Accepted Papers

Learning to score economic development from satellite imagery

Sungwon Han: Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology; Donghyun Ahn: Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology; Sungwon Park: Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology; Jeasurk Yang: National University of Singapore; Susang Lee: Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology; Jihee Kim: Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology; Hyunjoo Yang: Sogang University; Sangyoon Park: University of Hong Kong; Meeyoung Cha: Institute for Basic Science Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology


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Reliable and timely measurements of economic activities are fundamental for understanding economic development and designing government policies. However, many developing countries still lack reliable data. In this paper, we introduce a novel approach for measuring economic development from high-resolution satellite images in the absence of ground truth statistics. Our method consists of three steps. First, we run a clustering algorithm on satellite images that distinguishes artifacts from nature (siCluster). Second, we generate a partial order graph of the identified clusters based on the level of economic development, either by human guidance or by low-resolution statistics (siPog). Third, we use a CNN-based sorter that assigns differentiable scores to each satellite grid based on the relative ranks of clusters (siScore). The novelty of our method is that we break down a computationally hard problem into sub-tasks, which involves a human-in-the-loop solution. With the combination of unsupervised learning and the partial orders of dozens of urban vs. rural clusters, our method can estimate the economic development scores of over 10,000 satellite grids consistently with other baseline development proxies (Spearman correlation of 0.851). This efficient method is interpretable and robust; we demonstrate how to apply our method to both developed (e.g., South Korea) and developing economies (e.g., Vietnam and Malawi).

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