Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The value of luminosity data as a proxy for socio-economic data

Many countries in the developing world lack reliable economic statistics, hampering economic policy-making efforts. In a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the US, Xi Chen and William Nordhaus explored the usefulness of an intuitive, yet little-known metric as a proxy for economic development: nighttime luminosity, the intensity of nighttime lights such as the slowly brightening lights.

This study proposed a method and then implemented it for the question of whether nighttime luminosity measures could be used to improve estimates of output at the regional level. The tests are particularly aimed at countries and sub national regions with low-quality data systems. Moreover, this study concludes that luminosity is likely to add value as proxy for economic output and wellbeing in countries with poor data and statistical systems.

In the developing countries, particularly Africa, I think nighttime luminosity could also be used as a proxy for evaluating state capacity to deliver social services and infrastructure. More importantly, in Africa one could use luminosity to identify geographic patterns of political patronage and regional inequality. This is especially relevant for sub Saharan Africa where ethnicity and political whim guides infrastructure investment.

So my sense is that for Africa, you could deploy luminosity to construct insightful questions around governance capacity and structural or political inequality. Development partners could use this data to get a sense of the critical investment pathways at national and sub national levels.

Where luminosity data is available at high spatial resolution the data could be used to construct the Human Footprint and Human Influence Index. This is critical in understanding generally, our ecological footprint, and maybe spatial patterns of ecological or ecosystem service deficits at a global level.

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