Measuring Environmental Harm in Prison Landscapes: Geospatial Technology in the service of Grassroots Organizing with Ufuoma Ovienmhada

In my work, I aim to explore this transformative process through projects under the category of satellite Earth observation as well as in the area of microgravity research to apply that technology for sustainable development.

Measuring Environmental Harm in Prison Landscapes: Geospatial Technology in the service of Grassroots Organizing with Ufuoma Ovienmhada

Question 1: What technologies are you working with, or have you worked with?

I am an engineer by education, and a remote sensing scientist by training. However, my work for the last five years has focused on the applications of satellite remote sensing, for sustainable development and social justice. In my dissertation, I focus on the use of remote sensing technology to make visible environmental injustice in a quantitative sense, and I've been studying prison landscapes in the United States for the last three years. I have chosen to focus on prison landscapes because these carceral facilities, which include prisons, jails, and detention centers, are often built adjacent to hazardous waste facilities as well as in proximity to industrial activity. These facilities are also quite old and have little to no mitigation against climate risk within their structures or governance systems. As such, many individuals who are incarcerated and face events like floods, hurricanes, and forest fires are placed in unsafe, highly vulnerable conditions, including instances where individuals are not evacuated to safer areas. 

Broadly speaking, I work with Earth Observation (EO) technologies. EO are technologies used to observe or take measurements of the earth, including satellite technologies orbiting earth, drones that can have cameras and take images, and ground monitors to measure various environmental quantities. As an extension of the EO technologies, I use geospatial technology to process information with GIS software, whether that be ArcGIS or QGIS, and then general coding languages like Python and R. I utilize these tools in my analysis to quantitatively measure the exposure or colocation of environmental hazards with prisons across the United States. As part of my efforts to operationalize this information, I have worked in partnership with the Campaign to Fight Toxic Prisons to develop an online geospatial platform that will visualize quantitative information for prisons around the U.S. and host narratives from formerly incarcerated people. 

Question 2: How do you take account of MIT’s obligation to pursue the public interest in the work that you do? 

I think this is an interesting question within the context of my research because many incarcerated people are marginalized in society, meaning that an average person day to day—unless you have a loved one who has been impacted by incarceration—does not typically think of prisons. Prison populations are marginalized systemically and also physically, with facilities often located in extremely rural areas. Additionally, prisons are often at the intersection of several different competing public and private interests. 

In my work, I think about ‘public interest’ as the interest of those who have lived experiences within the system or experience working to address the harm of the prison system. I have conducted interviews with formerly incarcerated individuals, and I also collaborate with the Campaign to Fight Toxic Prisons, a grassroots organization which has been working at the intersection of prison and environment for the last nine years. My work and use of technologies is therefore grounded in an understanding of the experiences of individuals who have spent time in prison and the needs of the organizations working to actively reform the prison system. I ask questions such as: How are these people and coalitions organizing? What kind of tools are they using, and what are their desired outcomes? How can I center the organization's desired outcomes in my application of technology? And then, going a step further, how can first-hand narratives from formerly incarcerated individuals help me understand the experience of environmental hazards? And what are their desired outcomes for what it looks like to address these issues? Some solutions in the past have been weaponized against individuals in prison, and so it is critical to know what matters to those who have experienced these facilities firsthand. These questions are central to how I develop, apply, and discuss the technologies I am utilizing. It is important for me to center the perspective of the populations that are most directly impacted by environmental injustices and hazardous conditions in prisons across the United States.

Question 3: What more could you and others do to help MIT team meet its social obligation to pursue public interest technology?

Being in a lab where I’ve been able to use interdisciplinary methods within applied sciences to build out the work I’m doing has been essential. However, more broadly speaking, there are challenges in a department like the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics where social justice is marginal to the overall research conducted. Some have even questioned the place of my research in my department, and wondered why I would not instead join a more applied or socially-oriented department such as the Technology Policy Program (TPP). But my rebuttal is this: Bringing this work into an engineering department allows me to approach my chosen question not just from an applied side, but also with a toolkit to question technology in its design and ability to serve its application. Part of my work is questioning both the opportunities and the limitations of utilizing these EO technologies. The current norm for designing satellites predominantly centers on earth science or military surveillance applications. My hypothesis is that if we were centering grassroots stakeholders and other people who are currently at the margins of society, we would develop different technologies, with different technical requirements, and different mission operation. Applied work with different populations can and should directly inform engineering. 


For this reason, I would like to see community-based participatory research and qualitative methods be as core in the engineering and sciences as a statistics class is. Most people haven’t had to take a class about the histories of racism and technology’s unequal application and impacts to different populations. This goes beyond any mandatory ethics class, many of which don’t engage with systemic power structures: racism and oppression. Students need to be taught to think across these dimensions of power in the technologies they then develop. I would like to see MIT, and in particular the STEM departments across its schools, place a greater value on qualitative methods and classes that teach history and critical thinking about societal challenges. There is a need to foster the development and education of well-rounded scientists and engineers who can think about technology not just from the perspective of optimization, but also application to a broad public – one that includes the most marginalized parts of our public.

Ufuoma Ovienmhada is a PhD student at MIT in the Aeronautics and Astronautics Department. She studies applications of satellite remote sensing data for environmental justice. In her dissertation, she researches distribution of environmental hazards in carceral landscapes. Prior to beginning her PhD, she completed a Masters in the MIT Media Lab. Her Master's Thesis focused on applying remote sensing, low-cost sensors, drone data collection and community-centered design techniques to invasive plant species management in West Africa. Before arriving at MIT, she completed a Bachelor's degree in Mechanical Engineering from Stanford University and worked at Public Lab, a community science nonprofit. Outside of research, Ufuoma is involved in campus activism pertaining to DEI and alternative forms of public safety.