Researchers use satellite images to identify signs of slavery in India

Brick kilns, often the site of forced slavery in India, It can be seen from Google Satellite images.


When Jess Wardlaw began working with the Slavery from Space project, she was taken aback by just how prevalent slavery is in the modern world.

Slavery from Space is a project by the University of Nottingham’s Rights Lab that uses Google satellite images to identify signs of slavery in India, and pass that information onto local non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working on the ground and government officials. The Rights Lab is a wider initiative by the university to put an end to slavery around the world.

As a PhD student at the university, Wardlaw had been primarily interested in the project’s geospatial attributes. Before joining Slavery from Space, Wardlaw had just completed a term working with another research project where she helped develop 3D models of the surface of Mars.

Upon realizing that there are an estimated 45.8-million people enslaved around the world, according to the Global Slavery Index, she became completely engrossed in learning all she could about the issue.

The project, hosted on the people-powered research platform The Zooniverse, asks volunteers to participate in identifying brick kilns in Google satellite images through a section on the site. The Zooniverse is a platform where researchers can crowdsource data for projects from volunteers interested in scientific discoveries.

A brick kiln refers to a large type of oven where bricks are burned or baked, and are often sites of forced labour in South Asia. Nearly 70 per cent of over 5 million brick kiln workers in South Asia are estimated to be working in bonded and forced labour, according to a 2016 report by the International Labor Organization. Approximately one in five are underage.


According to the Global Slavery Index, there are currently more than 18-million slaves in India. Despite a 1976 ban on bonded labour in the country, the practice remains fairly widespread.

“But there are other, more pressing challenges like tackling problematic practices including withheld wages, lack of transparent accounting… no enforcement of existing labour laws,” Jakub Sobik, spokesman at the London-based NGO Anti-Slavery told Reuters.