Building an Anti-Trafficking Support System for Uganda’s Sustainability

28 July 2021
Research Innovation

Doreen Boyd  | Rights Lab Associate Director (Data and Measurement Programme) and Professor of Earth Observation, University of Nottingham

At the current pace of progress, it is unlikely the world will reach Target 8.7 of the United Nations Sustainable Development goals — or associated SDGs — by 2030. There is thus an increasing need for innovation to accelerate collective efforts to achieve Target 8.7. An example of such innovation is the “Slavery from Space” project pioneered by the University of Nottingham’s Rights Lab, which aims to explore how satellite remote sensing (also known as Earth Observation [EO]) can be used for antislavery research and action. Rights Lab products from EO data analyses are currently being used in India, through the UN Development Programme, to improve the welfare of labourers in brick kilns, as well as in Greece, as a result of a European Convention on Human Rights judgment on migrant camps in the Elis region, to protect migrant workers. Now, an EO-centric approach is being developed to support antislavery efforts in Uganda: the Anti-trafficking using Satellite Technology for Uganda’s Sustainability (ASTUS) project is funded by the United Kingdom Space Agency’s International Partnership Programme (IPP). The IPP aims principally to deliver a space-enabled ODA-compliant programme that provides a measurable and sustainable economic or societal benefit to its beneficiaries in developing countries.

Photo by SpaceX/Unsplash.

The ASTUS project

The ultimate goal of ASTUS is to develop a Modern Anti-trafficking Support System (MASS) for use in Uganda. This is ambitious. The MASS vision utilizes multiple sources of EO and non-EO data which, when combined, can produce a range of outputs to meet the needs of different antislavery stakeholders working to address trafficking in persons (TIP) and forced labour in Uganda. These outputs can then inform decision-making and response. Ensuring stakeholder buy-in and sustainability of the MASS underpin project activities, both of which are crucial in supporting the Ugandan Government in its progress towards Target 8.7.

More specifically, the ASTUS project aims to:

  • Enhance understanding of the nature and extent of TIP and forced labour in Uganda by contributing to reducing the data-deficit;
  • Contribute to the achievement of the National Action Plan on Prevention of Trafficking in Persons 2020 – 2024;
  • Develop a MASS that can receive, process and relate various streams of incoming data and in particular demonstrate EO’s value-add to the system;
  • Develop a MASS that can generate outputs which directly support different user groups in their anti-TIP efforts;
  • Ensure sustainability of a MASS by considering appropriate, proportionate and cost-effective business models for future use by different user groups; and
  • Ensure sustainability of a MASS by developing training modules for different user groups so that they are comfortable with using the MASS and that Uganda’s capacity to maintain and sustain the MASS is in place.

The benefits of partnership

The IPP shared funding has provided the incentive to pursue a new, ambitious and collaborative solution. The unique partnerships across the ASTUS project are mutually beneficial in particular ways. For example, Airbus Space are using this project as a springboard for moving their current capabilities towards tackling this damaging criminal activity, and the Rights Lab requires the support of industry to take its research to an operational level. The University of Dundee works with the University of Makerere on research related to livelihoods in Uganda (in collaboration with the Government of Uganda), and the ASTUS project presents a unique opportunity for both institutions to engage with Ugandan Government on the particular issue of modern slavery and human trafficking. The ASTUS project further builds on the work Hope for Justice has been doing specifically in Uganda on TIP and forced labour, and provides capacity-building on the potential benefits of using EO data. In-country capacity is so important in our vision for MASS. As a collective, we aim to build on Uganda’s response as a country to tackle modern slavery and its commitment to accelerating its antislavery portfolio by joining the Alliance 8.7 as a Pathfinder Country. Through capacity-building, the ultimate objective of the ASTUS project is to operationalize our current vision of a MASS that is sensitive to Uganda’s requirements and capacity. The partnership model to solutions is one that the Rights Lab encourages — our blended expertise in modern slavery and human trafficking with EO solutions allows us to collaborate with technological partners and in-country actors tackling the issue, whether government or civil society.

We believe that the time is right for expansion of the use of EO for antislavery. The ASTUS project is currently building a firm foundation for this through the following project activities:

  • Understanding the stakeholder landscape. ASTUS will collaborate with stakeholders to obtain a clearer picture of which stakeholders are active in Uganda, their roles and connections in tackling trafficking in persons.
  • Understanding user requirements. With many stakeholders involved in different roles in combating trafficking in persons, understanding the user requirements is essential before starting to build the MASS. By drawing on stakeholder expertise the ASTUS team aims to map various needs, identify existing data which can potentially be leveraged by the MASS, and access levels which need to be built into the system and the outputs it needs to generate.
  • Trials of ground-level data collection. Any MASS relying on Earth Observation technology also relies on ground-level data (for example, which landscape features could be indicative of trafficking in persons). Together with stakeholders, ASTUS needs to understand what data is available, what can be collected and how. With quality ground-level data, ASTUS will be able to generate actionable and reliable outputs.
  • Trial of a mock-up system. Towards the end of the ASTUS project, a mock-up system based on collaboration with, and input from, stakeholders will be disseminated. This mock-up will focus on how the MASS could look. The purpose of this trial is to get stakeholder feedback to ensure that the MASS is truly co-produced.

In parallel to these activities, ASTUS will design a monitoring and evaluation framework in order to build a shared understanding of what the MASS will need to be successful and the steps necessary to realize that mutual goal.

For more information on innovation in the pursuit of SDG Target 8.7 and ASTUS project outputs and learnings, please contact the project team:

Project Lead: Prof. Doreen Boyd, Rights Lab, University of Nottingham (

Project Partners: Makerere University, Uganda, Hope for Justice (Uganda, UK), University of Dundee, Airbus Defence and Space, IPE Triple Line.

This article has been prepared by Doreen Boyd as a contribution to Delta 8.7. As provided for in the Terms and Conditions of Use of Delta 8.7, the opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of UNU or its partners.

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