The Minority Report of Famine Prediction Knows Where to Send Aid

By Chris Mills on at

On a day spent dodging Periscope unboxings of Apple Watches on the other side of the Atlantic, it’s difficult to believe that there’s too little information in the world. But when it comes to life-and-death predictions of agriculture in Africa, systems are woefully inadequate and the only hope is space.

Smithsonian magazine has a fascinating profile of Gabriel Senay, a scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey, and the “MacGyver of the outback.” Senay has designed a system that takes advantage of satellite data to monitor water and temperature levels across Africa, helping predict drought and famine before aid agencies on the ground ever catch wind of a crisis.

As the article points out, objective data is hard to come by:

Missionaries and local charities could glimpse conditions outside their windows, but had little grasp of the broader severity and scope of suffering. Local political leaders had a clearer picture, but weren’t always keen to share it with the West, and when they did, the West didn’t always trust them.

By using infrared sensors on NASA’s Aqua and Terra satellites, Senay could measure the temperature of every square kilometre of land. And, by comparing that data with historical norms, and the air temperature, he could work out the amount of water being transpired by plants — and thus, the health of the crop. The Smithsonian’s profile follows Senay as he visits Ethiopia, comparing his green-and-red dots to real-life suffering on the map, finding the results depressingly accurate. [Smithsonian]

Image credit: ESA