Why Facebook Is Mapping Human Settlements across the Globe

An estimated 10 percent of the world's population doesn't have access to the Internet. Facebook's Connectivity Lab is trying to find a way to bring isolated communities online, but in order to do so, it needs to know where they live.


An estimated 10 percent of the world's population doesn't have access to the Internet. Facebook's Connectivity Lab is trying to find a way to bring isolated communities online, but in order to do so, it needs to know where they live.

The construction of its Aquila drones was the first step. These unmanned solar-powered drones have a wingspan of a Boeing 737 and can spend months in the air, beaming down Internet to ground-based hubs. Through these drones, the Internet can be made available in remote areas where the infrastructure would be too costly or difficult to build. Google has been working on a similar balloon-based project in Indonesia. However, the Connectivity Lab needs to know where to send these drones — where they'll do the most good.

So, a team of researchers began looking at population distributions across 20 different countries from maps provided by the World Bank and Columbia University. They used these third-party images and fed them into their neural network. Through new machine learning techniques, they trained a computer to sift through billions of images in order to identify population centers. These new maps show populations on a much finer grid, just 10 meters across.

“In total, we analyzed 21.6 million km2 of the priority countries. For this we processed 14.6 billion images with our neural network; this is more than 10 times as much as all the images analyzed by Facebook on a daily basis,” according to one report.

These maps will help guide the Connectivity Lab to identify what areas need which kind of support, whether it be an aerial Internet-delivering drone or a ground-based solution. Facebook says once the maps have been reviewed, this data will become open to the public later this year.

“These higher-resolution data will be useful in optimizing the location of health and sanitation facilities, planning energy and transportation networks, improving resource management and access, and facilitating humanitarian assistance,” Robert Chen, director of Columbia’s Center for International Earth Science Information Network, said to Technology Review.

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Photo Credit: David Ramos/Getty Images

Natalie has been writing professionally for about 6 years. After graduating from Ithaca College with a degree in Feature Writing, she snagged a job at PCMag.com where she had the opportunity to review all the latest consumer gadgets. Since then she has become a writer for hire, freelancing for various websites. In her spare time, you may find her riding her motorcycle, reading YA novels, hiking, or playing video games. Follow her on Twitter: @nat_schumaker

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