Drones and Satellites for Good – Satellites Predict Patterns of Disease

Nighttime lights reveal a lot about us: where we live, how many of us live in one spot and now where serious illnesses are most likely to occur and break out. Namely, there is a large connection between migrating people, brightly-lit cities and seasonal outbreaks of the measles. As part of our RESET Special 'Drones and Satellites for Good', we take a look at how serious diseases can be detected using satellite imagery.

Autor*in Hanadi Siering, 07.13.15

A new approach to testing and predicting outbreaks of diseases comes from the USA: conclusions about disease outbreaks in major cities can be drawn using light data collected by satellites, a connection which was made in Niger by researchers from the University of Princeton.

For the 2011 study, entitled Explaining Seasonal Fluctuations of Measles in Niger Using Nighttime Lights Imagery, Nita Bharti and and her colleagues tested seasonal changes in measles outbreaks in Niger based on light-measurement data, finding that seasonal occurences of measles correspond to people’s spatiotemporal changes (eg. through urban migration). This evaluation was made based on satellite data that detected anthropogenic light being used by people.

It is actually rather simple: in highly-populated areas, there are a large number of lights in use and also a large number of illnesses. Satellites can therefore be used to gather valuable data which can then be analysed to predict the development of sicknesses. This leads to better preparation and fast response times in the face of an epidemic.

In West Africa, many people die of vaccine-preventable illnesses such as the measles. Sometimes, people neglect to update the vaccinations, allowing for disease to spread. Liberia, having just overcome the recent Ebola epidemic, is now facing the threat of a wave of measles. Using satellite technology in such a way could help health authorities better manage future outbreaks of disease.

From the bottom of the ocean to the outer reaches of the galaxy – the possibilities offered by drones and satellites are practically unlimited. Unmanned aerial vehicles are no longer only used in war zones. Equipped with cutting-edge technology, they are also valuable aids in the fight against pollution and social injustice. They can expose polluters and even locate people buried under rubble. In our RESET Special ‘Drones and Satellites for Good‘, we will introduce projects that use satellites and drones towards sustainable development.

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