Satellite data suggests China and others are falsifying their GDP

Satellite data suggests China, North Korea and Russia lie about the strength of their economics in official GDP figures ahead of elections

  • Chicago University compared data from satellite images with official economic reports
  • Increases in night lighting are an indicator of increases in GDP, according to researcher Luis Martinez
  • He found that freer countries who reported a boost of 2.4% had 10% increase in night lights
  • The study found with authoritarian regimes, this same increase was linked to 3.4% reported boost
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Oppressive regimes like China and North Korea may be boosting reports of the strength of their economies, satellite images suggest.

A political economist analysed glittering lights captured in night time photography conducted by Nasa from space.

By comparing the number of lights with official economic data, he noticed a trend among some nations to inflate reports of their worth by as much as 30 per cent.

Authoritarian countries were most likely to boost their GDP figures, a monetary measure of the market value of all goods and services produced by a nation.

This was particularly true in years that were approaching an election, the researcher claims, suggesting a political motive to the reports. 

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Oppressive regimes like China, Russia and North Korea may be boosting reports of the strength of their economies, satellite images suggest. This image shows China (pictured centre) at night


A political economist analysed glittering lights captured in night time photography conducted by Nasa from space to make the finding. This image shows North Korea (dark) and South Korea (illuminated) at night

The findings were made in a working paper produced by Luis Martinez, an assistant professor at the University of Chicago. 

He looked at 25 years of satellite data and ruled out structural factors, including urbanisation and access to electricity, to explain what he discovered – according to reports in the Washington Post.

Speaking to the site, he said: ‘The key question that the paper tries to tackle is whether the checks and balances provided by democracy are able to constrain governments’ desire to manipulate information or, more specifically, their desire to exaggerate how well the economy is doing. 

‘The way I try to answer the question above is by comparing GDP – a self-reported indicator, prone to manipulation – and nighttime lights – recorded by satellites from outer space and much harder to manipulate – as measures of economic activity.

‘I find that a ten per cent increase in nighttime lights is associated with a 2.4 per cent increase in GDP in the most democratic countries and with a 2.9 per cent to 3.4 per cent increase in GDP in the most authoritarian ones.’ 


Increases in nighttime lighting are a strong indicator of increases in GDP, experts say. This image shows the change in night lights in India between 2012 (left) and 2016 (right). India’s economic output increased from £1.4 to £1.7 trillion ($1.9 to $2.3 trillion) during this period


By comparing the number of lights with official economic data, Luis Martinez noticed a trend amongst some nations to inflate reports of their worth by as much as 30 per cent. This image taken over the mainland US shows its night lights


Authoritarian countries were most likely to boost their GDP figures, a monetary measure of the market value of all goods and services produced by a nation. This image shows Europe’s lights by night

Consumption of most goods in the evening requires lights, a paper published in 2012 explains.

In it, economists from Brown University and the National Bureau of Economic Research wrote: ‘As income rises, so does light usage per person, in both consumption activities and many investment activities.’ 

Increases in nighttime lighting are a strong indicator of increases in GDP, experts say.

To make his finding, Dr Martinez first sorted countries of the world by their Freedom House score.

This categorises nations and states based on categories including civil rights protections and other indicators of freedom. 

Changes in nighttime lighting over a quarter of a century were then matched with each country’s GDP reports, which are self-compiled. 

He found that in free democratic nations, including the UK, US, Canada and Western Europe, a 2.4 per cent boost in GDP was linked to a ten per cent increase in night lights.

In the least free countries, this same increase in lighting was linked to a maximum of 3.4 per cent boost in GDP.

This suggests that these countries have been manipulating their figures to the benefit of the ruling regime, Dr Martinez says. 

His full findings were published in a paper published on the Social Science Research Network. 

WHAT ARE NASA’S NIGHT TIME SATELLITE MAPS AND WHAT COULD THEY BE USED FOR?

In April 2017, Nasa released stunning new images showing how humans have lit up every corner of the Earth.

The space agency spent years collecting and analysing satellite images of Earth and put together the clearest yet composite view of Earth’s ‘night lights’.

The maps reveal how human settlements have shaped the planet and lit up the darkness. 


In April 2017, Nasa released stunning new images showing how humans have lit up every corner of the Earth. The space agency spent years collecting and analysing satellite images of Earth and put together the clearest yet composite view of them

Satellite images of Earth at night, often referred to as ‘night lights’, have been a fundamental research for nearly 25 years. 

Produced every decade or so, such maps have spawned hundreds of pop-culture uses and dozens of economic, social science and environmental research projects.

But now Nasa aims to be able to update its stunning maps of Earth at night as often as every day. 

Researchers say the maps have the potential to aid short-term weather forecasting and disaster response.

The Nasa-Noaa Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership (NPP) satellite, used to create the images, was launched in 2011.


Satellite images of Earth at night, often referred to as ‘night lights’, have been a fundamental research for nearly 25 years. This image shows Nasa’s view of the lights over Europe

In the year since, experts have been analysing night lights data and developing new software and algorithms to make imagery of them clearer, more accurate and readily available.

The satellite’s workhorse instrument is the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS), which detects photons of light reflected from Earth’s surface and atmosphere in 22 different wavelengths.

VIIRS is the first satellite instrument to make quantitative measurements of light emissions and reflections, which allows researchers to distinguish the intensity, types and the sources of night lights over several years.

‘Thanks to VIIRS, we can now monitor short-term changes caused by disturbances in power delivery, such as conflict, storms, earthquakes and brownouts,’ said Dr Miguel Román from Nasa’s Goddard Centre.

‘We can monitor cyclical changes driven by reoccurring human activities such as holiday lighting and seasonal migrations. 


This image shows Nasa’s view of the lights over the US

‘We can also monitor gradual changes driven by urbanization, out-migration, economic changes, and electrification.

‘The fact that we can track all these different aspects at the heart of what defines a city is simply mind-boggling.’ 

The Nasa team envisions many other potential uses by research, meteorological and civic groups.

For instance, daily nighttime imagery could be used to help monitor unregulated or unreported fishing.

It could also contribute to efforts to track sea ice movements and concentrations.

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