A Decade of Economic Development Seen From Space

How It Works
March 3 2014 4:32 PM

All of the Lights

africalights

Graphic created by Maxim Pinkovskiy and Xavier Sala-i-Martinfrom NOAA satellite photos. Originally published at VoxEu.org.

You’ve likely seen images online, including here at Slate, showing the stark visual difference between North and South Korea as seen at night. But that's hardly the only place where you can pick up interesting clues from nighttime visuals—and some economists even argue that light can be used as a proxy for measuring economic development.

In a recent NBER working paper (summary here), Maxim Pinkovskiy of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and Xavier Sal-i-Martin of Columbia University used luminosity as measured by NOAA weather sattelites as an “independent measurement of true income.”

Advertisement

The comparison above shows a decade of change in sub-Saharan Africa. Angola (the third country from the bottom on the west coast) has many more lights in 2009 than in 2000, as you might expect from a country whose GDP per capita has nearly doubled. Zimbabwe, on the other hand, “has fewer lights, because of its economic collapse under the disastrous hyperinflationary policies of Robert Mugabe.”

The map below shows 16 years of development in India:

indialights

Graphic created by Maxim Pinkovskiy and Xavier Sala-i-Martinfrom NOAA satellite photos. Originally published at VoxEu.org.

Pinkovskiy and Sala-i-Martin have been arguing for some time that poverty in the developing world—articularly in sub-Saharan Africa—is falling much faster than most official estimates. Not everyone is convinced by their research.The light data probably isn’t conclusive enough to put the debate to bed, which isn't to say I wouldn't want to see more of it.

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and writes the World blog. 

TODAY IN SLATE

War Stories

The Right Target

Why Obama’s airstrikes against ISIS may be more effective than people expect.

Why Is This Mother in Prison for Helping Her Daughter Get an Abortion?

The XX Factor
Sept. 23 2014 11:13 AM Why Is This Mother in Prison for Helping Her Daughter Get an Abortion?

Divestment Is Fine but Mostly Symbolic. There’s a Better Way for Universities to Fight Climate Change.

I Stand With Emma Watson on Women’s Rights

Even though I know I’m going to get flak for it.

It Is Very Stupid to Compare Hope Solo to Ray Rice

Building a Better Workplace

In Defense of HR

Startups and small businesses shouldn’t skip over a human resources department.

It’s Legal for Obama to Bomb Syria Because He Says It Is

How Ted Cruz and Scott Brown Misunderstand What It Means to Be an American Citizen

  News & Politics
War Stories
Sept. 23 2014 4:04 PM The Right Target Why Obama’s airstrikes against ISIS may be more effective than people expect.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 23 2014 2:08 PM Home Depot’s Former Lead Security Engineer Had a Legacy of Sabotage
  Life
Outward
Sept. 23 2014 1:57 PM Would a Second Sarkozy Presidency End Marriage Equality in France?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 23 2014 2:32 PM Politico Asks: Why Is Gabby Giffords So “Ruthless” on Gun Control?
  Slate Plus
Political Gabfest
Sept. 23 2014 3:04 PM Chicago Gabfest How to get your tickets before anyone else.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 23 2014 4:33 PM Stop Throwing Your Vegetable Trimmings Away
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 23 2014 1:50 PM Oh, the Futility! Frogs Try to Catch Worms off of an iPhone Video.
  Health & Science
Science
Sept. 23 2014 4:33 PM Who Deserves Those 4 Inches of Airplane Seat Space? An investigation into the economics of reclining.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.