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Global Heritage Fund and University College London Leveraging Planet SkySat to Protect the Cultural Fabric of Ukraine

UNESCO reported in August 2022 that over 170 Ukrainian heritage sites have been damaged since the onset of the Russo-Ukrainian war. As the war continues to impact Ukrainian cities, Global Heritage Fund is teaming up with University College London (UCL) to map cultural heritage site destruction using Planet imagery.

This project aims to perform a quantitative assessment of urban areas severely affected by the conflict. The data is the base for future reconstruction plans. By focusing on change detection, Global Heritage Fund and UCL will use this imagery, alongside local knowledge from informants onsite, to perform supervised classification of urban texture, highlight areas destroyed, and quantify the damage inflicted upon Ukrainian cultural heritage sites.

“For Global Heritage Fund, preserving the cultural fabric of a place encompasses protecting historical buildings as well as conserving locations that stimulate the arts, foster social innovation, and advance economic development,” explained Nada Hosking, Executive Director of Global Heritage Fund.

Global Heritage Fund and UCL teams are using Planet satellite imagery to document sites of Ukrainian heritage value. Using SkySat tasking capabilities, they are collecting high-resolution images of attacked regions, and where possible supplementing the data with ground validation via local specialists. This project, titled “Under Fire Heritage of Ukraine,” creates a baseline database of Ukrainian cultural heritage – a digital geospatial inventory of sites that are under threat of looting, forceful appropriation, or deliberate erasure during the war.

“We are working quickly with UCL to capture and categorize before and after images. This view of change over time is crucial for rapid and cost-effective reconstruction of heritage sites,” said Dr. Gai Jorayev, a research fellow at UCL Institute of Archaeology. “The aim is to make this database accessible to Ukrainian colleagues so it can contribute to, or become core of, the national geospatial monument inventory system.”

The project, funded in part through a grant from the International Alliance for the Protection of Heritage in Conflict Areas (ALIPH), will create a centralized inventory for Ukraine through the systemic digitization of satellite images, maps, and aerial photography of significant architecture, pulling from historic archives and modern SkySat satellite images. A top priority of the project is to provide swift recommendations for how to protect and stabilize artifacts, buildings, and monuments as the situation evolves. Both the database and recommendations are intended to provide long-term value to the Ukrainian Ministry of Culture.

The project tasks SkySat satellites following damage tips from specialized informers on the ground and media reports of destroyed or attacked locations. The images are used to validate damage to particular locations, especially when photos cannot be obtained without putting people in harm’s way.

Hosking noted that documenting locations in conflict areas can be challenging as local authorities often discourage citizens from taking pictures of significant sites, whether damaged or not. Historical landmarks may be deliberately attacked in strategic warfare and authorities try to avoid adding data to systems, which could be hacked to target locations.

“This war will have lasting effects on Ukraine and the world, but we are proud to know that our imagery can provide a digital cultural baseline for reconstruction. These historical buildings, and places of cultural significance are so crucial for maintaining the vital and strong culture of Ukraine,” said Andrew Zolli, Planet’s Chief Impact Officer.

Global Heritage Fund is one of 30 NGOs and intergovernmental bodies Planet is working with and supplying data to that are supporting a number of humanitarian operations in Ukraine, including: civilian evacuation; planned demining operations; conducting building damage assessments; tracking alleged human rights abuses; and trying to mitigate and measure impacts to food supplies.

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