Research Article

Combining satellite imagery and machine learning to predict poverty

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Science  19 Aug 2016:
Vol. 353, Issue 6301, pp. 790-794
DOI: 10.1126/science.aaf7894

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Measuring consumption and wealth remotely

Nighttime lighting is a rough proxy for economic wealth, and nighttime maps of the world show that many developing countries are sparsely illuminated. Jean et al. combined nighttime maps with high-resolution daytime satellite images (see the Perspective by Blumenstock). With a bit of machine-learning wizardry, the combined images can be converted into accurate estimates of household consumption and assets, both of which are hard to measure in poorer countries. Furthermore, the night- and day-time data are publicly available and nonproprietary.

Science, this issue p. 790; see also p. 753

Abstract

Reliable data on economic livelihoods remain scarce in the developing world, hampering efforts to study these outcomes and to design policies that improve them. Here we demonstrate an accurate, inexpensive, and scalable method for estimating consumption expenditure and asset wealth from high-resolution satellite imagery. Using survey and satellite data from five African countries—Nigeria, Tanzania, Uganda, Malawi, and Rwanda—we show how a convolutional neural network can be trained to identify image features that can explain up to 75% of the variation in local-level economic outcomes. Our method, which requires only publicly available data, could transform efforts to track and target poverty in developing countries. It also demonstrates how powerful machine learning techniques can be applied in a setting with limited training data, suggesting broad potential application across many scientific domains.

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