Atlas of the Human Planet: Free GIS Data and Tools

Mark Altaweel


The Atlas of the Human Planet 2020 is the most recent global atlas that provides geoinformation for research, policy, and action that can be used to document the presence of humanity on Earth. This forms a key effort of the Global Human Settlement Layer (GHSL) that has updated the earlier Atlas of the Human Planet, such as the one from 2019.

Downloading Geospatial Data from the Atlas of the Human Planet

Data and tools can be downloaded from the GHSL and Atlas. The intent is to provide data for disaster risk reduction and crisis management related to environmental problems, urbanization, and aid in the effort for sustainable development.

Members of the Group of Earth Observation (GEO) Human Planet Initiative, including the European Commission (EC), various international organisations such as the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the World Bank, private sector, and academic institutions have contributed data used for the initiative.

The Atlas of the Human Planet 2020 has an interface for downloading free GIS data produced by the Global Human Settlement Layer.  Screenshot from  Atlas of the Human Planet.
The Atlas of the Human Planet 2020 has an interface for downloading free GIS data produced by the Global Human Settlement Layer. Screenshot from Atlas of the Human Planet.

The data are made open and free, enabling policy recommendations for different domains to facilitate decision-making to benefit the Earth. A key goal is to encourage and enable governments to make better policy decisions that affect the planet by making relevant data easily available, while also enabling research on human activity to be more easily done.[1]

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As the Atlas is based on the GHSL, the data used incorporate a variety of data that include global- and continental-scale satellite data, fine-scale imagery, census data, and volunteered geographic information, including those provided by the various institutions involved.

The GHSL is an European Union (EU) initiative, with the initial intent trying to make data more transparent as it was creating a platform to aid with its decision-making and policies affecting its members. The information is intended to be objective, with a focus on how humanity is changing the planet, focusing on population and built-up infrastructure that is created around the world.

A key measure of success is how policy has been affected by the GHSL and Atlas. Since the launch of this initiative, the EU regional urban policy has been shaped by available data and four post-2015 international frameworks and types of agreements have been affected and shaped by results, which include: the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, Sustainable Development Goals, Climate Change Agreements, and the Global Urban Agenda. Bilateral agreements with different space agencies have also been created to facilitate data transfer and sharing, including with Brazil, China, and South Africa.[2]

Long Term Goal of the Atlas of the Human Planet

There are some longer-term goals that the GHSL and Atlas would like to accomplish, particularly as future datasets are brought in.

For instance, in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, there is a goal to better define cities, towns and semi-dense areas, and rural regions. Current definitions in countries are unclear or different. With different degrees of definitions, policy published focusing on different forms of human settlement could be interpreted differently.

The idea is to also create zones around these defined regions so that policies can be better focused for areas. Additionally, by standardising definitions, and by extension data collection, this can make the data collection methods more cost effective.

Existing data, such as household surveys that countries undertake, are often aggregated by the degree of urbanisation. The three classes that are proposed, that is the urban, semi-urban, and rural regions, can better represent population data within the urban-rural continuum. Distortions created by the variable size of statistical and administrative units used in current surveys could also be more easily corrected for.

With more clear definitions, data also become more globally comparable and the spatial association of people in these divides can be more easily investigated. Current methods, for instance, use lighting at night from imagery to divide populations in these three zones. If survey data were already classified the use and dependence on such a proxy is not needed.

Different population sizes and densities in relation to services and infrastructure could also be better understood. Recently, the United Nations has endorsed this update in better classifying data captured from member states.[3]

With the recent change in the US government, it might be interesting to watch how the US government now will engage with this EU initiative and if policies will be affected by the use of data sharing initiatives such as the Atlas. Potentially, policies and data supported by the Atlas could become part of officially supported data by the US government, which could then certify its use for policy-making in different levels of government.

While this is unclear, certainly a big goal is to have the data shape international government policies as efforts to push for more sustainable development gain traction, particularly as countries try to meet their Paris Agreement targets for Climate Change policies and actions. 


[1]    For more on the Atlas of the Human Planet initiative, see: Relevant data and tools for the initiative can be found here:

[2]    For more background on GHSL, see:

[3]    For more on how updates to statistical definitions and data capture of urban-rural regions could benefit policy and research, see:


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About the author
Mark Altaweel
Mark Altaweel is a Reader in Near Eastern Archaeology at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London, having held previous appointments and joint appointments at the University of Chicago, University of Alaska, and Argonne National Laboratory. Mark has an undergraduate degree in Anthropology and Masters and PhD degrees from the University of Chicago’s Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations.