The Ukraine Digital Verification Lab

By Billie Burton, with support from Maggie Fischer, Daniel Kroth, and Laura Stahl, The Fletcher School

Photo Source: MAXAR

When Russian tanks rolled across the Ukrainian border in February, it did not take long for the Fletcher community to respond. In keeping with the finest traditions of The Fletcher School, the student body mobilized to fundraise, donate items, and protest the invasion; faculty delivered numerous expert talks; and the entire community sought to grapple with what it meant for the future.

In the early days of the war, a group of Fletcher students with experience in open-source intelligence saw an opportunity to use their skills to document human rights abuses and likely war crimes throughout the conflict zone. This was made possible by the enormous amounts of media posted online by people on the frontlines, whether soldiers or civilians. These photos and videos are often widely circulated over Telegram, Facebook, Twitter, VKontakte, and WhatsApp, and they provide a vital insight into the realities of the war. For us, they became crucial visual evidence that could one day be used to hold the perpetrators to account.

With a leadership team of five and valuable contributions from more than 25 Fletcher students, the Ukraine Digital Verification Lab was born just three days after the invasion began. We ran several in-person and online training sessions reflecting the broad range of the leadership team’s experience, including geolocation (where a photo or video was taken), chronolocation (when a photo or video was taken), identifying Russian and Ukrainian armor and aircraft, vicarious trauma, security, and best practice in working with digital evidence. We began initial investigations into incidents during the siege of Mariupol, focusing on the damage to educational infrastructure throughout the city. By combining visual evidence from social media with the analysis of satellite imagery, we were able to identify numerous schools that had been destroyed during the Russian offensive. We used our work on Mariupol coupled with smaller investigations into specific incidents to produce our inaugural report, which was published within The Fletcher School in May and shared with select partners.

As summer approached, The Fletcher School’s Russia and Eurasia Program and International Security Studies Program provided funding to sustain the UDVL’s investigations and to develop the UDVL concept further. With a key future partnership in sight, the funding enabled us to hone our specialty in documenting attacks on educational facilities throughout Ukraine. We launched a major effort to identify these incidents throughout Severodonetsk Raion, which was at the center of a major Russian offensive at the time. Our work on damage to educational facilities has become significantly more sophisticated over time, and we are developing new methods to perform in-depth damage assessments and to visualize this information more effectively across the conflict zone, including through geospatial dashboards. These products should benefit humanitarians and education specialists that are looking to restore services on the ground, and we believe that these concepts may be applied beyond Ukraine and educational facilities, such as to medical facilities in conflict zones worldwide. The UDVL’s work on damage to educational facilities in Ukraine continues to this day, and we are looking forward to sharing some of our concepts in early 2023. 

Together with our investigations, the leadership team invested substantial effort into developing a strategy for the future of the UDVL at Fletcher, creating onboarding resources, new training materials, and running a successful recruitment drive that saw another cohort of 20 students join the Lab in the fall. We have spent a lot of time in discussions with prominent partners outside of Fletcher to envision future projects, partnerships, and opportunities for members of the UDVL in the future. Developing an engaging program of talks has been one element of this, and we are very much looking forward to a talk by a Bellingcat investigator in early February. During the fall, the UDVL’s Rapid Verification Team worked to respond to incidents quickly, delivering a Rapid Verification Report into the systematic destruction of bridges during the Russian retreat from Kherson in November. The Rapid Verification Team’s next report, which focuses on the use of Iranian drones by Russian forces to strike energy infrastructure, will be released shortly with the intention of publishing it in the media.

As we approach the first anniversary of the UDVL’s founding – and of the Russian invasion of Ukraine – we believe that two things are clear. Firstly, the Russian invasion has been a remarkable watershed moment for open-source intelligence in general. Numerous reputable media outlets, think tanks, government agencies, and NGOs have used OSINT to deliver powerful, world-class products that have changed the way we look at the war in Ukraine. Who could forget the horror of the video and satellite images of the Russian occupation of Bucha?

Secondly, we know that Fletcher students want and need these skills for the future. With minimal effort, we have consistently been able to recruit a UDVL cohort of considerable size, and we know that there is much wider interest in the Fletcher, Tufts, Harvard Kennedy School, and other IR and academic communities in the Greater Boston area. As OSINT practitioners, we know that these skills are increasingly important across a wide swathe of traditional Fletcher careers, such as international law, human rights, journalism, defense and intelligence, transitional justice, and tech. In our discussions with outside partners, we have heard time and time again about their desire for a ‘talent pipeline’ from Fletcher and from Boston with these skills. We firmly believe that OSINT skills should be considered essential by the Fletcher community, and we know from personal experience that it can make a crucial difference on the job market.

As the UDVL’s leader, I want to finish this blog post by articulating our vision for the future of OSINT at The Fletcher School, and I hope that you will join us in making it a reality.

In very simple terms, we want to make The Fletcher School the hub for open-source and geospatial intelligence in the Boston area. There are very few places in the United States that have the experience, skills, and connections that we do, and we see an enormous opportunity to establish a true center of excellence in the field right here at Fletcher, blending cutting-edge training with real-world, practical experience on cases of consequence. Through my experience co-directing the Cameroon Database of Atrocities (CDOA) at the University of Toronto, I know that this training and experiential learning process works exceptionally well. Our ‘graduates’ have secured jobs with Meta, defense agencies, NGOs, and an array of OSINT security firms. We want to take this model even further, becoming the ‘Center for Open-Source Intelligence’ at The Fletcher School, and creating a community of students, practitioners, and experts right here in Medford. We intend to work with outside organizations to develop a cutting-edge OSINT curriculum and world-class speaker series, and to provide students with outstanding investigations and opportunities that really matter. In OSINT, the best way to learn is by doing, and the Center for Open-Source Intelligence will provide our students with the chance to do that.

It is also important that the Center has an impact in the real-world, and I believe very passionately that The Fletcher School can make a meaningful difference by highlighting and exposing suffering and injustice in neglected conflicts worldwide, whether in Cameroon, Tigray, or Myanmar. We also be able to respond to the latest global flashpoint with ease.

I sincerely hope that we will be able to build something very special here at The Fletcher School. The Ukraine Digital Verification Lab was just the beginning.

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