Active-fire data does not provide the cause of a fire, so one must exercise caution in interpreting it, especially when researching violence. It is more commonly used to track wildfires and agricultural fires.
The satellites that collect this information do not provide actual images; they only record the location of active fires, and very large ones at that. So don’t get your hopes up about watching your neighbors barbecue from space — we aren’t quite there yet.
Google and other online mapping platforms often show only blurry satellite images, or have no location names for remote areas such as the small fishing villages around Lake Albert. This makes it difficult to find places where people live. To deal with this challenge, I exported residential data from the online mapping site Openstreetmap.
I then overlaid the NASA data with this new data in Google Earth to look for recorded fires that were in or near populated places. This process gave me a shortlist of 10 locations to investigate.
Next, the satellite company DigitalGlobe provided me with high-resolution satellite imagery and analysis of these places. The results were disturbing: All the villages I had identified were at least partially burned, with hundreds of destroyed homes.
As this was not a comprehensive analysis of the whole area affected by violence, the actual number of burned villages is probably much higher. Aid organizations are reporting around 70 burned villages and more than 2,000 destroyed homes.
This new visual evidence provided us with a strong basis to report out the whole story. We now had details from both sides of the lake, not just at the refugee landing site in Uganda.
Of course using technology to investigate stories has limitations. It cannot replace direct ground access. It does not capture the personal drama.
So our team did significant traditional reporting. We interviewed humanitarian workers in Uganda, and researched videos and photos online. We talked to experts about the violence in the wider context of Congo’s many conflicts and current political crisis.
In the end, it was the combination of novel research methodologies and proven reporting that allowed us to tell this story in the most powerful and visual way.