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Two UN agencies team up to protect cultural heritage with geo-spatial technologies

1 July 2016 – Two United Nations agencies have signed an agreement to protect cultural and natural heritage sites by using the latest geo-spatial technologies, including a satellite imaging system.

The strategic partnership between the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the Operational Satellite Applications Programme (UNOSAT) under the UN Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) will enable their collaboration during conflict situations and in the aftermath of natural disasters.

UNOSAT is a technology-intensive programme delivering imagery analysis and satellite solutions to relief and development organisations within and outside the UN system. Satellite imagery is often the only source of objective information for areas affected by conflict or by natural disasters.

“UNOSAT and UNESCO have complementary capacities that can considerably enhance UNESCO’s ability to protect heritage in emergency situations,” said UNESCO’s Assistant Director-General for Culture, Alfredo Pérez de Armiñán, referring to ongoing cooperation to document the state of heritage sites in Iraq and other conflict-affected countries.

“UNOSAT’s track record of innovative solutions now has a significant impact on the way the UN operates,” said UNOSAT’s Manager, Einar Bjorgo. “While it is fascinating to note how new technologies are applied to protect ancient cultural heritage, our partnership with UNESCO helps us take specific action on the ground.”

The entities will share their respective expertise, and collaborate on prevention and capacity development. This helps the international community to understand the situation on the ground and plan emergency measures. For example, a recently-published report on cultural heritage sites in Syria by UNITAR-UNOSAT, revealed the extent of damage to cultural heritage, confirming information obtained through unofficial sources.

Other geo-spatial technologies that may be harnessed include the use of crowd-sourcing app UN-ASIGN, successfully applied following the recent Nepal earthquake, and the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) both for general recording purposes and for detailed damage assessments of buildings and other infrastructure. The entire range of geo-spatial information gathering tools is combined using Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and advanced web-mapping solutions.

UNESCO and UNITAR-UNOSAT will jointly explore new and innovative solutions that can further contribute to improved management and protection of cultural heritage sites.