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Demographics

How Facebook is Using Machine Learning to Map the World Population

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population map cairo

When it comes to knowing where humans around the world actually live, resources come in varying degrees of accuracy and sophistication.

Heavily urbanized and mature economies generally produce a wealth of up-to-date information on population density and granular demographic data. In rural Africa or fast-growing regions in the developing world, tracking methods cannot always keep up, or in some cases may be non-existent.

This is where new maps, produced by researchers at Facebook, come in. Building upon CIESIN’s Gridded Population of the World project, Facebook is using machine learning models on high-resolution satellite imagery to paint a definitive picture of human settlement around the world. Let’s zoom in.

Connecting the Dots

Will all other details stripped away, human settlement can form some interesting patterns. One of the most compelling examples is Egypt, where 95% of the population lives along the Nile River. Below, we can clearly see where people live, and where they don’t.

View the full-resolution version of this map.

facebook population density egypt map

While it is possible to use a tool like Google Earth to view nearly any location on the globe, the problem is analyzing the imagery at scale. This is where machine learning comes into play.

Finding the People in the Petabytes

High-resolution imagery of the entire globe takes up about 1.5 petabytes of storage, making the task of classifying the data extremely daunting. It’s only very recently that technology was up to the task of correctly identifying buildings within all those images.

To get the results we see today, researchers used process of elimination to discard locations that couldn’t contain a building, then ranked them based on the likelihood they could contain a building.

process of elimination map

Facebook identified structures at scale using a process called weakly supervised learning. After training the model using large batches of photos, then checking over the results, Facebook was able to reach a 99.6% labeling accuracy for positive examples.

Why it Matters

An accurate picture of where people live can be a matter of life and death.

For humanitarian agencies working in Africa, effectively distributing aid or vaccinating populations is still a challenge due to the lack of reliable maps and population density information. Researchers hope that these detailed maps will be used to save lives and improve living conditions in developing regions.

For example, Malawi is one of the world’s least urbanized countries, so finding its 19 million citizens is no easy task for people doing humanitarian work there. These maps clearly show where people live and allow organizations to create accurate population density estimates for specific areas.

rural malawi population pattern map

Visit the project page for a full explanation and to access the full database of country maps.

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Demographics

The Problem of an Aging Global Population, Shown by Country

The data behind the world’s rapidly aging population, and what it could mean for the economy and future generations of retirees.

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The Implications of an Aging Population

The world is experiencing a seismic demographic shift—and no country is immune to the consequences.

While increasing life expectancy and declining birth rates are considered major achievements in modern science and healthcare, they will have a significant impact on future generations.

Today’s graphic relies on OECD data to demonstrate how the old-age to working-age ratio will change by 2060, highlighting some of the world’s fastest aging countries.

The Demographic Debacle

By 2050, there will be 10 billion people on earth, compared to 7.7 billion today—and many of them will be living longer. As a result, the number of elderly people per 100 working-age people will nearly triple—from 20 in 1980, to 58 in 2060.

Populations are getting older in all OECD countries, yet there are clear differences in the pace of aging. For instance, Japan holds the title for having the oldest population, with ⅓ of its citizens already over the age of 65. By 2030, the country’s workforce is expected to fall by 8 million—leading to a major potential labor shortage.

In another example, while South Korea currently boasts a younger than average population, it will age rapidly and end up with the highest old-to-young ratio among developed countries.

A Declining Workforce

Globally, the working-age population will see a 10% decrease by 2060. It will fall the most drastically by 35% or more in Greece, Japan, Korea, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland. On the other end of the scale, it will increase by more than 20% in Australia, Mexico, and Israel.

aging population chart

Israel’s notably higher increase of 67% is due to the country’s high fertility rate, which is comparable to “baby boom” numbers seen in the U.S. following the second World War.

As countries prepare for the coming decades, workforce shortages are just one of the impacts of aging populations already being felt.

Managing the Risks

There are many other social and economic risks that we can come to expect as the global population continues to age:

  • The Squeezed Middle: With more people claiming pension benefits but less people paying income taxes, the shrinking workforce may be forced to pay higher taxes.
  • Rising Healthcare Costs: Longer lives do not necessarily mean healthier lives, with those over 65 more likely to have at least one chronic disease and require expensive, long-term care.
  • Economic Slowdown: Changing workforces may lead capital to flow away from rapidly aging countries to younger countries, shifting the global distribution of economic power.

The strain on pension systems is perhaps the most evident sign of a drastically aging population. Although the average retirement age is gradually increasing in many countries, people are saving insufficiently for their increased life span—resulting in an estimated $400 trillion deficit by 2050.

Pensions Under Pressure

A pension is promised, but not necessarily guaranteed. Any changes made to existing government programs can alter the lives of future retirees entirely—but effective pension reforms that lessen the growing deficit are required urgently.

Towards a Better System

Certain countries are making great strides towards more sustainable pension systems, and the Global Pension Index suggests initiatives that governments can take into consideration, such as:

  1. Continuing to increase the age of retirement
  2. Increasing the level of savings—both inside and outside pension funds
  3. Increasing the coverage of private pensions across the labor force, including self-employed and contract employees, to provide improved integration between various pillars
  4. Preserving retirement funds by limiting the access to benefits before the retirement age
  5. Increasing the trust and confidence of all stakeholders by improving transparency of pension plans

Although 59% of employees are expecting to continue earning well into their retirement years, providing people with better incentives and options to make working at an older age easier could be crucial for ensuring continued economic growth.

Live Long and Prosper

As 2020 marks the beginning of the Decade of Healthy Ageing, the world is undoubtedly entering a pivotal period.

Countries all over the world face tremendous pressure to effectively manage their aging populations, but preparing for this demographic shift early will contribute to the economic advancement of countries, and allow populations—both young and old—to live long and prosper.

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Visualizing How the Demographics of China and India are Diverging

The world’s two most populous countries have some economic similarities, but China and India are also diverging in one key area: demographics.

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How the Demographics of China and India are Diverging

Within popular discourse, especially in the West, the profiles of China and India have become inextricably linked.

Aside from their massive populations and geographical proximity in Asia, the two nations also have deep cultural histories and traditions, growing amounts of influence on the world stage, and burgeoning middle classes.

China and India combine to be home to one-third of the world’s megacities, and they even had identical real GDP growth rates of 6.1% in 2019, based on early estimates by the IMF.

Diverging Demographics

But aside from the obvious differences in their political regimes, the two populous nations have also diverged in another way: demographics.

As seen in today’s animation, which comes from AnimateData and leverages data from the United Nations, the two countries are expected to have very different demographic compositions over time as their populations age.

The easiest way to see this is through a macro lens:

Populations of China and India (1950-2100)

 1950201920502100
🇮🇳 India 0.38 billion1.37 billion1.64 billion1.45 billion
🇨🇳 China0.55 billion1.43 billion1.40 billion1.06 billion

Although the countries have roughly the same populations today — by 2050, India will add roughly 270 million more citizens, and China’s total will actually decrease by 30 million people.

Let’s look at the demographic profiles of these countries to break things down further. We’ll do this by charting populations of age groups (0-14 years, 15-24 years, 25-64 years, and 65+ years).

China: Aftermath of the One-Child Policy

China’s one-child policy was implemented in 1979 — and although it became no longer effective starting in 2016, there’s no doubt that the long-term demographic impacts of this drastic measure will be felt for generations:

China Demographic Profile by Age and Population

The first thing you’ll notice in the above chart is that China’s main working age population cohort (25-64 years) has essentially already peaked in size.

Further, you’ll notice that the populations of children (0-14 years) and young adults (15-24 years) have both been on the decline for decades.

Typical population age structure diagrams

A reduction in births is something that happens naturally in a demographic transition. As an economy becomes more developed, it’s common for fertility rates to decrease — but in China’s case, it has happened prematurely through policy. As a result, the country’s age distribution doesn’t really fit a typical profile.

India: A Workforce Peaking in 2050

Meanwhile, projections have India reaching a peak workforce age population near the year 2050:

India Demographic Profile by Age and Population

By the year 2050, it’s estimated that India’s workforce age population will be comparable in size to that of China’s today — over 800 million people strong.

However, given that this is at least 30 years in the future, it raises all kinds of questions around the economic relevance of a “working age” population in a landscape potentially dominated by technologies such as artificial intelligence and automation.

Different Paths

While it’s clear that the world’s two most populous countries have some key similarities, they are both on very different demographic paths at the moment.

China’s population has plateaued, and will eventually decline over the remainder of the 21st century. There is plenty of room to grow economically, but the weight of an aging population will create additional social and economic pressures. By 2050, it’s estimated that over one-third of the country will be 60 years or older.

On the other hand, India is following a more traditional demographic path, as long as it is uninterrupted by drastic policy decisions. The country will likely top out at 1.6-1.7 billion people, before it begins to experience the typical demographic transition already experienced by more developed economies in North America, Europe, and Japan.

And by the time the Indian workforce age group hits 800+ million people, it will be interesting to see how things interplay with the world’s inevitable technological shift to automation and a changing role for labor.

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