Using gridded population data for inclusive mapping and sustainable development

By UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network

The UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network’s Thematic Research Network on Data and Statistics has published a guide explaining why and to which purpose gridded data is useful in a wide range of application areas, such as in disaster response, health interventions, and survey planning.

Reliable and timely population data linked to location are key, and traditional data sources, such as household surveys and population censuses present a range of geographic, temporal, and logistical challenges. Gridded population data have emerged as an important resource for delivering actionable data.

Gridded (or raster) population maps represent the distribution of population in rows and columns of grid cells, typically defined by their latitude-longitude coordinates. With recent advancements in Earth observations’ capabilities and statistical methods, it is now possible to obtain more frequent and more granular population estimates worldwide.

An increasing number of data providers are combining information from censuses with satellite-derived geospatial features to redistribute populations and produce gridded population datasets.

These gridded datasets offer a number of benefits: They provide informed and timely estimates of population distribution, and they facilitate direct use with other sources of scientific data that are available in a gridded format. In areas where recent censuses have not been performed, they also provide a starting point for surveys and needs assessments.

Whereas these data products are now becoming integral to decision-making processes for a number of actors, many officials are still largely unaware of their potential.

The report, titled “Leaving No One Off The Map: A Guide For Gridded Population Data For Sustainable Development,” draws from an extensive literature review and interviews with key data providers and users in the POPGRID Data Collaborative, to present an overview, analysis, and recommendations for the use of gridded population datasets in a wide range of applications.

A comparison of seven gridded population dataset metrics.

The report compares seven gridded population datasets from POPGRID, including an analysis of the underlying data, methods and basic assumptions, and the corresponding strengths and limitations of each dataset in simple terms. It also reviews intercomparison and validation studies of different datasets, addresses many of the misconceptions around gridded population data, and concludes with nine guiding criteria to aid users in their selection process.

In this way the report aims to improve the accessibility and understanding of gridded population datasets for policymakers and other users. It sets out to answer two big questions:

  • How can gridded population data supplement current population data sources and support users from the sustainable development community to make timely, informed decisions?
  • Which gridded population dataset is the most suitable for a user’s intended use?

Programmes such as GMES and Africa, which uses Earth observation data to enhance decision making in natural resources management, are already looking at how gridded population datasets can be employed in most of their projects, such as the MIFMASS Project to support disasters preparedness and mitigation. The GMES and Africa programme is jointly financed by the African Union Commission and the European Commission. As a flagship Programme of the African Union Commission, it contributes to the organisation’s “The Africa We Want” strategy.