Satellite imagery aids rural development

Newly published research illuminates a method for more timely and cost-effective rural planning.

In today’s spotlight story on MIT.edu, Tata Fellows Brian Spatocco, Vivek Sakhrani, and their team talk about research just published in Big Data, where they argue that using satellite imagery could make charity giving and electricity planning more accurate, effective, and affordable.

Rural planning in much of the developing world currently requires time-consuming site visits by workers on the ground, meaning that projects can take years even to get started, and that governments and NGOs have a paucity of data on remote areas. Using their research in Bihar, India and in sub-Saharan Africa, the MIT team has developed a methodology for analyzing satellite data to target the neediest villages for cash grants or electricity microgrids.

Spatocco says “this could be an extremely powerful tool” for understanding the populations of rural areas and addressing their needs. “It could answer deep questions about these demographic dynamics,” he adds.

A pilot project is now underway in Bihar, one of India’s poorest states. Four villages will have microgrids installed–two by the standard planning method, and two using the new MIT-developed satellite model. The villages will then be compared over time to determine the actual cost and performance of the systems.

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Photo: Satellite data courtesy of the researchers.