Eyes in the Sky for Community Development

May 5, 2021

     By Duncan Green     

Guest post by Kristina Zittel & Scott Guggenheim

Earth observation (EO) with drone and satellite-based remote sensing enables the monitoring and assessment of the ever-changing natural and man-made environment in which we live. The most innovative community programs are already noting the potential of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones, to enhance data collection, mapping, monitoring, and advocacy in remote areas. However, there are also ethical and privacy challenges to expanding the role of EO technologies, along with risks of it serving as a replacement rather than a complement to valuable community inputs.

Program Planning with Earth Observation (EO)

Acquiring reliable grassroots data for village-specific planning is crucial in the design of community development programs. Villages vary significantly, in institutional capacities, social structures, and more, and a one-size-fits-all approach to planning will inevitably be ineffective and marginalizing. EO technology has the potential to improve the quantity and quality of data through aerial or satellite-acquired imagery, which can then be processed to create precise, detailed maps of villages. Combined with other data and local knowledge, these maps can provide insights on geographic units, spatial layouts, social units, village capacity, infrastructure gaps, and more. Beyond these benefits, spatial mapping of villages with EO can enable program planning to be more transparent.

Some good examples already exist. In Indonesia, the Pulse Lab Jakarta (PLJ) produced drone-based maps to identify clear, legalized village boundaries, which are critical in Indonesia to access funds for development under the Village Law. In Malawi, drone  mapping was used to facilitate an adequate cholera response through community discussion, problem identification, and local action. Drone mapping exercises, facilitated by UNICEF, enabled community members to identify key problems that only become obvious from a bird’s eye view, such as inadequate latrine access in marketplaces, which a Community Driven Development (CDD) project could easily address.

Using Community Inputs to Pose Problems and Find Solutions

The best uses of EO technology are when inputs gained from communities address subtle, context-specific issues using UAVs. In West Java, farmers identified patchy rice fields stemming from uneven fertilizer distribution. PLJ has responded by enabling farmers to automate fertilizer applications using UAVs to improve output and quality, leading to increased income for smallholders.

Remote mapping technologies can be tools for environmental and social justice. In Kalimantan’s Kapuas river region, for example, logging, palm oil, gold mining, and conservation programs increasingly press against traditional, forest-dependent communities. A coalition of activist NGOs, forest community leaders, and Indonesian appropriate technology specialists are using drones to place high-resolution and geo-referenced spatial data in the hands of grassroots leaders. These maps are then presented to provincial and district planning boards to push back against claims by national and international investors, who argue that the land is empty or unused (paper here).In another example in the Peruvian Amazon, drone mapping enabled indigenous community members to identify an oil spill that was only visible and accessible from a bird’s eye view. They used evidence of this illegal activity for legal action.

Community Project Management

Managing Corruption with Enhanced M&E: When operating in a corrupt environment, it is not always clear if program funding is actually going where it should. On-site supervision is often spotty, expensive, and, in high conflict countries, can even be dangerous. EO sensing can enhance  accountability, ensuring that specific targets are being met and that service providers actually show up and do their job. In the Philippines, the World Bank is already using low cost geo-tagging technology, media submissions, and ‘drones for better roads’ to help monitor and evaluate program outputs in real-time.

Service Delivery: In hard-to-reach communities, drones can deliver essential items like vaccines, ART medication, & blood tests. In Ghana, drones are used to deliver and pick up COVID-19 tests in rural areas. They are also being used by UNICEF for vaccine delivery/transport; and for improved preparedness and response in emergencies. CDD projects that integrate bottom-up demand with top-down service delivery could use drones to reach remote communities, improve supply chain management, and share information with provincial or district-based service providers.

Natural Resource Management:  In water resource management, drone technology can help generate on-demand data by mapping ground surface water and improving its management. Drones can also improve forest management and conservation.

Capacity Building: Capacity-building initiatives, such as the African Drone and Data Academy and Flying Labs, are already showing the power of strengthening local capacity to apply EO technology to improve lives. ADDA and Flying Labs help communities and activists develop the capacity to solve local problems using drones, robotics, data and AI. CDD programs could similarly train village youth to be in charge of village EO technology, with local competitions and exchanges that let groups display their best applications. 

Costs: The cost of EO technologies continues to plummet, and most are already well within reach of CDD project budgets. However, an even more exciting development has been the growing number of country-based entrepreneurs who are using locally available materials to lower prices still further. In the Kapuas River counter-mapping example, Indonesia’s Swandiri Institute is producing “Drone Desa” for less than US$200 apiece. WeRobotics, a technology support network, has similarly backed low-cost, local drone production.


Satellite imagery and drone mapping raise important questions about data ownership, permissions, and confidentiality.  CDD practitioners must take these issues seriously and work from a code of ethics such as the Humanitarian UAV code of ethics when applying the technology in programs. Considerations that may constrain the extensive use of EO technology in CDD include:

  • Limited skills & experience interpreting remote sensing imagery within communities, along with the challenges of availability, cost, and logistics of deploying these skills  
  • Smaller, digitally printed maps (compared to traditional larger hand-drawn maps) can further crowd out community members, such as women and people with disabilities, from participatory conversations, threatening program inclusivity and effectiveness
  • Community resistance to drone-based technology, stemming from its different affiliations with war, government surveillance, and witchcraft
  • The temptation to use low-cost remote sensing to replace, not complement, more traditional forms of inclusive, participatory facilitation that are crucial to the success in CDD


This blog is meant to trigger a conversation across the CDD community on using technology to improve community knowledge. The costs of using what was once unaffordable sophisticated technology continues to drop, making the potential for communities to use it much greater than they have ever been. The challenge increasingly isn’t how to access remote sensing technology in support of bottom-up development, but how to deploy it in ways that promote (and don’t undermine) empowerment and inclusion.