The bitter end of the Tamil Tigers has been fought away from the news crews, but not the satellites.
But did we make the most of this technology to tell the story of human suffering and the end of a 35-year guerrilla movement?
A month ago the U.S. government released satellite images apparently showing how tens of thousands of Sri Lankan civilians had been squeezed into the last tract land held by the LTTE, a story covered somewhat cursorily by the media. This three paragraph piece from The Guardian, for example:
A week ago (May 12) Human Rights Watch issued its own report based on images it had commissioned from commercial satellites. The photos, the organisation said, “contradict Sri Lankan government claims that its armed forces are no longer using heavy weapons in the densely populated conflict area.”
The full report was available as a preliminary analysis, downloadable in PDF.
The report was carried by the BBC and others.
But I could find no one who had dug into the report to find a way to bring this remote tragedy closer to home.
For example, it could be as simple as double checking the images and coordinates given against Google Earth (easy enough; just enter the lat/long digits into Google Earth and see where they take you. HRW could have done a better job of providing the full coordinates here, to the full six decimal places–9.317999, for example—rather than the meager two they gave: 9.32.)
But a much better way of presenting the data lurks in a link on page four. Click on the link, and, if you’ve got Google Earth installed, the KML file (a KML file is a XML-based way of expressing geographic information that can be read by programs like Google Earth) will load a layer that tells the grim story in a different way.
The first is the most recent picture from Google Earth, dated 2005. As you can see, very little human habitation (click on each image to enlarge).
The one below is from May 6. A dense city has appeared in the meantime, with its own streets:
Four days later, most of it is gone:
Toggling between these images in Google Earth is a sobering experience. Of course, such imagery does not explain what exactly happened to these people, but it asks tougher questions than any talking head can. And yet CNN chose to focus on that, and on familiar footage of the war.
My point is this: we’re now in a world of three dimensions. We journalists can see things our predecessors couldn’t.
If I was an editor I would have mined that HRW report until I’d found a way to use their imagery to tell the story. Buried in that single, 50 KB KML file is a wealth of detail:
Which could have been used as time lapse, or juxtaposed over a map like the one the BBC used for its report:
The bottom line: We as journalists need to understand this kind of thing better so we know what is possible, what is doable, and, if nothing else, to be able to know that when we see a link to a KML file, we may be on the way to a treasure trove of information to help us tell the story.