IDEAS home Printed from
   My bibliography  Save this article

A sharper image? Estimates of the precision of nighttime lights as a proxy for economic statistics


  • William Nordhaus
  • Xi Chen


Much aggregate social-science analysis relies upon the standard national income and product accounts as a source of economic data. These are recognized to be defective in many poor countries, and are missing at the regional level for large parts of the world. Using updated luminosity (or nighttime lights) data, the present study examines whether such data contain useful information for estimating national and regional incomes and output. The bootstrap method is used for estimating the statistical precision of the estimates of the contribution of the lights proxy. We conclude that there may be substantial cross-sectional information in lights data for countries with low-quality statistical systems. However, lights data provide very little additional information for countries with high-quality data wherever standard data are available. The largest statistical concerns arise from uncertainties about the precision of standard national accounts data.

Suggested Citation

  • William Nordhaus & Xi Chen, 2015. "A sharper image? Estimates of the precision of nighttime lights as a proxy for economic statistics," Journal of Economic Geography, Oxford University Press, vol. 15(1), pages 217-246.
  • Handle: RePEc:oup:jecgeo:v:15:y:2015:i:1:p:217-246.

    Download full text from publisher

    File URL:
    Download Restriction: Access to full text is restricted to subscribers.

    As the access to this document is restricted, you may want to search for a different version of it.

    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Anne Bolster & Simon Burgess & Ron Johnston & Kelvyn Jones & Carol Propper & Rebecca Sarker, 2007. "Neighbourhoods, households and income dynamics: a semi-parametric investigation of neighbourhood effects," Journal of Economic Geography, Oxford University Press, vol. 7(1), pages 1-38, January.
    2. Daniel Aaronson, 1998. "Using Sibling Data to Estimate the Impact of Neighborhoods on Children's Educational Outcomes," Journal of Human Resources, University of Wisconsin Press, vol. 33(4), pages 915-946.
    3. George C. Galster, 2008. "Quantifying the Effect of Neighbourhood on Individuals: Challenges, Alternative Approaches, and Promising Directions," Schmollers Jahrbuch : Journal of Applied Social Science Studies / Zeitschrift für Wirtschafts- und Sozialwissenschaften, Duncker & Humblot, Berlin, vol. 128(1), pages 7-48.
    4. Kunz, Jim & Page, Marianne E. & Solon, Gary, 2003. "Are point-in-time measures of neighborhood characteristics useful proxies for children's long-run neighborhood environment?," Economics Letters, Elsevier, vol. 79(2), pages 231-237, May.
    5. Lina Hedman & Maarten van Ham & David Manley, 2011. "Neighbourhood choice and neighbourhood reproduction," Environment and Planning A, Pion Ltd, London, vol. 43(6), pages 1381-1399, June.
    6. Sako Musterd & George Galster & Roger Andersson, 2012. "Temporal dimensions and measurement of neighbourhood effects," Environment and Planning A, Pion Ltd, London, vol. 44(3), pages 605-627, March.
    7. Maarten van Ham & David Manley, 2010. "The effect of neighbourhood housing tenure mix on labour market outcomes: a longitudinal investigation of neighbourhood effects," Journal of Economic Geography, Oxford University Press, vol. 10(2), pages 257-282, March.
    8. Do, D. Phuong, 2009. "The dynamics of income and neighborhood context for population health: Do long-term measures of socioeconomic status explain more of the black/white health disparity than single-point-in-time measures," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 68(8), pages 1368-1375, April.
    9. Galster, George, 2002. "An economic efficiency analysis of deconcentrating poverty populations," Journal of Housing Economics, Elsevier, vol. 11(4), pages 303-329, December.
    10. Martin Korpi & William A. V. Clark & Bo Malmberg, 2011. "The urban hierarchy and domestic migration: the interaction of internal migration, disposable income and the cost of living, Sweden 1993--2002," Journal of Economic Geography, Oxford University Press, vol. 11(6), pages 1051-1077, November.
    Full references (including those not matched with items on IDEAS)


    Citations are extracted by the CitEc Project, subscribe to its RSS feed for this item.

    Cited by:

    1. Lessmann, Christian & Seidel, André, 2017. "Regional inequality, convergence, and its determinants – A view from outer space," European Economic Review, Elsevier, vol. 92(C), pages 110-132.
    2. Tanaka, Kiyoyasu & Keola, Souknilanh, 2015. "Shedding light on the shadow economy : a nighttime light approach," IDE Discussion Papers 531, Institute of Developing Economies, Japan External Trade Organization(JETRO).
    3. Krause, Melanie & Bluhm, Richard, 2016. "Top Lights - Bright Spots and their Contribution to Economic Development," Annual Conference 2016 (Augsburg): Demographic Change 145773, Verein für Socialpolitik / German Economic Association.
    4. Eamon Duede & Victor Zhorin, 2016. "Convergence of Economic Growth and the Great Recession as Seen From a Celestial Observatory," Papers 1604.04312,, revised Aug 2016.
    5. World Bank Group, 2017. "Special Economic Zones," World Bank Other Operational Studies 29054, The World Bank.
    6. Wolff, S. & Schulp, C.J.E. & Kastner, T & Verburg, P.H., 2017. "Quantifying Spatial Variation in Ecosystem Services Demand: A Global Mapping Approach," Ecological Economics, Elsevier, vol. 136(C), pages 14-29.
    7. Christian Leßmann & André Seidel & Arne Steinkraus, 2015. "Satellitendaten zur Schätzung von Regionaleinkommen - Das Beispiel Deutschland," ifo Dresden berichtet, ifo Institute - Leibniz Institute for Economic Research at the University of Munich, vol. 22(06), pages 35-42, December.
    8. Jaqueson K Galimberti, 2017. "Forecasting GDP growth from the outer space," KOF Working papers 17-427, KOF Swiss Economic Institute, ETH Zurich.

    More about this item


    Access and download statistics


    All material on this site has been provided by the respective publishers and authors. You can help correct errors and omissions. When requesting a correction, please mention this item's handle: RePEc:oup:jecgeo:v:15:y:2015:i:1:p:217-246.. See general information about how to correct material in RePEc.

    For technical questions regarding this item, or to correct its authors, title, abstract, bibliographic or download information, contact: (Oxford University Press) or (Christopher F. Baum). General contact details of provider: .

    If you have authored this item and are not yet registered with RePEc, we encourage you to do it here. This allows to link your profile to this item. It also allows you to accept potential citations to this item that we are uncertain about.

    We have no references for this item. You can help adding them by using this form .

    If you know of missing items citing this one, you can help us creating those links by adding the relevant references in the same way as above, for each refering item. If you are a registered author of this item, you may also want to check the "citations" tab in your RePEc Author Service profile, as there may be some citations waiting for confirmation.

    Please note that corrections may take a couple of weeks to filter through the various RePEc services.

    IDEAS is a RePEc service hosted by the Research Division of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis . RePEc uses bibliographic data supplied by the respective publishers.