Monitoring the COVID-19 Crisis From Space

A comparison of nighttime light emissions across China during the early months of COVID-19 shows how satellite sensing data can provide early detection of trouble.

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Business leaders across the globe are increasingly dismayed at feeling left in the dark about the size and severity of the COVID-19 outbreak. Suppliers in affected countries, such as China, are no longer able to confirm orders. The stock and oil markets are in disarray. Governments worldwide have been slow to report on the true scale of the economic slowdown. The lack of reliable, timely, inexpensive, and easy-to-obtain information about the severity and impact of COVID-19 has revealed a glaring weakness in global management.

One source of data we rely on in our economic research can provide a clear picture of the economic impact of COVID-19 and similar disasters. Nighttime light emissions data, a novel class of remote sensing data, measures the total amount of light produced at night in a given region. It can be used by businesses, such as airlines, to monitor progression and effects of significant continuity threats, such as natural disasters and civil unrest, as well as economic recovery in near real time and at little cost. Nighttime light emissions have the potential to reduce reliance on slow-moving government statistics and questionable media reporting, and the data can be used to augment or replace other less timely and less accurate economic proxies to see when and where industry-related activity is changing.

We believe that the analysis of this data can be used to help managers and senior leaders navigate existential threats, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, by providing early warning about the impact of episodes in regions where they might have operations, suppliers, or customers.

What Remote Sensing Data Is Showing

Our large-scale research project of daily data at the Global Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland uses remote sensing data from satellites and other sources to monitor short-term changes in economic and social activity.

We have found that satellite nighttime light emissions data is particularly effective at quantifying the economic and social impact of COVID-19. Nighttime light emissions are a strong proxy for economic activity: One recent report from the International Monetary Fund found that light emissions alone can be used to measure more than 44% of the variation in a nation’s per capita gross domestic product. Several prior studies have had even stronger predictive results,

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