Skybox: A Tool to Help Investigate Environmental Crime

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Patrick Dunagan, Strategic Partnerships Manager at Google. Photo: Kristine M. Gutterød

Today public companies have to provide reports with data, while many private companies do not have to provide anything. Most companies within the oil, gas and mining sector are private, and to get information can be both expensive and time-consuming.

Skybox is a new developing tool used to extract information from an otherwise private industry. Using moving pictures on ground level—captured by satellites—you can monitor different areas up close.

“You can dig into the details and get more valuable and action-filled information for people both in the public and private sector,” explained Patrick Dunagan, strategic partnerships manager at Google, who worked in developing Skybox.

The satellite images can be useful when investigating environmental crime because you can monitor different companies, for example the change in the number of vehicles approaching or leaving a property, as well as environmental changes in the world.

“We think it is interesting and very valuable to look at how ice sheets are changing and how much deforestation is happening,” Dunagan said.

The tool will be as easy to use as Google Earth, but it will look more like Google Finance.

“We want Skybox to be open for everyone. We want this to eventually be a place where fifth graders doing a report on oil levels can do it at a level that only a few national security people can today,” said Dunagan.

Skybox is still developing, and is not yet available. There are now two satellites launched but more will be launched during the next years.

“We are doubling the amount of high-resolution satellites and we have been able to decrease the price of each satellite by designing the satellites ourselves,” he said.

Paul Radu, executive director of the OCCRP (Organized Crime and Corrupting Reporting Project), has been working with deforestation. Radu was optimistic about future investigations that will use Skybox.

The two other panelists, Stefano Wrobleski, reporter at Info Amazonia, and Ana Aranha, an investigative reporter based in Sao Paulo, Brazil, agreed that in the near future, they will be able to use Skybox in their investigations.

But not everyone is as happy with this new technology.

“The companies being investigated might not like what we are doing, but this is the way the world is moving. Even if we do not do it, other people will,” Dunagan said.

If companies try to hide their tracks, Dunagan believes this will only prove they are doing their job right.

“If this turns out to be a good and reliable source, and people try to hide things better, it is a problem of success,” he said.

“That means we are not doing our job right, right?”

The authors are journalism students at the University College of Volda who are on special assignment covering #gijc15.  

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