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Measuring Economic Growth from Outer Space

  • J. Vernon Henderson
  • Adam Storeygard
  • David N. Weil

GDP growth is often measured poorly for countries and rarely measured at all for cities or subnational regions. We propose a readily available proxy: satellite data on lights at night. We develop a statistical framework that uses lights growth to augment existing income growth measures, under the assumption that measurement error in using observed light as an indicator of income is uncorrelated with measurement error in national income accounts. For countries with good national income accounts data, information on growth of lights is of marginal value in estimating the true growth rate of income, while for countries with the worst national income accounts, the optimal estimate of true income growth is a composite with roughly equal weights. Among poor-data countries, our new estimate of average annual growth differs by as much as 3 percentage points from official data. Lights data also allow for measurement of income growth in sub- and supranational regions. As an application, we examine growth in Sub Saharan African regions over the last 17 years. We find that real incomes in non-coastal areas have grown faster by 1/3 of an annual percentage point than coastal areas; non-malarial areas have grown faster than malarial ones by 1/3 to 2/3 annual percent points; and primate city regions have grown no faster than hinterland areas. Such applications point toward a research program in which "empirical growth" need no longer be synonymous with "national income accounts."

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Paper provided by National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc in its series NBER Working Papers with number 15199.

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Date of creation: Jul 2009
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Publication status: published as J. Vernon Henderson & Adam Storeygard & David N. Weil, 2012. "Measuring Economic Growth from Outer Space," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 102(2), pages 994-1028, April.
Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:15199
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  1. Martin Browning & Thomas Crossley, 2009. "Are two cheap, noisy measures better than one expensive, accurate one?," IFS Working Papers W09/01, Institute for Fiscal Studies.
  2. Angus Deaton & Alan Heston, 2010. "Understanding PPPs and PPP-Based National Accounts," American Economic Journal: Macroeconomics, American Economic Association, vol. 2(4), pages 1-35, October.
  3. Simon Johnson & William Larson & Chris Papageorgiou & Arvind Subramanian, 2009. "Is Newer Better? Penn World Table Revisions and Their Impact on Growth Estimates," Working Papers 191, Center for Global Development.
  4. Yong Suk Lee & Andrew D. Foster, 2013. "Staffing Subsidies and the Quality of Care in Nursing Homes," Department of Economics Working Papers 2013-16, Department of Economics, Williams College.
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  7. William Larson & Chris Papageorgiou & Arvind Subramania & Simon Johnson, 2009. "Is Newer Better? Penn World Table Revisions and the Growth Literature," 2009 Meeting Papers 858, Society for Economic Dynamics.
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  11. Daniel da Mata & Uwe Deichmann & J. Vernon Henderson & Somik V. Lall & Hyoung G. Wang, 2005. "Determinants of City Growth in Brazil," Discussion Papers 1112, Instituto de Pesquisa Econômica Aplicada - IPEA.
  12. Sutton, Paul C. & Costanza, Robert, 2002. "Global estimates of market and non-market values derived from nighttime satellite imagery, land cover, and ecosystem service valuation," Ecological Economics, Elsevier, vol. 41(3), pages 509-527, June.
  13. Brueckner, Jan K, 1990. "Analyzing Third World Urbanization: A Model with Empirical Evidence," Economic Development and Cultural Change, University of Chicago Press, vol. 38(3), pages 587-610, April.
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  15. Harris, John R & Todaro, Michael P, 1970. "Migration, Unemployment & Development: A Two-Sector Analysis," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 60(1), pages 126-42, March.
  16. Edward L. Glaeser & Hedi D. Kallal & Jose A. Scheinkman & Andrei Shleifer, 1991. "Growth in Cities," NBER Working Papers 3787, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    • Glaeser, Edward Ludwig & Kallal, Hedi D. & Scheinkman, Jose A. & Shleifer, Andrei, 1992. "Growth in Cities," Scholarly Articles 3451309, Harvard University Department of Economics.
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  18. Richard Tiffin & Xavier Irz, 2006. "Is agriculture the engine of growth?," Agricultural Economics, International Association of Agricultural Economists, vol. 35(1), pages 79-89, 07.
  19. Henderson, Vernon, 2003. " The Urbanization Process and Economic Growth: The So-What Question," Journal of Economic Growth, Springer, vol. 8(1), pages 47-71, March.
  20. Good, David F., 1994. "The Economic Lag of Central and Eastern Europe: Income Estimates for the Habsburg Successor States, 1870–1910," The Journal of Economic History, Cambridge University Press, vol. 54(04), pages 869-891, December.
  21. International Monetary Fund, 2006. "Jamaica; Selected Issues," IMF Staff Country Reports 06/157, International Monetary Fund.
  22. Vernon Henderson & Adam Storeygard & David N. Weil, 2009. "Measuring Economic Growth from Outer Space," Working Papers 2009-8, Brown University, Department of Economics.
  23. John W. Dawson & Joseph P. Dejuan & John J. Seater & E. Frank Stephenson, 2001. "Economic information versus quality variation in cross-country data," Canadian Journal of Economics, Canadian Economics Association, vol. 34(4), pages 988-1009, November.
  24. Doll, Christopher N.H. & Muller, Jan-Peter & Morley, Jeremy G., 2006. "Mapping regional economic activity from night-time light satellite imagery," Ecological Economics, Elsevier, vol. 57(1), pages 75-92, April.
  25. Sharon L. Maccini & Dean Yang, 2008. "Under the Weather: Health, Schooling, and Economic Consequences of Early-Life Rainfall," NBER Working Papers 14031, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  26. Kogel, Tomas & Prskawetz, Alexia, 2001. " Agricultural Productivity Growth and Escape from the Malthusian Trap," Journal of Economic Growth, Springer, vol. 6(4), pages 337-57, December.
  27. Chun-Chung Au & J. Vernon Henderson, 2006. "Are Chinese Cities Too Small?," Review of Economic Studies, Oxford University Press, vol. 73(3), pages 549-576.
  28. World Bank, 2005. "Managing Agricultural Production Risk : Innovations in Developing Countries," World Bank Other Operational Studies 8797, The World Bank.
  29. Hansen, Christian B., 2007. "Generalized least squares inference in panel and multilevel models with serial correlation and fixed effects," Journal of Econometrics, Elsevier, vol. 140(2), pages 670-694, October.
  30. Davis, James C. & Henderson, J. Vernon, 2003. "Evidence on the political economy of the urbanization process," Journal of Urban Economics, Elsevier, vol. 53(1), pages 98-125, January.
  31. Edward Miguel & Shanker Satyanath & Ernest Sergenti, 2004. "Economic Shocks and Civil Conflict: An Instrumental Variables Approach," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 112(4), pages 725-753, August.
  32. Duncan Black & Vernon Henderson, 1999. "A Theory of Urban Growth," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 107(2), pages 252-284, April.
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