Using night light to evaluate global economic wellbeing

Helping identify areas across the globe most in need of aid and infrastructure.

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It is well established that nighttime radiance, measured from satellites, correlates with economic prosperity across the globe. In developing countries, areas with low levels of detected radiance generally indicate limited development – with unlit areas typically being disregarded.

However, by combining satellite images of unlit infrastructure with other international data, UC Professor of Statistics Elena Moltchanova presented a complementary approach to estimate economic wellbeing that also aligns with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

Professor Moltchanova said, “Previous research into the correlation between nighttime light and wellbeing tended to concentrate specifically on the lit areas and the amount of light they produced. However, we have found that it works just as well – or even better – for the unlit ones, which are arguably the ones most in need of such scrutiny due to being the poorest.”

Scientists, in this study, refocused on the percent of unlit infrastructure and combined it with the world settlement footprint. They found that 19% of the total settlement footprint had no detectable artificial radiance associated with it, with Africa and Asia comprising most of this area. Their method allows them to use the percentage of unlit areas to estimate the corresponding economic wellbeing with an average accuracy of 86%.

Professor Moltchanova said, “This approach can also be used to monitor the progress on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, which specifically include access to affordable, reliable, sustainable, and modern energy for all.”

For this study, scientists used global earth observation systems to address problems of global importance.

Professor Moltchanova says“electrification holds great promise for increasing wellbeing, via off-grid power generation or grid electrification with significant positive impacts on household income, expenditure, health, and education.”

“Many poorer areas do not have access to electricity, which means, among other things, using peat, wood, or coal for cooking and heat houses, leading to multiple health issues. It means not having access to computers and phones, which we take for granted, and not having access to medical equipment, which again requires electricity. So, for the poorer areas, it is important to electrify.”

“The long-term goal is to apply these methods to data collected at reasonable time intervals, such as a yearly time series, to identify trends which could help to specifically target rural settlements in developing countries in need of electrification.”

Journal Reference:

  1. Ian McCallum et al. Estimating global economic wellbeing with unlit settlements. Nature Communications. DOI: 10.1038/s41467-022-30099-9