Facebook has always been a company with global ambition, but few projects illustrate this better than its ongoing attempt to map the world’s population density using Artificial Intelligence (AI)
The company first unveiled this work back in 2016 when it created maps for 22 nations. Today, it expanded that with new maps that cover the majority of Africa. The project aims to eventually map population density across the world.
Creating maps like this is a challenging job for humans. For instance, to create population density maps, humans have to label each building in the images, then cross-reference this with census data. This is particularly tricky in the African continent where census tracts can cover regions as large as 240,000 square kilometers yet contain just 55,000 people.
Luckily, this sort of task is perfect for AI. To automate this process, Facebook’s engineers used data from open-source mapping project Open Street Map to train a computer vision system that can recognize buildings in satellite imagery. They then used this to remove the vast majority of the satellite data that showed unoccupied land.
Facebook says to map the African continent, its programs crunched through some 11.5 billion 64 x 64-pixel images. They verified the work with help from researchers from the Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN) at Columbia University.
The question of what Facebook does with all of this data is an interesting one. In its announcement, the company emphasized the humanitarian applications. It will be releasing its maps free of charge for anyone to use in the coming months, and it notes that data like this is a boon for disaster relief and vaccination schemes. Population density maps help teams with limited resources target the areas where they can be most effective, and Facebook’s data has already been used for these purposes by the American Red Cross.
Such data also has obvious commercial applications as well. Through projects like its solar-powered internet drones and subsidized carrier networks, Facebook is looking for ways to connect the next billion customers. Knowing exactly where people live in the world will surely help the company with that aim.
While this sort of global expansion used to be seen as benign, perhaps even benevolent, the public has become more aware in recent years of Facebook’s harmful effect on new markets. So while the data created with this mapping project will certainly help worthy causes, Facebook’s broader global expansion has decidedly mixed effects.