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Inferring Nighttime Satellite Imagery from Human Mobility

Brian Dickinson
Gourab Ghoshal
Xerxes Dotiwalla
Adam Sadilek
Henry Kautz
AAAI (2020)


Nighttime lights satellite imagery has been used for decades as a uniform, global source of data for studying a wide range of socioeconomic factors. Recently, another more terrestrial source is producing data with similarly uniform global coverage: anonymous and aggregated smart phone location. This data, which measures the movement patterns of people and populations rather than the light they produce, could prove just as valuable in decades to come. In fact, since human mobility is far more directly related to the socioeconomic variables being predicted, it has an even greater potential. Additionally, since cell phone locations can be aggregated in real time while preserving individual user privacy, it will be possible to conduct studies that would previously have been impossible because they require data from the present. Of course, it will take quite some time to establish the new techniques necessary to apply human mobility data to problems traditionally studied with satellite imagery and to conceptualize and develop new real time applications. In this study we demonstrate that it is possible to accelerate this process by inferring artificial nighttime satellite imagery from human mobility data, while maintaining a strong differential privacy guarantee. We also show that these artificial maps can be used to infer socioeconomic variables, often with greater accuracy than using actual satellite imagery. Along the way, we find that the relationship between mobility and light emissions is both nonlinear and varies considerably around the globe. Finally, we show that models based on human mobility can significantly improve our understanding of society at a global scale.