Satellite Imagery Provides Insights to Global Questions and Changes the Data Landscape

Zachary Romano


Satellite imagery is currently changing the landscape for data-driven policies and solutions to corporate businesses. Previously, only the world’s wealthiest nations could afford satellite imagery technology and oftentimes they would be heavy, over-sized pieces of equipment. At present, companies such as Planet Labs, Inc. of San Francisco and BlackSky Global of Seattle have shoe-box size cameras that orbit Earth in about 90 minutes while continuously snapping photos, all day, every day. The abundance of potential information is enormous and, as market strategist Nicholas Colas points out, this has the potential to be a “real game-changer” and could “remake the whole stock and economic research industry.”

Imagine being able to study the world on the same scale as studying a cell through a microscope. Anyone who wishes to understand the world at this level, like Fortune 500 companies, major banks, national governments, and global non-profits, now have the ability to harness this macro view of the world and extrapolate information. Pavel Machalek, CEO of San Francisco-based SpaceKnow Inc., exemplifies how this has already generated new strategies for data analysis. He developed a production index for over 6,000 Chinese industrial facilities by tracking the number of trucks in their parking lots. Using the total number of trucks per day as a proxy for economic activity, he suggested that China’s manufacturing index was 46.9 while the government’s figure stood at 50.2, and anything over 50 implies expansion.

Spaceknow tracks manufacturing activity for over 6,000 industrial facilities in China using its "Satellite Manufacturing Index" (SMI) proprietary algorithms.  Map: Spaceknow.
Spaceknow tracks manufacturing activity for over 6,000 industrial facilities in China using its “Satellite Manufacturing Index” (SMI) proprietary algorithms. Map: Spaceknow.

Data extracted from satellite images have also been helpful for tracking everything from the number of customers at retail and restaurant chains to tracking the rates of deforestation. Light pollution has also been used as a proxy for economic activity across the world and acted as a way of measuring poverty. The World Bank has estimated global poverty at around 30%, while Columbia University professor Xavier Sala-i-Martin states that satellite imagery of light pollution suggests it may only be around 6%. Similarly, researchers have looked at the increase in metal roofs and new structures in Nairobi, Kenya as a means of estimating economic development. Although these findings are intriguing and unique, the ability to verify a proposed methodology becomes difficult. The number of vehicles in a Wal-Mart parking lot, for example, may indicate level of transactions or customers, but this information says nothing about how much money these consumers spent.

Many in the field explain that satellite imagery data should ideally be used to supplement pre-existing methods. Current data analytic techniques trace as far back as the 1940s while satellite data can be generated immediately and processed for use within days. Satellite images are absolutely not a substitute for boots-on-the-ground data acquisition, says lead World Bank economist Andrew Dabalen, but they can help to provide generalized inferences on a large scale. Perhaps this is why the U.S. government has sharply rejected their willingness to adopt the use of such analytical methods while Wall Street seems to be open to satellite imagery and the global insights it can provide. As this industry continues to attract investor dollars and academic attention, the world may start to see a shift in both data techniques and the level of global transparency.

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Learn more:  Satellite Images Show Economies Growing and Shrinking in Real Time: Cheap orbiting cameras and big-data software reveal hidden secrets of life down below – Bloomberg News, July 8, 2015

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About the author
Zachary Romano
Zachary Romano is a recent graduate from Brandeis University and an aspiring researcher in urban economics and real estate with a focus on the use of quantitative methods and spatial analysis. He is a recent graduate from Brandeis University where he obtained a B.A. in Economics with a minor in Anthropology. At present, he has committed to a one-year term of service as an AmeriCorps VISTA with the Community Prosperity Initiative in Syracuse. Zach Romano devotes his time to cycling, volunteering with civic organizations, and spending time on the water throughout Central New York. Some of Zach's work: Housing and Transportation Demand Analysis: Boston Metropolitan Area Assessing Transportation Capacity and Property Values In and Around the Boston Metropolitan Area