IDEAS home Printed from
MyIDEAS: Login to save this paper or follow this series

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."

If you experience problems downloading a file, check if you have the proper application to view it first. In case of further problems read the IDEAS help page. Note that these files are not on the IDEAS site. Please be patient as the files may be large.

File URL:
Download Restriction: no

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

in new window

Date of creation: Jul 2009
Date of revision:
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
Note: EFG
Contact details of provider: Postal: National Bureau of Economic Research, 1050 Massachusetts Avenue Cambridge, MA 02138, U.S.A.
Phone: 617-868-3900
Web page:

More information through EDIRC

References listed on IDEAS
Please report citation or reference errors to , or , if you are the registered author of the cited work, log in to your RePEc Author Service profile, click on "citations" and make appropriate adjustments.:

as in new window
  1. Glaeser, Edward Ludwig & Kallal, Hedi D. & Scheinkman, Jose A. & Shleifer, Andrei, 1992. "Growth in Cities," Scholarly Articles 3451309, Harvard University Department of Economics.
  2. Alan B. Krueger & Mikael Lindahl, 2000. "Education for Growth: Why and For Whom?," NBER Working Papers 7591, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  3. Glaeser, E.L. & Ades, A.F., 1993. "Trade and Circuses: Explaining Urban Giants," Harvard Institute of Economic Research Working Papers 1646, Harvard - Institute of Economic Research.
  4. Edward L. Glaeser & Albert Saiz, 2003. "The Rise of the Skilled City," NBER Working Papers 10191, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. J. Vernon Henderson & Hyoung Gun Wang, 2005. "Aspects of the rural-urban transformation of countries," Journal of Economic Geography, Oxford University Press, vol. 5(1), pages 23-42, January.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. Xavier Irz & Terry Roe, 2005. "Seeds of growth? Agricultural productivity and the transitional dynamics of the Ramsey model," European Review of Agricultural Economics, Foundation for the European Review of Agricultural Economics, vol. 32(2), pages 143-165, June.
  12. Johnson, Simon & Larson, William & Papageorgiou, Chris & Subramanian, Arvind, 2013. "Is newer better? Penn World Table Revisions and their impact on growth estimates," Journal of Monetary Economics, Elsevier, vol. 60(2), pages 255-274.
  13. Vernon Henderson & Adam Storeygard & David N. Weil, 2009. "Measuring Economic Growth from Outer Space," Working Papers 2009-8, Brown University, Department of Economics.
  14. 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.
  15. Daniel da Mata & U. Deichmann & J. Vernon Henderson & Somik V. Lall & H.G. Wang, 2005. "Determinants of City Growth in Brazil," NBER Working Papers 11585, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  16. Krugman, Paul, 1991. "Increasing Returns and Economic Geography," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 99(3), pages 483-99, June.
  17. Sharon Maccini & Dean Yang, 2009. "Under the Weather: Health, Schooling, and Economic Consequences of Early-Life Rainfall," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 99(3), pages 1006-26, June.
  18. 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.
  19. 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.
  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. 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.
  23. 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.
  24. 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.
  25. World Bank, 2005. "Managing Agricultural Production Risk : Innovations in Developing Countries," World Bank Other Operational Studies 8797, The World Bank.
  26. 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.
  27. Foster, Andrew D. & Lee, Yong Suk, 2015. "Staffing subsidies and the quality of care in nursing homes," Journal of Health Economics, Elsevier, vol. 41(C), pages 133-147.
  28. 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.
  29. 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.
  30. Nuxoll, Daniel A, 1994. "Differences in Relative Prices and International Differences in Growth Rates," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 84(5), pages 1423-36, December.
  31. 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.
  32. 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.
Full references (including those not matched with items on IDEAS)

This item is featured on the following reading lists or Wikipedia pages:

  1. Measuring Economic Growth from Outer Space (AER 2012) in ReplicationWiki

When requesting a correction, please mention this item's handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:15199. 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: ()

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.

If references are entirely missing, you can add them using this form.

If the full references list an item that is present in RePEc, but the system did not link to it, you can help with 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 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.

This information is provided to you by IDEAS at the Research Division of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis using RePEc data.