lesson from Bellingcat is: How to Identify Burnt Villages by Satellite Imagery — Case-Studies from California, Nigeria and Myanmar.
Satellite Journalism – The Big Picture: Newsgathering applications of emerging satellite technology, by Mark Corcoran for the Reuters Institute, examines media case studies, the two dominant US providers of commercial satellite imagery to media and raises questions on the applications and limitations of new satellite journalism.
Data Science and Satellite Imagery, by Juan González Fraile of Aktek, looks at a workflow “that powers object detection in satellite imagery using a real-world application in international development.”
Organizations That Work with Journalists
EarthRise Media: Earthrise Media supports journalists in finding, licensing, analyzing and producing satellite imagery. Earthrise services include a Newswire of stories that can be enhanced with original content from satellite imagery. Another Earthrise service is on-demand analysis and design for satellite imagery. The raw imagery is difficult for general/non-specialist readers to understand so Earthrise applies custom filters to make the images more understandable, along with basic analysis and measurement of the images. How much water has disappeared? How many structures are there on an island in the South China Sea? Finally, Earthrise ensures that the images are appropriately licensed for use in news media. Send requests here.
Esri: Esri provides access to satellite imagery, as well as analysis and visualization tools that let you mashup imagery with other data to tell compelling data-driven stories through maps. Esri has a continually updated World Imagery Basemap (as well as a cloud-free version called clarity) and also provides extensive resources to explore and analyze current and historic data from Landsat satellites. It also curates a collection of imagery through the Living Atlas of the World. You can keep track of updates to imagery with this story map. Esri also offers a wide variety of tools to work with imagery, including ArcGIS Earth, a free 3D viewer that’s designed for people who have less familiarity with GIS. The Story Maps website provides a variety of ways to present maps accompanied by multimedia and narrative text.
Esri maintains close partnerships with leading satellite imagery companies and often publishes updated imagery around key current events such as the Olympics or disasters on ArcGIS Online, its mapping and analytics platform.
Through a generous agreement with ESRI, GIJN member organizations can request free licenses of ArcGIS software to work with imagery and create maps. For more information, contact GIJN here.
Maxar News Bureau: Maxar Technologies, a provider of “advanced space technology solutions” for commercial and government markets has, since March 2017, operated a “News Bureau initiative that leverages the power of its high-resolution satellite imagery and analysis for social good and global transparency.” DigitalGlobe, a unit of Maxar, creates some of the highest resolution images available. The News Bureau will partner with trusted media organizations on projects, providing free expertise and imagery. Contact Turner Brinton at email@example.com with inquiries.
MacroscopeMedia: Provides free help for journalists on stories involving satellite images. Grants permit Jeff Stein, the founder and CEO, to consult on satellite-related media projects. (No website.) See his colorful presentation at GIJC17. Contact him at Jeff.Stein@macroscope.com.
Planet has a database called Planet Stories that allows anyone to browse, compare, and share this imagery. Two tools are Compare and Timelapse. Compare lets people select two images and put them into a slider for the purposes of comparison. Timelapse allows people to select multiple images and create an animated story of change. Unusually, Planet collects daily images of the entire world’s landmass. In addition, Planet will share images and expertise with accredited news organizations. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Descartes Labs: A commercial service that collects data daily from public and commercial imagery providers also will help journalists. “We are often called on to create imagery for the press and are happy to help when we can,” according to Shawn Patrick email@example.com who is the contact person. “We do not charge for these requests, only ask that they are credited.”
EOS: EOS Landviewer provides free services for up to 10 images. More images and analysis are available to journalists at a discount. Contact: Artem Seredyuk firstname.lastname@example.org. EOS is in the process of developing a service provisionally called EOS Media that will be provide free images and analysis of major natural disasters.
Radiant Earth Foundation: This Washington-based non-profit group helps the global development community discover, explore and analyze satellite, drone and aerial imagery archives. On Sept. 5, 2018, it released a new “open Earth imagery platform.” Radiant Earth is working with Code of Africa, among others. Apply to gain assistance via their website.
Resource Watch: A nonprofit platform, still in beta, that provides hundreds of data sets on the state of the planet’s resources and citizens. It is sponsored by the World Resources Institute and other organizations. Resource Watch data are free and users can download data. Contact Lauren Zelin at email@example.com.
ShadowBreak works with investigative journalists all over the world to help them acquire high resolution satellite data over their areas of interest. Their platform ReconLink is free to use. The vet everyone who comes onto the platform, offer a demo and create an account.Journalists pay for any purchased data, but one satisfied user reported reasonable rates. Their other platform, TacSight, helps provide detailed analysis that include 3D recreations and the ability to share insights and work together in real-time with other colleagues and experts. The company has a focus on conflict monitoring, offering additional insights on weapon range and military assets and they offer analysis services and can help create engaging visuals based on satellite imagery. The best person to contact is Jasper Smallenbroek, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Soar is an Australian-based platform that feeds imagery to users on a daily basis with sources including NASA’s Landsat-8 and ESA’s Sentinel-2 (10m/pixel), including multi-spectral bands for observing changes not visible with the naked eye. Soar has a partnership with China Siwei’s SuperView at (high-res 0.5m/pixel). Soar has a subscription service called Soar+ for enterprise customers who require their own hosting platform. Drone operators are encouraged contribute to the platform and monetize their content. Soar is interested in working with journalists. Contact Tim Glover at email@example.com
EarthCache by SkyWatch offers access to a variety of datasets, open and commercial. EarthCache says it is happy to work with journalists to provide them with imagery for their articles. “We are also uniquely built to help data scientists extract imagery to train algorithms.” Interested parties can contact firstname.lastname@example.org. The blog includes What does real-time satellite data really look like?
Selected Sources for Free Satellite Images
There are many sources for satellite images. Here are some of the most user-friendly free options, followed by a list of “collections” containing even more potential sources.
15 Free Satellite Imagery Data Sources  from GISGeography.
Top 10 free sources of satellite data [2020 update] by Skywatch.
Did you know which are the sources for free LiDAR data? This 2019 article by Anusuya Datta concerns Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR), a remote sensing method that uses light in the form of a pulsed laser to measure distances to Earth. “While the hardware is still expensive and processing is time-taking, use of LiDAR data is picking up across diverse fields — from building 3D models of buildings to vegetation health to environment science, not to mention the scramble for HD maps to enable autonomous driving.”
Earth Explorer: From the US Geological Service. Provides mainly US images. Gives access to Landsat satellite data as well as NASA’s Land Data Products and Services. The USGS Global Visualization Viewer (GloVis) provides remote sensing data. The USGS archive contains a complete and well-maintained collection of NASA Landsat data.
Sentinel Hub Playground: A user-friendly place for Sentinel 2/Landsat images. Free services on this commercial site include features for using different color bands and up-to-date imagery. The EO Browser facilitates time-lapse reviews.
Spectator: This free web app simplifies retrieving images with semantic searches, such as for “cloudless images for New York from last month.” See YouTube video. Get an account (free) to create your own channel to manage your areas of interest and which satellites you want to use. Track Sentinel satellites in real time here.
Copernicus: The site for the European Space Agency and for images from Copernicus’ six Sentinel satellites. Better resolution than Landsat. See explanation from the website GISGeography on how to download free images.
GoogleEarthEngine: A large catalog of satellite imagery and geospatial datasets with planetary-scale analysis capabilities. Earth Engine is free for research, education, and nonprofit use, but applications are necessary. Here’s a Google explainer. Good for historical satellite images. Google Earth: Entertaining travel through a virtual globe. Bellingcat in 2019 wrote a related how-to article, How To Use Google Earth’s Three Dimensional View: Feat. Syria, Yemen, Sudan.
Bing: Microsoft maps and street views. Bellingcat, an organization that specializes in online investigations, comments that Bing provides, “more recent and higher resolution imagery than Google, e.g. in Iraq.”
Wikimapia: A privately owned open-content collaborative mapping project that aims to mark all geographical objects in the world and provide a useful description of them. Not related to Wikipedia. The website provides a Google Maps API-based interactive web map that consists of user-generated information layered on top of Google Maps satellite imagery and other resources. Available in many languages.
TerraServer.com: A large searchable library of images, but little is public. However, some journalists consider the subscription a good investment. New restrictions introduced in September 2018 upset many users.
NASA EarthData: WorldView allows visualization of near real-time imagery from NASA. A wide array of satellite and aerial images; broad search criteria; and other mapping and visualization tools such as FIRMS for fires. Access to more than a dozen NASA data centers and associated satellite data products. NASA Earth Observations: More than 50 datasets on atmosphere, land, ocean, energy, environment and more.
GeoVisual Search is a search engine that lets users visually query images for similar geographic features. The platform from Descartes Labs is built on satellite imagery from Landsat, the National Agriculture Imagery Program (NAIP), and PlanetScope. Also see description of how to use it.
ESA Earth Online: EOLi (Earth Observation Link) is the site that consolidates European Space Agency’s earth observation data on topics such as temperature, agriculture and ice sheets.
Open Imagery Network (OIN) collects openly licensed imagery. Contributors to OIN make imagery and its associated metadata available under a common license. Open Imagery Network connects satellite and aerial imagery providers, humanitarian relief efforts, cloud hosting companies, drone and balloon mapping enthusiasts, governments and NGOs, mapping companies, and anyone else who is producing, hosting, and using aerial imagery. Built on top of the Open Imagery Network (OIN), OpenAerialMap is an open service that provides search and access to this imagery.
EarthTime: This free service from the CREATE Lab (Community Robotics, Education and Technology Empowerment Lab) at Carnegie Mellon University in the US “enables users to interact with visualizations of the Earth’s transformation over time” and to create animations.
Resources on Using Images
The Engine Room, an international NGO, publishes a wide-ranging introduction to using satellite images in human resources investigations. It covers where to find images and how to use them.
GIS Geography in April 2019 described 15 places to get free satellite imagery from space agencies around the world.
Making Sense of Satellite Data, An Open Source Workflow: Accessing Data, is a four-part series on using data by Robert Simmon of Planet Labs.
The High-Resolution Satellite Imagery Ordering and Analysis Handbook is published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science and includes “a few simple questions the researcher can ask to determine if satellite imagery might be helpful.”
How to Scrape Interactive Geospatial Data by Bellingcat focuses on downloading geospatial data, with examples.
Inventories and Related Resources
Geohack sources: An inventory of satellite and map sources around the world, in multiple languages, by Wikipedia.
Mashable: A summary of sites useful for reporting on climate change, authored by Andrew Freedman.
Vegetation analysis is a major use of satellite imagery. This 2019 article by EOS discusses other spectral indexes, besides NDVI (Normalized Difference Vegetation Index), that are widely used to analyze vegetation.
GISGeography: “15 Free Satellite Imagery Data Sources,” with comments on their strengths and weaknesses. Official sources in US, EU, Japan, India and elsewhere. (Also look at public comments at bottom for other suggestions). GISGeography is a team of geographers passionate about all things related to understanding location. Also articles and other lists, such as “13 Open Source Remote Sensing Software Packages.”
Venture Radar: A listing of commercial providers.
Bellingcat’s Digital Forensics Tools: A tip sheet on many resources, including satellites, from a group that uses open source and social media to investigate a variety of subjects.
Knowing where to look: Sources of imagery for geolocation: Bellingcat’s Eliot Higgins explains where he turns for corroborating evidence when verifying pictures or video.
Journalist’s Toolbox: A huge list of map-related resources from the US Society of Professional Journalists.
This guide was put together by Toby McIntosh, director of GIJN’s Resource Center. He was with Bloomberg BNA in Washington for 39 years. He is the former editor of FreedomInfo.org (2010-2017), where he wrote about FOI policies worldwide, and serves on the steering committee of FOIANet, an international network of FOI advocates.