The Promise Institute for Human Rights at UCLA School of Law

Maps Can Lie! Combating Alternative Facts and Addressing Humanitarian Dilemmas Posed by New Technologies

Lecture by Josh Lyons, Satellite Imagery Analyst, Human Rights Watch


Over the last 20 years humanitarian organizations have adopted geospatial technologies for mission planning, data collection and analysis. Although this has provided substantial organizational benefits, it has also introduced new and largely hidden risks to humanitarian operations due to technical inexperience and lack of awareness about the inherent limitations of the technology itself. Largely in response to the adoption of new technology by NGOs, Governments are spreading geospatial alternative facts through the deliberate misrepresentation of satellite, aerial and ground imagery to obfuscate their responsibility for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Finally, data scientists working in the humanitarian sector are facing unexpected moral dilemmas when geospatial technology reveals politically inconvenient facts.


JOSH LYONS is a satellite imagery analyst for Human Rights Watch. Josh Lyons conducts satellite imagery analysis to support human rights investigations in a wide range of countries, including in recent years Burma, Syria, Iraq, DRC, Sudan and Somalia. Before joining HRW in 2012, Mr. Lyons was the principal analyst of the UN’s operational satellite applications program (UNITAR/UNOSAT) responsible for the overall research, development and production of satellite-based reports in support of humanitarian operations during natural disasters and armed conflicts. Mr. Lyons has directly contributed to a number of international investigations, including the Goldstone Report in 2009, the Secretary-General's Panel of Experts report on Sri Lanka in 2011, and the UN’s Commission of Inquiry report on Syria. Before joining the UN, he worked for a number of international organizations and NGOs in Afghanistan, Kosovo, Liberia and Indonesia. Mr. Lyons has master’s degrees in International Relations from the London School of Economics (LSE), and Geographic Information Science from University College London (UCL).

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Sponsor(s): Promise Institute for Human Rights; International and Comparative Law Program; Burkle Center for International Relations