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Martha Mendoza Calls for Closer Collaboration Between Geospatial and Journalism Communities

For all the news buffs out there, Martha Mendoza needs no introduction. A two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and an Emmy award recipient, Mendoza’s hard-hitting news reports have prompted congressional hearings and new legislations, Pentagon investigations and White House responses. The Associated Press journalist’s 18-month investigations into slavery in the Thai seafood sector led to the freedom of more than 2,000 men in 2016, and for the first time brought to the limelight the use of satellite imagery in investigative journalism. Mendoza has worked extensively across continents, advocating for accurate journalism, government transparency and the people’s right to know the truth. In this candid conversation, she urges the geospatial community to be more proactive and reach out to journalists with information that can be turned into stories.

By Anusuya Datta & Girish Joshi

In 2016, you and your team earned the Pulitzer Prize for ‘Seafood from Slaves’ investigation, which brought quite a few changes in policies and laws across nations. Can you tell us more about that?

For many years, people talked about and journalists wrote about people who had run away from boats in Thailand, claiming that they had been forced to fish on those boats. These stories came from people at rescue shelters in Thailand and were reported across media platforms. However, none of those stories were making any difference, which was really frustrating. Thailand is one of the biggest exporters of seafood to the United States, and so we decided to dig deep into the issue. The team comprised of Margie Mason, Robin McDowell, Esther Htusan and myself. It started with Margie and Robin setting out to find some of the victims on ground. My part was to work with them to meticulously track the route — the fish those people caught and how it made all the way to the US. In doing this, we created a methodology that I have used again and again in my investigations — be it the fires in a New Delhi denim factory, or other places where there is labor abuse.

For about a year, Margie and Robin talked to people, built relationships with them at the rescue shelters and kind of crowd-sourced knowledge. They were repeatedly hearing about an island in Indonesia called Benjina. That’s when we first made foray into geospatial, since nobody had heard of this place. We checked Google Earth and what we saw looked like a processing center on a very small island. Robin spoke Bahasa, so it made sense for her to go there. It wasn’t an easy trip — you had to take a boat there and even then it is unreachable for most parts of the year because of the weather. But when Robin landed there, she learned that those men were not Indonesian but from Myanmar. She asked Esther, who is from Myanmar, to come to Benjina to speak to these people. And that’s when the story opened up.

The men began explaining that they had come for jobs in Thailand, but instead were brought to this place, where they were forced to work and even locked in cages. They even showed a graveyard where more than 70 bodies lay buried. Esther and Robin trained some sympathetic dock workers to use a GoPro camera and captured the images. They even caught the men loading fish into a ship called the ‘Silver Sea’. At this point, the girls were ordered to leave. The island was a company town, which is basically owned by a fish processing firm. They also faced threats — at one point the company people even tried to ram into them with their speedboat.

The team ended up following the ‘Silver Sea’ from Benjina to the dock. This part was relatively easy — the ship had an AIS tracker on it. So, we could track its route and even the prior trips it had made. When it arrived at a port south of Bangkok, we documented the seafood being unloaded from the ship into big trucks. When the trucks left the port, we followed them to various factories. The next part was tricky, since we needed more than a few points to establish the connection to the US. We tracked the trucks to cold storages and processing factories. Then we poured through customs and border protection records and business databases to trace the processed seafood cargoes to the US suppliers and distributors, and even the stores they had landed in.

The AP team that was part of the 'seafood from slaves' investigation; (from left) Martha Mendoza, Robin McDowell, Esther Htusan and Margie Mason | Courtesy: AP

When did satellites and Earth Observation come into the picture?

The story was falling in line, but we were faced with a big dilemma — if we showed the faces of the men we had spoken to, we feared they could be killed. In March 2015, AP sought help (from the Indonesian authorities and the International Organization for Migration) to rescue the men on Benjina Island.

What happened next was amazing. The Indonesian Navy, along with the local police, went on a rescue mission. They went to the island and announced over bullhorns that anyone who wanted to be rescued should come out. So, our first story was, you know, 40 men are going to be rescued on this island… and then a 100 men. Soon, it became 200 men, because they kept pouring out of the forest, out of the buildings, out of boats. They just came running — people who had been forced to live on the island, sometimes in cages; people who hadn’t seen their families for years, even young boys. In the end, more than 2,000 men were rescued.

It was during this time that we began to understand that many of the men we had met and spoken to earlier were missing. They were probably held captive in boats or ships fishing in deep seas near Papua New Guinea. But how do you find ships when they are not transmitting? So, I called up the press line at the Pentagon and asked them if they could rescue these people, but was told that this is not something they did. I tried the US Navy, I tried NASA, and I even tried private companies that send satellites to Space, because we thought these boats could at least be seen from above.

Eventually, I reached out to the CEO of DigitalGlobe, which has now been rebranded as Maxar. He said: “This will be like finding a moving needle in the haystack; this is almost impossible, but tomorrow morning we will train our cameras on that area and take some images.” The next day, I received a call from DigitalGlobe asking me to hop onto a plane and visit their office in Colorado. They have these massive screens in their office, and when I went in, they showed me this one big green image. I was thinking ‘well that’s not effective’… and then their image analyst started zooming in. There were these boats — the same ones we had seen at Benjina — loading stuff onto another big boat. The big boat was a sister ship of ‘Silver Sea’. The images were quite good, and once the rescued men also identified them, the Indonesian Navy soon caught the boats, and more men kept in captivity were freed.

DigitalGlobe provided the 'smoking gun' image to Associated Press that showed two trawlers loading slave-caught seafood onto a commercial cargo ship | Courtesy: DigitalGlobe (Maxar)

When you broke this story, Earth Observation data was not as accessible, or available, as it is today. What prompted you and your team to even consider satellite imagery as a tool at that point?

We were very worried about those men. We had seen the boats capsizing and people dying. And because we had seen the satellite images on Google Earth while looking for Benjina island, that was what triggered us to think of the possibility of tracking these people with satellite images.

I must admit, it wasn’t our first choice; we actually wanted to go to Papua New Guinea with hired boats. It’s about a 500-sq-mile area that they were operating in. We contacted a private security organization asking about the cost. Their estimate was in tens of thousands of dollars and included the cost of getting our bodies back. They said that was the part of the cost estimate, since there was high probability that we may not come out alive. We realized that wasn’t a very practical thing to do and started looking for other options. And I am glad we did.

DigitalGlobe was equally excited that we could use their technology this way. This one successful experiment has since prompted not only AP but many other news organizations to depend on them for a number of stories. For instance, reporting on the war in Iraq and Syria, showing that the oldest Catholic monastery in Iraq was destroyed by ISIS. They have a news support team where news organizations can make requests for images. Today, there are so many private satellite companies sharing such amazing images proactively, free for publication, for events like hurricanes or the wildfires. There are so many before-and-after stories you can do now with these images. It’s become a very exciting tool for journalists.

Recently, you have been part of this investigative series on America’s medical supply crisis amid the pandemic. Tell us a bit about the findings, and did you use spatial technologies like Location Intelligence, GIS and mapping and others as part of these investigations?

Life has been in crisis mode here in the United States and in California since March, and for some, since January itself. It started with a story idea about what it meant for people in the US who were importing goods from Wuhan to have everything halted when I randomly called a medical supplier. Then I looked up in the customs records to find out which companies were importing what from China. This was in January when I was speaking to these companies, and soon, we began to realize that we were heading for a massive crisis in the US, since we didn’t have the masks, gloves or gowns we needed. It was obvious then that this was going to exacerbate into a pandemic soon. That’s exactly what happened in March. In New York, during the initial days, nurses were showing up in garbage plastic bags since they didn’t have surgical gowns. We took a look at the import records and found that things like N-95 masks, which usually comes to the US in 20-30 shipping containers per month, had stopped coming for months. We began reporting on those aspects, taking up each item one by one.

We used marine traffic data to follow ships, and did use some GIS, and of course, flight records to show flight routes. When passenger travel stopped, flights were used to import PPEs and then redistribute them to places in need within the country. We also did a very interesting story on counterfeits and who makes them in China. It’s been very frustrating because now the epidemiologists can show that because medical professionals and other caregivers did not have proper PPEs, that amplified the spread of the virus.

How can advancements in geospatial technologies, such as innovations in satellite and location technologies, further help journalists uncover the truth? 

It’s hard to argue with a satellite image. So, if a country has closed down its borders and refugees are amassing on the other side of the fence, or the military is lining up in some remote area where you are not going to have TV cameras rolling up, a satellite photo can tell you that. You have an image that is undeniable, and not just some people claiming some things. A bomb goes off and wipes out an area, or an earthquake causes massive destruction, you can get a much better sense of what has happened and much more quickly with satellite images. I think it also helps convince people about the ground realities. I think the next step is going to be using drones in conjunction with those images in remote disasters.

Many journalists still think that imagery is for just visualization when it can actually be a great investigative tool, or ‘a smoking gun’, like you and your team has demonstrated many times. What do you feel is the real challenge — the cost of data or awareness around the use of geospatial tools?

It’s definitely the lack of awareness among the journalists. This is why I like speaking with geospatial scientists, because they have actually been doing this type of work and using these tools. They can show environmental issues — where there is a drought, or where things are getting wetter or things like that. But they haven’t been thinking all this as journalists. And journalists have been telling stories without thinking about how to use these tools. For instance, the Catholic monk monastery in Iraq that was destroyed. We had a photographer on the ground there documenting it, and so we had hundreds of beautiful photos of this place. But that’s not possible everywhere and every time. Take the South China Sea as an example and what’s going on there. I see journalists being extremely creative and also the geospatial scientists. But if the geospatial community reached out to us more, sharing their findings, it would be very useful for journalists.

There are so many before-and-after stories you can do now with satellite imagery. It’s become a very exciting tool for journalists. It is simply amazing that these powerful images can help to not just inform, but aid and rescue people, and even change policies

As an accomplished journalist who is also known to the geospatial industry, what would be your message to the geospatial community?

Geospatial experts are seeing things that a lot of common folks can’t see. A lot of those findings can be stories, or part of bigger stories. Media is not a big bureaucracy; we are human beings just like you. So, if you see a story, reach out to us. We journalists try to make ourselves very accessible on Twitter/Facebook/LinkedIn; our emails are out there. So, if there is a geospatial angle to a story to be told, don’t assume that we are going to think of it ourselves. Be proactive and share the information with us.

Further, during COVID-19, we can see how journalists can lower their carbon footprint — we have actually been forced to. And I think that we can use geospatial images to continue to do that in some ways. So, maybe we don’t fly a 12-member team to, say, Myanmar to report on happenings there; instead we just use the satellite images to show the villages and the burned out houses. I think that’s important.

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