Al Jazeera Journalism Review

outside image
Satellite image showing Rotterdam's Europoort harbour in 2018 [Copernicus Sentinel/Shutterstock]

How to analyse satellite imagery

OSINT part 5: When you have a story, but still need to tie up loose ends to answer where or when a particular event occurred, satellite imagery can point you in the right direction


Analysing satellite imagery can be useful in providing geographical context, reconstructing events, or even verifying if a particular event even happened at all. 

The use of satellite imagery has become an indispensable tool for investigative journalists to report on conflicts, environmental destruction, developments in military infrastructure and natural disasters. 

Satellite imagery has also become a compelling centrepiece for visual storytelling, and a window into remote or restricted locations. Investigative journalists can use satellite imagery to make visible what governments or institutions want hidden out of sight. 


Read more:

Open-Source Investigations, Part 1: Using open-source intelligence in journalism

Open-Source Investigations, Part 2: What is open-source investigation?

Open-Source Investigations, Part 3: Planning and carrying out an open-source investigation

Open-Souce Investigations, Part 4: Tracking ships, planes and weapons

Al Jazeera Media Institute Open-Source Investigation Handbook



Satellite imagery providers 

Over the past few years, several free and subscription-based earth imaging companies have emerged allowing anyone to access high-resolution satellite imagery from all over the world. 

Some of these services include: 

Free services 

Google Earth 

NASA’s Worldview 

The European Space Agency 

World Imagery Wayback Tool 

Zoom Earth 

Subscription services 

Maxar Technologies 

Planet Labs 

Sentinel Hub 

SI Imaging Services 



A Rohingya Refugee camp development surrounded by the Bay of Bengal on the island of Bhasan Char of Bangladesh on November 20, 2018 [Gallo Images/Orbital Horizon/Copernicus Sentinel Data 2019]

However, just having access to these services is not always enough. For satellite image analysis to be effective in your investigation you will need to ensure that the recency of the images as well as the satellite image resolution are adequate to match your needs. Companies like Maxar Technologies and Planet Labs will often publish very high resolution, up-to-date satellite images on image wire services such as AP, AFP and Reuters. 

These companies also often provide image archives of big stories to the media. Once you have identified your image provider, the next step is to make sense of the satellite imagery. Examining images can complement other research and provide corroborating evidence. 

To unlock the rich information in a satellite image, you should: 

  1. Determine the image scale to help you determine the size of the area you are analysing
  2. Look for patterns, shapes and geographical textures including natural and man-made landmarks. 
  3. Find where north is facing to help you determine the direction of movement of subjects of interest and/or shadows. 
  4. Analyse the direction of the shadows and colour of the terrain to help you determine the date and time a particular image was captured. 
  5. Consider your prior knowledge of a location to see if anything stands out in the environment 

Be careful - with more people using satellite images you will also get more people trying to misuse satellite images to better align with their agenda. 

Here are some things you should do when you have doubts about the validity of a satellite image: 

  • Verify that the image matches the original source of the satellite imaging provider 
  • Compare the satellite image with other sources 
  • Try to verify when an image was captured by using tools like to analyse the position of the sun and shadows 
  • Consult a remote sensing expert 

Before and after satellite imagery of the Mariupol Drama Theatre from March 14 and March 19, 2022. This building had been used as a shelter for hundreds of Ukrainian civilians in Mariupol, Ukraine before it was attacked by Russian forces. Notably, the word 'children' is written in large white letters (in Russian) in front of the theatre [Satellite image (c) 2022 Maxar Technologies]


Before and after

One of the most common uses of satellite imagery is to compare before and after images in a specific location. 

On August 4, 2020, a massive explosion in the Port of Beirut ripped through Lebanon’s capital, killing 218 people, injuring 7,000 and leaving 300,000 displaced. The blast, which is considered one of the biggest non-nuclear explosions to have been recorded, damaged 77,000 apartments and caused an estimated $3.8-4.6bn in material damage.

Satellite images captured on August 5 highlighted the extent of the damage to the surrounding area.



Mapping environmental impact

Journalists are increasingly using satellite imagery to conduct disaster damage assessment or carry out environmental monitoring. Free Satellite Data on Africa, a new tool by Digital Earth Africa, offers free satellite data on water resources and flood risks, agriculture and food security, urbanisation and more. The Smoke Screen project used analysis of satellite data to prove deforestation by large private landowners in the Amazon. 


Case studies


Xinjiang detention camps 

In 2018, Shawn Zhang, a Chinese law student in Canada, began scouring Google Earth for evidence of detentions in Xinjiang, an official autonomous region in China. Since then, several organisations including the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) have used satellite imagery, witness accounts, media reports and official construction tender documents to classify the detention facilities into four tiers depending on the existence of security features such as high perimeter walls, watchtowers and internal fencing. ASPI says they have identified more than 380 “suspected detention facilities” in the region, where the United Nations says more than one million Uighurs and other mostly Muslim Turkic-speaking residents have been held in recent years.



Weapons sales to Libya 

Using tracking tools and open source data, investigative journalist Mahmoud Al-Waqi and team, revealed how weapons and armoured vehicles manufactured in the United Arab Emirates and Turkey were sold to warring factions in Libya, in violation of the UN Arms embargo on Libya. This case study helped the team to claim that the United Arab Emirates and Turkey have been violating the UN arm embargo. As it was impossible to visit sites in Libya, satellite imagery helped verifying claims. 



Attacks on Hospitals and Medical Staff in Sudan 

An investigation by Benjamin Strick used open source investigative techniques to geolocate, chronolocate and analyse footage of two attacks by security forces on an emergency department in Sudan in December 2021 and January 2022 where staff and patients were tear-gassed while inside the hospital. As noted by the author of the investigation, the purpose of this work is to stimulate conversation, research and development in the open source investigations community, the human rights field and the events happening in Sudan, as well as to document wrongdoing and identify those responsible.



Massacre in Tigray 

An investigation by BBC Africa Eye uncovered evidence that a massacre in northern Ethiopia was carried out by members of the Ethiopian military. It also revealed the precise location of the atrocity, in which at least 15 men were killed. This investigation reconstructs the exact place of the massacre, the period in which it took place and even the identity of the perpetrators, without leaving London, only with the help of open source tools and techniques. 


More Articles

Are Podcasts the Future of African Broadcasting?

The surge of podcasts across Africa is a burgeoning trend, encompassing a wide array of themes and subjects, and swiftly expanding across various nations.

Derick Matsengarwodzi
Derick Matsengarwodzi Published on: 11 Jul, 2024
Video Volunteers: How India’s Marginalised Groups Tell Their Own Stories

Video creators like Rohini Pawar and Shabnam Begum have transcended societal challenges by producing influential videos with Video Volunteers, highlighting social issues within marginalized communities. Their work exemplifies the transformative power of storytelling in fostering grassroots change and empowerment across India.

Hanan Zaffa
Hanan Zaffar, Jyoti Thakur Published on: 3 Jul, 2024
Climate Journalism in Vietnam's Censored Landscape

In Vietnam, climate journalists face challenges due to censorship and restrictions on press freedom, making it difficult to report environmental issues accurately. Despite these obstacles, there are still journalists working to cover climate stories creatively and effectively, highlighting the importance of climate journalism in addressing environmental concerns.

AJR Contributor Published on: 26 Jun, 2024
Challenges of Investigating Subculture Stories in Japan as a Foreign Correspondent

Japan's vibrant subcultures and feminist activists challenge the reductive narratives often portrayed in Western media. To understand this dynamic society authentically, journalists must approach their reporting with patience, commitment, and empathy, shedding preconceptions and engaging deeply with the nuances of Japanese culture.

Johann Fleuri
Johann Fleuri Published on: 24 Jun, 2024
Covering the War on Gaza: As a Journalist, Mother, and Displaced Person

What takes precedence: feeding a hungry child or providing professional coverage of a genocidal war? Journalist Marah Al Wadiya shares her story of balancing motherhood, displacement, psychological turmoil, and the relentless struggle to find safety in an unsafe region.

Marah Al Wadiya
Marah Al Wadiya Published on: 29 May, 2024
Fighting Misinformation and Disinformation to Foster Social Governance in Africa

Experts in Africa are using various digital media tools to raise awareness and combat the increasing usage of misinformation and disinformation to manipulate social governance.

Derick Matsengarwodzi
Derick Matsengarwodzi Published on: 22 May, 2024
"I Am Still Alive!": The Resilient Voices of Gaza's Journalists

The Israeli occupation has escalated from targeting journalists to intimidating and killing their families. Hisham Zaqqout, Al Jazeera's correspondent in Gaza talks about his experience covering the war and the delicate balance between family obligations and professional duty.

Hisham Zakkout Published on: 15 May, 2024
Under Fire: The Perilous Reality for Journalists in Gaza's War Zone

Journalists lack safety equipment and legal protection, highlighting the challenges faced by journalists in Gaza. While Israel denies responsibility for targeting journalists, the lack of international intervention leaves journalists in Gaza exposed to daily danger.

Linda Shalash
Linda Shalash Published on: 9 May, 2024
Elections and Misinformation – India Case Study

Realities are hidden behind memes and political satire in the battle for truth in the digital age. Explore how misinformation is influencing political decisions and impacting first-time voters, especially in India's 2024 elections, and how journalists fact-check and address fake news, revealing the true impact of misinformation and AI-generated content.

Safina Nabi Published on: 30 Apr, 2024
Amid Increasing Pressure, Journalists in India Practice More Self-Censorship

In a country where nearly 970 million people are participating in a crucial general election, the state of journalism in India is under scrutiny. Journalists face harassment, self-censorship, and attacks, especially under the current Modi-led government. Mainstream media also practices self-censorship to avoid repercussions. The future of journalism in India appears uncertain, but hope lies in the resilience of independent media outlets.

Hanan Zaffa
Hanan Zaffar, Jyoti Thakur Published on: 25 Apr, 2024
The Privilege and Burden of Conflict Reporting in Nigeria: Navigating the Emotional Toll

The internal struggle and moral dilemmas faced by a conflict reporter, as they grapple with the overwhelming nature of the tragedies they witness and the sense of helplessness in the face of such immense suffering. It ultimately underscores the vital role of conflict journalism in preserving historical memory and giving a voice to the voiceless.

Hauwa Shaffii Nuhu
Hauwa Shaffii Nuhu Published on: 17 Apr, 2024
Journalism in chains in Cameroon

Investigative journalists in Cameroon sometimes use treacherous means to navigate the numerous challenges that hamper the practice of their profession: the absence of the Freedom of Information Act, the criminalisation of press offenses, and the scare of the overly-broad anti-terrorism law.

Nalova Akua
Nalova Akua Published on: 12 Apr, 2024
The Perils of Journalism and the Rise of Citizen Media in Southeast Asia

Southeast Asia's media landscape is grim, with low rankings for internet and press freedom across the region. While citizen journalism has risen to fill the gaps, journalists - both professional and citizen - face significant risks due to government crackdowns and the collusion between tech companies and authorities to enable censorship and surveillance.

AJR Contributor Published on: 6 Apr, 2024
Silenced Voices: The Battle for Free Expression Amid India’s Farmer’s Protest

The Indian government's use of legal mechanisms to suppress dissenting voices and news reports raises questions about transparency and freedom of expression. The challenges faced by independent media in India indicate a broader narrative of controlling the narrative and stifling dissenting voices.

Suvrat Arora
Suvrat Arora Published on: 17 Mar, 2024
Targeting Truth: Assault on Female Journalists in Gaza

For female journalists in Palestine, celebrating international women's rights this year must take a backseat, as they continue facing the harsh realities of conflict. March 8th will carry little celebration for them, as they grapple with the severe risks of violence, mass displacement, and the vulnerability of abandonment amidst an ongoing humanitarian crisis. Their focus remains on bearing witness to human suffering and sharing stories of resilience from the frontlines, despite the personal dangers involved in their work.

Fatima Bashir
Fatima Bashir Published on: 14 Mar, 2024
A Woman's Journey Reporting on Pakistan's Thrilling Cholistan Desert Jeep Rally

A Woman's Voice in the Desert: Navigating the Spotlight

Anam Hussain
Anam Hussain Published on: 8 Mar, 2024
Breaking Barriers: The Rise of Citizen Journalists in India's Fight for Media Inclusion

Grassroots journalists from marginalized communities in India, including Dalits and Muslims, are challenging mainstream media narratives and bringing attention to underreported issues through digital outlets like The Mooknayak.

Hanan Zaffa
Hanan Zaffar, Jyoti Thakur Published on: 3 Mar, 2024
Why Journalists are Speaking out Against Western Media Bias in Reporting on Israel-Palestine

Over 1500 journalists from various US news organizations have signed an open letter criticizing the Western media's coverage of Israel's actions against Palestinians. They accuse newsrooms of dehumanizing rhetoric, bias, and the use of inflammatory language that reinforces stereotypes, lack of context, misinformation, biased language, and the focus on certain perspectives while diminishing others. They call for more accurate and critical coverage, the use of well-defined terms like "apartheid" and "ethnic cleansing," and the inclusion of Palestinian voices in reporting.

Belle de Jong journalist
Belle de Jong Published on: 26 Feb, 2024
Silenced Voices and Digital Resilience: The Case of Quds Network

Unrecognized journalists in conflict zones face serious risks to their safety and lack of support. The Quds Network, a Palestinian media outlet, has been targeted and censored, but they continue to report on the ground in Gaza. Recognition and support for independent journalists are crucial.

Yousef Abu Watfe يوسف أبو وطفة
Yousef Abu Watfeh Published on: 21 Feb, 2024
Artificial Intelligence's Potentials and Challenges in the African Media Landscape

How has the proliferation of Artificial Intelligence impacted newsroom operations, job security and regulation in the African media landscape? And how are journalists in Africa adapting to these changes?

Derick Matsengarwodzi
Derick Matsengarwodzi Published on: 18 Feb, 2024
Media Blackout on Imran Khan and PTI: Analysing Pakistan's Election Press Restrictions

Implications and response to media censorship and the deliberate absence of coverage for the popular former Prime Minister, Imran Khan, and his party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), in the media during the 2024 elections in Pakistan.

Anam Hussain
Anam Hussain Published on: 14 Feb, 2024
Digital Battlegrounds: The New Broadcasting Bill and Independent Journalism in India

New legislation in India threatens the freedom of independent journalism. The draft Broadcasting Services (Regulation) Bill, 2023 grants the government extensive power to regulate and censor content, potentially suppressing news critical of government policies.

Safina Nabi Published on: 11 Feb, 2024
Pegasus Spyware: A Grave Threat to Journalists in Southeast Asia

The widespread deployment of spyware such as Pegasus in Southeast Asia, used by governments to target opposition leaders, activists, and journalists, presents significant challenges in countering digital surveillance. This is due to its clandestine operations and the political intricacies involved. The situation underscores the urgent need for international cooperation and heightened public awareness to address these human rights infringements.

AJR Contributor Published on: 5 Feb, 2024
Media Monopoly in Brazil: How Dominant Media Houses Control the Narrative and Stifle Criticism of Israel

An in-depth analysis exploring the concentration of media ownership in Brazil by large companies, and how this shapes public and political narratives, particularly by suppressing criticism of Israel.

Al Jazeera Logo
Rita Freire & Ahmad Al Zobi Published on: 1 Feb, 2024