Dark Times: Nighttime Satellite Imagery as a Detector of Regional Disparity and the Geography of Conflict

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Geography and the Environment


Night-time lights, Geographic information systems (GIS)Conflict, Equality, DMSP-OLS


Satellite observations of night-time emitted lights describe a geography of the spatial distribution of resource use. Measurements of nocturnal lights enable the calculation of the total light emitted from each country of the world, and the light emitted per capita. We consider different groups of countries that share a land or maritime border and whose light per capita can be more equally/unequally distributed. A sharp difference in light per capita among neighboring countries reflects marked differences in economic welfare and in the extent of built environments. We demonstrate how this geography of nocturnal lights informs our understanding of the dynamics of conflict at the national and regional scale. We propose an index of regional disparity and test its ability to detect conflict dynamics by relating the index score with the occurrence and intensity of conflicts as classified by the Heidelberg Institute for International Conflict Research’s Conflict Barometer 2012 for the countries of the world. This method can be used to produce a global available temporal sampling of “cold spots” of disparity where conflicts are likely to occur. This will help foresee the identification and monitoring of regions of the world, which are becoming particularly unstable, assisting in the definition and execution of timely and proactive policies.

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