By Sean Halpin
Current challenges such as food scarcity and disaster relief in Africa have existed for decades, but modern technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) are hoping to turn the tide. Facebook is trying to help relief efforts in Africa by mapping population density for humanitarian aid and development. Through the use of satellite photos and AI, the company has created a population density map of Africa that is more advanced than any of its predecessors.
To create the map, publicly available satellite images were gathered into 30-by-30-meter sections and analyzed to assess population statistics in each. An AI tool processed these images and identified which contained buildings in them, a clear indication of human occupancy. These results were then cross-referenced with census data to determine how many people are likely to be living in those areas. According to Laura McGorman, public policy manager for Facebook’s Data for Good division, “Accurate population density forms arguably the backbone for any public sector or social service intervention you can think of” (World Economic Forum). This is especially true in the case of natural disasters, as chaos and confusion can complicate identifying where aid is most needed.
The overall population density of Africa is 45 people per square kilometer, and “more than 40% of the population is based in urban centers” (World Economic Forum). The rest of the population lives in regions which can be remote, like Rwanda, “where only a quarter of roads are paved or surfaced” (World Economic Forum). Within Rwanda, “drones are supplying blood to a network of 21 remotely located transfusion clinics, helping to save lives every day across the country” (World Economic Forum).
Relief agencies can deliver assistance more effectively when they have detailed mapping tools at their disposal. These maps are not limited to relief efforts, as they can also help with service development planning, finding places for solar electricity generation, roads, and communication infrastructure, and other vital economically stimulating activities.