Satellite images reveal global poverty

January 7, 2019, Aarhus University
Landscape with cottages and exploited areas in Kenya. Credit: Gary Watmough

How far have nations come in achieving the U.N.'s sustainable development goals? It can be difficult to make a global assessment of poverty and poor economic conditions, but with an eye in the sky, researchers are able to provide a good hint of the living conditions of populations in the world's poor countries.

If we are to achieve the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals, to which 93 member countries are signatories, it is particularly important to track the living conditions in poor nations around the world where the future population growth is highest. Researchers from Aarhus University, Denmark, recently found that high resolution satellite data can be used to map economic living conditions down to a household level, findings that are published in PNAS today.

"Based on , we can very precisely assess the status of poverty at household level in in developing countries," says Professor Jens-Christian Svenning from the Department of Bioscience, Aarhus University, who heads the the research group in Aarhus.

And this is good news for compliance with the ambitious development agenda that the world's heads of state and government adopted at the U.N. Summit in New York in 2015. The goals came into force on 1 January 2016, and will continue until 2030 in setting a course for more sustainable development to the benefit of global populations and the planet.

Cheap monitoring of the conditions in poor countries

In an in Kenya, the researchers measured, among other things, the size of buildings and areas of uncultivated soil and the length of the growing season on a number of family run farms. The images also reveal how people use the landscape around their homes and how this changes over time. In their study, the researchers show that a thorough analysis of satellite images can explain 62 percent of the variation in the economic conditions of the individual households.

On satellite images, researchers can identify the smallest details in specific areas, including the size of the cottages, a decisive indicator of the living standard in the area. The images also reveal how the surrounding areas are exploited -- for example for animal grazing, growing of crops or gathering firewood. Credit: Gary Watmough

As satellite images are relatively cheap and increasingly freely available, the study demonstrates that space-based monitoring is a cost-effective method to track socio-economic development as a supplement to expensive household surveys with interviews. In particular, the use of makes it possible to analyse the economic development at much greater geographical scale and with a high temporal frequency.

"The use of satellite images makes it much, much cheaper to keep track of how far we are in reaching the U.N.'s goals for sustainable development. If conventional assessments of the households' economic were used, the cost would be more than $250 billion," says Gary R. Watmough, who headed the recently published investigation and is now employed at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland.

The area of exploited fields in Kenya may be small and varies from year to year. Credit: Gary Watmough

Space technology and satellite-based data collection are promising for effective monitoring of living standards in large global areas. And the hope is that the developed methodology can ensure a better and more targeted effort against poverty throughout the world.

"The method that we have developed is designed to analyse the images in a way that takes into account that people have access to and use different resources in the landscape at different levels. Some use the area just around their house, while others use the common areas of a village. When we use space data with a socio-ecological insight, we capture the financial status, and in this way, also the in an area much better than we have previously been able to," says Jens-Christian Svenning.

Explore further: Satellites can advance sustainable development by highlighting poverty

More information: Gary R. Watmough el al., Socioecologically informed use of remote sensing data to predict rural household poverty, PNAS (2018).

Related Stories

A new indicator of human development at subnational level

June 6, 2018

The Human Development Index, published each year by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), is the world's most famous indicator of the level of development of societies. It shows for almost all countries in the world ...

Mobile phone and satellite data to map poverty

February 7, 2017

An international team has, for the first time, developed a way of combining anonymised data from mobile phones and satellite imagery data to create high resolution maps to measure poverty.

Half the world's poor are children

June 2, 2017

New Oxford University research on global poverty reveals the extent of the challenges facing the UN's new Sustainable Development Goals for the eradication of child poverty.

Recommended for you

Researchers make coldest quantum gas of molecules

February 21, 2019

JILA researchers have made a long-lived, record-cold gas of molecules that follow the wave patterns of quantum mechanics instead of the strictly particle nature of ordinary classical physics. The creation of this gas boosts ...

Sculpting stable structures in pure liquids

February 21, 2019

Oscillating flow and light pulses can be used to create reconfigurable architecture in liquid crystals. Materials scientists can carefully engineer concerted microfluidic flows and localized optothermal fields to achieve ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

1 / 5 (1) Jan 07, 2019
RELY on Solar Panels.
SpaceX has moved Solar Panels away from Wings for the first time. How come none of the Vehicles on the Road do not have Solar Panels?
not rated yet Jan 07, 2019
I'm not terribly sure what that has to do with the article, but the change from unfolding to conformal photovoltaic arrays is hardly new. JAXA's own H-II Transfer Vehicle already long mounted them that way.

Though the reason photovoltaics (or any kind of Solar energy) remain unused on production automobiles is because they're really terrible for such an application. They don't produce much electricity on a good day, and overcoming this limitation requires an increase in surface area that's detrimental to the performance of a car.

You have to remember that, typically, the Solar panels on spacecraft 1. Have absolutely nothing to do with propulsion beyond horrifyingly low thrust electric drives and 2. Receive more Solar energy than panels on Earth courtesy of their being outside the atmosphere.
not rated yet Jan 10, 2019
"Satellite images reveal global poverty"

-should read

'Satellite images reveal global overpopulation driven by obsolete, virulent, caustic, violent, religionist cultures'. And approach the problem with the intent of destroying them by whatever means necessary.

Fortunately this is exactly what is taking place.
Da Schneib
1 / 5 (1) Jan 10, 2019
I will point out that this methodology has its own inbuilt biases.

For example, it doesn't work well where people have the ability to work at home and get a high salary.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.