“Particularly now, people are hungry to know what’s happening. We have a perfect view of one aspect of this crisis,” Stephen Wood, a senior director at Earth-imaging company Maxar, told POLITICO. “We feel compelled to get this information out.”
The Colorado-based Maxar operates four satellites which can collect 3 million square kilometers of high resolution images around the globe every day. The imagery is typically provided to a wide variety of customers and used for a variety of purposes ranging defense and intelligence to urban development and mapping.
The recent images are just a snapshot — and by definition an incomplete one. They do not offer any empirical data on exactly how many schools or restaurants have been closed, families that are resisting the temptation of recreational outings, or companies’ ordering their employees to telework.
And there are clearly gaps in the data. For example, Wood said images of Miami Beach and Paris, where there has been public demonstrations despite the coronavirus warnings, have not been available in recent days due to cloud cover.
But the satellites do provide clear visual evidence that unprecedented numbers of people are staying away from each other — the single most important countermeasure that health officials say can slow the spread and ultimately help defeat the virus.
Over the past week only a handful of visitors can be seen at the Praça do Comércio, a square in Lisbon, Portugal, the park surrounding the Statue of Liberty in New York City and the Duomo cathedral in Milan, Italy.
The photos also show some of the economic impact. One depicts a rental car lot at the Phoenix airpot. On March 5, prior to reduced air travel driven to coronavirus, the lot is two-thirds empty, with many of the cars rented by travelers. On March 16, the lot is full.
Wood said he hopes the images will inspire others to take the social distancing measures more seriously.
“That’s the benefit of being able to see large areas in one glance with a satellite or aerial view,” he said. “You get a sense of the scope and magnitude of this. Maybe people will become a bit more aware and take it a little more seriously.”