Night-time light data: A good proxy measure for economic activity?

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Much research has suggested that night-time light (NTL) can be used as a proxy for a number of variables, including urbanization, density, and economic growth. As governments around the world either collect census data infrequently or are scaling back the amount of detail collected, alternate sources of population and economic information like NTL are being considered. But, just how close is the statistical relationship between NTL and economic activity at a fine-grained geographical level? This paper uses a combination of correlation analysis and geographically weighted regressions in order to examine if light can function as a proxy for economic activities at a finer level. We use a fine-grained geo-coded residential and industrial full sample micro-data set for Sweden, and match it with both radiance and saturated light emissions. We find that the correlation between NTL and economic activity is strong enough to make it a relatively good proxy for population and establishment density, but the correlation is weaker in relation to wages. In general, we find a stronger relation between light and density values, than with light and total values. We also find a closer connection between radiance light and economic activity, than with saturated light. Further, we find the link between light and economic activity, especially estimated by wages, to be slightly overestimated in large urban areas and underestimated in rural areas.




Mellander, C., Lobo, J., Stolarick, K., & Matheson, Z. (2015). Night-time light data: A good proxy measure for economic activity? PLoS ONE, 10(10).

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