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Tracking light from space: Innovative ways to measure economic development

Megha Mukim's picture

  

One of the most common challenges in economic development is collecting comparable data. The information age is changing that as the diffusion of information technology meets changes in institutional attitudes toward data sharing. New capabilities are meeting old capabilities on our desktop computers and it is leading to some bright ideas in how to measure and evaluate economic development.

The first that comes to mind is nighttime lights imagery – colloquially referred to as nightlight data. Nightlight refers to light resulting from human activity visible from outer space at night.  Astronomers call it light pollution. This is pretty accurate since nightlight is the waste by-product when humans use of energy that is emitted or reflected straight up into the sky – these could be city lights, car headlights, fires, etc.

Bright Lights, Big Cities

Mark Roberts's picture

Delhi night-time lights data imageIf you visit the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., one of the exhibits you’ll come across is a map of the Earth, which shows lights detected by satellites at night. With even a cursory look, it’s clear the lights pick out spatial patterns of urban and economic development.  Look at the USA, and you see the coasts are brightly lit, whereas the country’s interior is much less so.  Look at the Korea peninsula and you see that whilst South Korea is almost ablaze with light, the North is noteworthy for its almost complete absence of light.

The potential ability of night-time lights imagery to detect spatial patterns of urban and economic development has been known in the remote sensing community since the late 1970s.  However, it has only recently been brought to the attention of economists following a paper by Vernon Henderson, Adam Storeygard and David Weil entitled “Measuring Economic Growth from Outer Space.”  This paper alerted economists to the strong correlation between a country’s rate of GDP growth and the growth in intensity of its night-time lights, and the fact that the lights represent (for economists) a relatively untapped dataset with global coverage and a time-series dating back more than twenty years.

Peak Waste and Poverty – A Powerful Paradox

Dan Hoornweg's picture

Urbanization is the most powerful force shaping the planet today. This can be good news as urbanization is the best bet we have to meet our global poverty reduction targets. Cities generate our wealth, our culture, and our innovation. This is also bad news since cities generate the lion’s share of the world’s GHG emissions, and cities are responsible for most of the planet’s current decline in biodiversity. Cities also generate solid waste; lots of it and the amount is growing fast.

‘Peak waste’ – that point in time when all the waste from all the cities finally plateaus around the world, and then slowly starts to decline, is not on track to happen this century. Estimates are that it will peak at three-times today’s current waste generation rate. Peak waste is an excellent proxy for humanity’s cumulative global environmental impact; therefore we are on track to triple today’s overall global environmental impact. Our ‘assault on the planet’ will start to subside on the other side of peak waste. Therefore we must move peak waste forward and reduce its intensity when it finally does arrive.

Cities on the Move

Megha Mukim's picture

Thoughts on urban growth from Kiel to Nairobi

I’m writing at the end of a long, dusty mission, after numerous plane, train and car journeys. In fact, 1/7th of my time has been spent on being transported from one city to the next; this gave me plenty of time to marvel at the diversity in city structures.

The first stop was Kiel, Germany, where I spent a few hurried days with academics, government officials, private companies and journalists, discussing solutions for pressing problems in trade and clusters and their impact on poverty and inequality. A city of around 280,000 residents, Kiel is small, about as dense as Dublin, and well-linked with the rest of Germany and Europe. It is one of multiple core-municipalities that form a system of cities around Hamburg along with Lübeck, Bremen etc. The train from the airport was relatively painless, and travel within Kiel (to shop for fresh bread and herring) consisted mostly of short walks.

Cities don’t shutdown

Debra Lam's picture

Welcome to the first US government shutdown in 17 years. Yes, we have experienced this before, but it is still shocking. Over 800,000 workers have been furloughed. The Lincoln Memorial, Smithsonian museums, along with over 400 federal parks and monuments are closed, forcing people to alter their holidays. Most of our space program has been put on hold, and the long-term socio-economic costs have yet to be calculated (partially because the people who could collect that data are out of commission). One thing is clear, the longer the shutdown continues, the bigger the impact becomes.

Most of the global community views the US shutdown with a “mixture of bewilderment and growing nervousness”.  Some are amazed in a positive way. Chinese netizens are in awe that the entire country is not paralyzed in anarchic chaos.  However, what the Chinese haven’t accounted for is the strength and importance of the local government.

What Does the Fox Say? Top Ten Ideas From City Fox

Dan Hoornweg's picture

Chances are by now you’ve seen the video ‘What Does the Fox Say?’ The Ylvis brothers developed a catchy music video starting in Norway and spreading like a wild fire across the planet, jumping from city to city. In less than a week 15 million people watched the fox dance and try to make his case
 
Videos and other social media are emerging as one of the most powerful forces shaping countries and cities. For example, Oscar Morales and his Facebook campaign to ban FARC in Colombia, the Arab Spring, and Toronto’s recent police shootings and earlier G20 beatings (video taped and shared widely – police charged and convicted).
 
Many of us may think of the more urban mammals like a cow or two, raccoons, squirrels, rats, feral dogs and cats, but when it comes to cities, the fox has a lot to say. Here are a few of his likely comments on cities.

Insights from the Urban “Oscars”

Stephen Hammer's picture

Boris Johnson, Mayor of LondonIt had all the trappings of a major awards ceremony; a “green carpet” (of actual grass), a scrum of paparazzi chasing the celebrities (in this case, the mayors) entering the building, a laser light show, and a striking (and heavy) trophy for the award winners.

The City Climate Leadership Awards held at the Siemens Crystal building in London on Thursday, September 4th, brought together a “who’s who” of urban experts to recognize cities leading the way in urban climate change governance and performance. Sponsored by the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group and Siemens, the ten award winners were:

  • Bogota’s Transmilenio bus rapid transit system
  • Copenhagen’s plan to make the entire city carbon neutral by 2025
  • Melbourne’s energy efficient buildings finance initiative
  • Mexico City’s ProAire program, which has dramatically improved local air quality
  • Munich’s 100% Green Power program
  • New York City’s Climate Adaptation and Resilience strategy
  • Rio de Janeiro’s Morar Carioca Urban Revitalization strategy
  • San Francisco’s Zero Waste program
  • Singapore’s Intelligent Transport system
  • Tokyo’s cap & trade scheme

Why a City’s Not a Duck

Dan Hoornweg's picture

Ducks in a row


Up north on the lake, every year near our cabin, we see a pair of nesting ducks. We call her Mrs. Merganser as she leads her 8 to 16 ducklings around the lake. There’s a Mr. Merganser too, but truth be told, he seems a bit of a slacker in the childcare department.

The ducks make an annual migration of a few thousand kilometers, splitting their time between the northern lake, southern retreat, and a couple months on the road. The birds are transient.

George Washington and Land Readjustment

Chandan Deuskar's picture

George Washington, Land SurveyorAs the world urbanizes, acquiring land for urban development has become a critical challenge. In China, some estimate that there are as many as 500 land-related protests, riots and strikes per day, making land acquisition one of the greatest threats to the country’s political stability. Indian policy makers are struggling to devise regulations to ease the acquisition of land for the vast amounts of infrastructure and housing the country needs, while avoiding the disruption and displacement that has gone alongside land acquisition in the past. In response to these challenges, there is a renewed interest among urban planners around the world in “land pooling and readjustment”, a mode of land acquisition for urban development. As it happens, this approach appears to have been first used by none other than George Washington, in order to assemble the land he needed to build the US capital city.

Geothermal Energy

Jessica Stewart's picture

For years, the thermal energy beneath the surface of the Earth has been used for many things. Bathing, agriculture, aquaculture, industrial or heating purposes, or even to generate power; the results are often impressive. The Earth’s structure radiates a constant flow of thermal energy outwards to the crust. This phenomenon is a natural, renewable source of heat which provides a substantial contribution to the mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions.

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