GEOG 495 C: Special Topics

Winter 2023
M 10:00am - 11:20am / SIG 227
W 12:30pm - 1:20pm / MGH 030
Section Type:
Syllabus Description (from Canvas):

GEOG 495: Critical Remote Sensing

Winter 2023

This course meets Individuals & Societies [I&S] general education requirement.

Instructor: Dr Mia Bennett

Assistant Professor

Department of Geography


Office: Smith Hall 303F

Office Hours: Mondays, 11:30 am – 1:30 pm [in-person and on Zoom] and by appointment

Course Website:

PDF of syllabus

Class Schedule

  • Mondays 10:00 am – 11:20 am SIG 227
  • Wednesdays 12:30 – 1:20 pm MGH 030

This course is planned to be conducted in-person, except for when public health and university requirements necessitate that it be held online.

Course Description

This course integrates critique of remote sensing process with development of basic skills in remote sensing, emphasizing reflexivity, data literacy, and awareness of the politics and subjectivities of satellite imagery, data collection, analysis, and applications. Topics include history and ethics of remote sensing, visual aesthetics, spatial patterns and statistics, and change detection. Applications use Google Earth Pro and Google Earth Engine.

Course structure, objectives, and technologies

Meeting times

Mondays: We will our in-person time for lectures and discussions.

Wednesdays: We will use our in-person time for lectures, discussions, and occasionally, software demonstrations.

Learning Objectives

This course will enable students to:

  • Understand remote sensing as an art, science, and technique
  • Reflect upon the historical development of satellite imagery and its aesthetics
  • Understand the political economy and geopolitics of satellites
  • Critique the use of satellite imagery and develop critical data literacy skills
  • Perform basic remote sensing analysis in Google Earth Pro & Google Earth Engine
  • Comprehend, assess, and critique remote sensing reports and research in geography

Course readings

All readings will be posted to the Canvas page as PDFs or links. You will not need to purchase any books for this course. Please be sure to complete all readings before class, as we will spend time discussing them.

Course technologies

In this course we will be developing some technical skills in remote sensing using Google Earth Pro and Google Earth Engine. Google Earth Pro first is a free, desktop-based software program allowing visualization, assessmeny, overlay, and creation of geospatial data. It is available to download here: Google Earth Engine is a web-based a geospatial processing service that enables data-driven science. Please sign up for access at the bottom of the page here:

Classroom environment and learning

Diversity, equity and inclusion

The University of Washington supports an inclusive learning environment where diverse perspectives are recognized, respected, and seen as a source of strength. I am committed to creating a welcoming space where everyone feels included and engaged regardless of their social and cultural backgrounds. This course fosters a productive space where each and every one of you is contributing to our shared learning and progress.

Statement on Modes of Instruction for Geography Courses

The Department of Geography expects students to attend class in the mode of instruction [on-campus, distance learning, or hybrid] indicated in the quarterly Time Schedule. Students should plan to participate in all activities as described in each course syllabus. Please review your registration accordingly. For courses scheduled to meet on-campus, please note that remote learning accommodations may not be available, unless arranged through UW Disability Resources for Students [DRS].

Safe learning during COVID-19

The health and safety of students, faculty, postdocs, and staff are the University of Washington’s priority. To protect your fellow students, faculty, and staff, students who feel ill or exhibit possible COVID symptoms should not come to class. When absent, it is your responsibility to inform me in advance [or as close to the class period as possible in the case of an unexpected absence].

Face coverings are recommended per the UW COVID-19 Face Covering Policy.

Disability Accommodations

If we need to adapt aspects of the course to help you learn up to your potential, please make an appointment with me to discuss. The University of Washington is committed to providing access, equal opportunity and reasonable accommodation in its services, programs, activities, education and employment for individuals with disabilities. If you have already established accommodations with Disability Resources for Students [DRS], please communicate your approved accommodations to me at your earliest convenience so we can discuss your needs in this course. To request disability accommodation contact the Disability Resources for Students Office at: 206-543-8924 [Voice & Relay], or  I take such requests seriously and encourage you to schedule a time to meet privately with me to discuss what I can do to help you achieve your potential. 

Religious Accommodations

Washington state law requires that UW develop a policy for accommodation of student absences or significant hardship due to reasons of faith or conscience, or for organized religious activities. The UW’s policy, including more information about how to request an accommodation, is available at Faculty Syllabus Guidelines and Resources. Accommodations must be requested within the first two weeks of this course using the Religious Accommodations Request form available at

Student Care & Safety

It is important that you take care of yourselves inside and outside of class as you work through stress and other obstacles. There are many different support services on campus that can help, such as the Counseling Center, Hall Health, and the IMA. UW’s Student Care program can help you connect to these and other resources. Learn more and contact them directly:, , or 206.543.6085. If you are concerned about yourself or a friend who is struggling, SafeCampus is a helpful resource, which can be reached 24/7 at 206.685.7233.

UW Libraries Resource on Plagiarism Prevention: This useful guide for students is found at


Exercises: 50%

There are 5 exercises, each worth 10%, which are designed to help you implement the critical thinking and technical skills associated with topics we discuss. Each exercise will be introduced in class and will be turned in via Canvas. Your exercises will be graded in a timely manner so that you can assess your progress and determine where you are doing well and where you would like to improve your skills in step with the course’s progression.

Forum Posts: 10%

You will be asked to share your thoughts on the community forum at least twice during the quarter, though you are also welcome to share ideas, resources, or other information at any time! The two graded forum posts will be worth 5% each.

Final project: 30% [20% written report; 10% three-minute presentation]

The final project will be due at 5:00 PM Pacific Time on Wednesday, March 15, 2023 and will be submitted via Canvas. For your final project, you will be asked to write a 10-page essay in which you outline a satellite that you would like to design and launch. You will also present a three-minute “pitch” for the satellite to the class on the final day of the course. More details about the project will be forthcoming.

Participation: 10%

You are expected to come to class prepared, having done the relevant readings and exercises, and ready to actively engage, discuss, and share. There will regularly be in-class activities and discussions which will affect your participation grade, and which cannot be made up. An interactive class makes for a more fun and rewarding one for everyone! It is also important to note that participation and attendance are not the same thing. Being merely present is not equal to actively participating. While absence from time-to-time is understandable, if you find you are regularly missing class, please come talk to me.


You are expected to meet course deadlines. Since each week builds on the previous week’s material, it is crucial that you keep up with the lectures, readings, discussions, and assignments. You will receive a 10% deduction off the original grade you would have received for every 24 hours beyond the assignment’s deadline. 

At-a-Glance Schedule of Weekly Topics

Week & Dates




Assignment [2 forum posts + 5 exercises + Final Project]



SIG 227

SAV 117


1 | Jan 2 & 4

Introduction to remote sensing


Introductions & course overview and short intro to remote sensing: Electromagnetic Spectrum (VIA ZOOM)


Forum Post I: Thinking critically about satellite imagery – forum post and discussion

2 | Jan 9 & 11

Satellite worldviews

A brief history of Earth Observation & remote sensing


Satellite worldviews and ideas of planetarity


3 | Jan 16 & 18

Geopolitics of satellites




Satellite intelligence and its use by militaries (NO MEETING - CLASS WILL BE PRE-RECORDED ON ZOOM)

Exercise #1: Analyze and critique declassified satellite imagery  

4 | Jan 23 & 25


Land management from space

Land use and land cover analysis

Google Earth Engine demo I

Exercise #2: Classification exercise in Google Earth Engine


5 | Jan 30 & Feb 1


Satellite imagery and military/open-source intelligence [OSINT]

Military Intelligence and OSINT: Applications, Opportunities, Risks

OSINT: Google Earth Pro demo

Exercise #3: Google Earth Pro exercise: OSINT and very high-resolution [VHR] imagery

6 | Feb 6 & 8

Political economy of satellites

The military-digital complex

The commercialization of satellite imagery (Guest speaker Luis Alvarez León VIA ZOOM)

Exercise #4: 1000-word essay analyzing a commercial satellite firm

7 | Feb 13 & 15

Surveillance activism and counter RS

Surveillance activism

Counter remote sensing 


8 | Feb 20 & 22

Night lights


Night-light imagery: What does it see and what does it miss? // Google Earth Engine Demo II (VIA ZOOM)

Exercise #5: Google Earth Engine exercise II: Night-light imagery

9 | Feb 27 & Mar 1

The future of remote sensing

Guest speaker from Planet, Joe Mascaro

From new techniques to deepfakes, orbital debris, and emerging ground stations

Forum Post II: AI image generation of satellite image + short reflection

10 | Mar 6 & 8

Course conclusion

Class presentations: 3-minute pitches of your satellite

Class presentations: 3-minute pitches of your satellite


Finals Week



Due Wednesday, March 15 at 5:00 pm PT

Final project: Research paper proposing your own satellite



  1. Tempfli K, Kerle N, Huurneman GC, & Janssen LLF [2009]. Principles of Remote Sensing: An Introductory Textbook. 1, “Introduction to earth observation by remote sensing” [pp. 37-53].

  2. Belward, A. S. and Skøien, J. O. [2015]. Who launched what, when and why: Trends in global land-cover observation capacity from civilian Earth Observation satellites. ISPRS Journal of Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing103, 115-128.



  1. Litfin, K. T. [1997]. The gendered eye in the sky: A feminist perspective on Earth observation satellites. Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies18[2], 26-47.

  2. DeLoughrey, E. [2014]. Satellite planetarity and the ends of the Earth. Public Culture26[2], 257-280.

  3. Shim, D. [2014]. Remote sensing place: Satellite images as visual spatial imaginaries. Geoforum51, 152-160.



  1. Parks, L. [2001] Satellite views of Srebrenica: Tele-visuality and the politics of witnessing. Social Identities 7[4]: 585–611.

  2. Fish, A., & Richardson, M. [2022]. Drone Power: Conservation, Humanitarianism, Policing and War. Theory, Culture & Society39[3], 3-26.

  3. Philipps, D. [15 April 2022]. ‘The unseen scars of those who kill via remote control.’ New York Times.


  1. Carter, L. J. [1969]. Earth Resources Satellite: Finally off the Ground? Science163[3869], 796-798.

  2. Tellman, B., Sullivan, J. A., Kuhn, C., Kettner, A. J., Doyle, C. S., Brakenridge, G. R., ... & Slayback, D. A. (2021). Satellite imaging reveals increased proportion of population exposed to floods. Nature, 596(7870), 80-86.

  3. Robbins, P., & Maddock, T. [2000]. Interrogating land cover categories: Metaphor and method in remote sensing. Cartography and Geographic Information Science, 27[4], 295–309.


  1. Higgins, E. [2021]. We are Bellingcat: Global Crime, Online Sleuths, and the Bold Future of News. London: Bloomsbury.

  2. Limonier, K. [2022]. The war in Ukraine, open source investigation and the potential for “digital fieldwork” in geopolitics. Political Geography, 102733.

  3. Hawk, D. [2012]. The hidden gulag: The lives and voices of ‘those who are sent to the mountains.’


  1. Alvarez León, L. F. (2022). An emerging satellite ecosystem and the changing political economy of remote sensing. In J. Goldstein & E. Nost (Eds.), The nature of data: Infrastructures, environments, politics (pp. 71–102). University of Nebraska Press.

  2. Kopacz, J. R., Herschitz, R., & Roney, J. [2020]. Small satellites: An overview and assessment. Acta Astronautica170, 93-105.

  3. Scoles, S. [2018, Feb. 8]. How the government controls sensitive satellite data.

  4. Morrison, J. [2021]. Satellite imagery is not becoming a commodity (blog post).

  5. [2010]. Washington Post investigation reveals military digital complex.


  1. Aday S and Livingston S [2009] NGOs as intelligence agencies: The empowerment of transnational advocacy networks and the media by commercial remote sensing in the case of the Iranian nuclear program. Geoforum 40[4]: 514–522.

  2. Paneque-Gálvez J, Vargas-Ramírez N, Napoletano BM & Cummings A [2017] Grassroots innovation using drones for indigenous mapping and monitoring. Land6[4], 86.

  3. Adams, W. M. [2019]. Geographies of conservation II: Technology, surveillance and conservation by algorithm. Progress in Human Geography43[2], 337-350.


  1. Levin, N., Kyba, C. C., Zhang, Q., de Miguel, A. S., Román, M. O., Li, X., ... & Elvidge, C. D. [2020]. Remote sensing of night lights: A review and an outlook for the future. Remote Sensing of Environment237, 111443.

  2. Hodler, R., & Raschky, P. A. [2014]. Regional favoritism. The Quarterly Journal of Economics129[2], 995-1033.


  1. Zhao, B., Zhang, S., Xu, C., Sun, Y., & Deng, C. [2021]. Deep fake geography? When geospatial data encounter Artificial Intelligence. Cartography and Geographic Information Science48[4], 338-352.

  2. Erdbrink, T & Anderson, C [2021] In Sweden’s far north, a space complex takes shape. New York Times, 23 May. Available at:

  3. Venkatesan, A., Lowenthal, J., Prem, P., & Vidaurri, M. [2020]. The impact of satellite constellations on space as an ancestral global commons. Nature Astronomy4[11], 1043-1048.


WEEK 10 

Three-minute class presentations

Catalog Description:
Topics vary and are announced in the preceding quarter. Offered: AWSpS.
GE Requirements Met:
Social Sciences (SSc)
Last updated:
May 24, 2024 - 3:28 pm