Lights over Ukraine: The Energy War

Entry type: Single project

Country/area: United Kingdom

Publishing organisation: Sky News

Organisation size: Big

Publication date: 2022-12-23

Language: English

Authors: Kieran Devine
Ben van der Merwe


Kieran Devine is a journalist in Sky News’ Data and Forensics Unit, specialising in developing open source intelligence stories from across the globe.

Ben van der Merwe is a journalist in Sky News’ Data and Forensics Unit, specialising in data journalism.

Project description:

After Russia began a coordinated attack on Ukraine’s civilian energy infrastructure in October, Ukraine imposed an information blackout.

To get around this, and understand how this energy war was being waged, we conducted a detailed analysis of NASA satellite data on night-time light levels. This was combined with expert interviews and OSINT analysis.

Together, these elements allowed us to piece together a story about Russian strategy (the deliberate targeting of transformers), Ukraine’s response and the current balance of forces.

Impact reached:

The project was published online and in the form of a television package, giving it a broad reach. It was shared widely on social media, including by the prominent Ukraine-focused Euromaidan Press account, receiving hundreds of thousands of views. The YouTube upload of the television package currently has 129,000 views. We received positive feedback from both our audience and our interviewees, including the NASA employee in charge of the data that we used.

Techniques/technologies used:

1. To understand the impact of Russian strikes on Ukraine’s grid, in the absence of official data on energy output and transmission, we used nighttime satellite data from NASA. Following discussions with NASA, we decided to do further post-processing on the data, which required the use of QGIS and R. This allowed us to reformat the data as a rolling average, remove poor-quality data and fill in the missing data. This was then visualised both as line charts (in Flourish) and as maps (in QGIS).

2. We also wanted to the tell the story of particular strikes, and connect them to the effects seen in the satellite data. That meant collating and verifying (or re-verifying) videos of attacks using OSINT techniques, and obtaining high-resolution satellite images of the aftermath.

3. We wanted to present the story as a scrolly, containing map sequences. Various constraints made it impossible for us to use Mapbox or similar software. As an alternative, we used Shorthand, adding in a scroll-responsive video sequence via Javascript.

4. Another aspect that was new to us was the use of Open Street Map’s API to gather shapefiles for Ukraine’s energy infrastructure. This highly detailed data allowed us to think through the logic of Russia’s attacks, and to illustrate it to our audience. The data included power lines of various voltages, power plants, substations and transformers.

Context about the project:

Due to holiday commitments and the necessity of releasing the story before Christmas, the timetable for producing it was extremely tight. The story was conceived in October, but we weren’t able to start work in earnest until late November. This included work on the satellite data. We had never worked with data of that format, and had had very limited exposure to QGIS.

As mentioned, we were unable to use Mapbox for the mapping sequences due to various constraints.

What can other journalists learn from this project?

This project demonstrates the potential usefulness of satellite imagery as a source of data, rather than simply imagery. Our analysis would not have had the force it did had we not transformed the imagery into numeric data and analysed it as such. Night-time light analyses could be useful for future news stories about civil unrest, war, economic collapse or natural disaster.

This project also demonstrates the potential for combining data with OSINT techniques, and the importance of traditional journalism techniques such as expert interviews. Without these two aspects, we would not have been able to present a convincing account of Russian strategy, and therefore would not have shown quite as clearly how deliberate the targeting of Ukraine’s civilian energy infrastructure is.

Project links: