A comparison of nighttime light emissions across China during the early months of COVID-19 shows how satellite sensing data can provide early detection of trouble.

Business leaders across the globe are increasingly dismayed at feeling left in the dark about the size and severity of the COVID-19 outbreak. Suppliers in affected countries, such as China, are no longer able to confirm orders. The stock and oil markets are in disarray. Governments worldwide have been slow to report on the true scale of the economic slowdown. The lack of reliable, timely, inexpensive, and easy-to-obtain information about the severity and impact of COVID-19 has revealed a glaring weakness in global management.

One source of data the authors rely on in their economic research can provide a clear picture of the economic impact of COVID-19 and similar disasters. Nighttime light emissions data, a novel class of remote sensing data, measures the total amount of light produced at night in a given region. It can be used by businesses, such as airlines, to monitor progression and effects of significant continuity threats, such as natural disasters and civil unrest, as well as economic recovery in near real time and at little cost. Nighttime light emissions have the potential to reduce reliance on slow-moving government statistics and questionable media reporting, and the data can be used to augment or replace other less timely and less accurate economic proxies to see when and where industry-related activity is changing.

The authors believe that the analysis of this data can be used to help managers and senior leaders navigate existential threats, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, by providing early warning about the impact of episodes in regions where they might have operations, suppliers, or customers.


What Remote Sensing Data Is Showing

The authors‘ large-scale research project of daily data at the Global Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland uses remote sensing data from satellites and other sources to monitor short-term changes in economic and social activity.
The authors have found that satellite nighttime light emissions data is particularly effective at quantifying the economic and social impact of COVID-19. Nighttime light emissions are a strong proxy for economic activity. Therefore, the researchers analyzed light emissions data from the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS), a joint endeavor by the United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and NASA. The researcher’s findings:

  • Nighttime light data shows that COVID-19 has had a clear and discernible impact on almost all major Chinese cities.
  • During the research, the severity of the reduction in light emissions along intercity highways was detected.
  • The results suggest that Chinese citizens started self-isolating before the government quarantines — earlier than commonly believed.


Shanghai at Night Before the COVID-19 Outbreak
Satellite nighttime light emissions data for Shanghai, China, from Jan. 3, 2020.

Global Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the University of St. Gallen, using data from NOAA Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS).


How Companies Can Use Remote Sensing Data

The most crucial attribute for successfully navigating the coming weeks and months is strong, sustained, and committed leadership at all levels of your company. However, leaders are blind without accurate and timely information. The authors strongly believe that this emerging class of satellite-based remote sensing data, when used appropriately, provides opportunities for unique insights:

  • Sensing data can provide early detection of trouble points.
  • Monitoring allows near real-time overview of certain threats.
  • Data can unearth the unexpected.

The length of time it has taken countries around the world to treat COVID-19 as a serious threat shows that many governments and supporting international organizations have been caught unprepared. This lack of preparedness has manifested in unreliable statistics and insufficient communication. Companies are now being attacked by an existential threat, the impact and severity of which is difficult to ascertain. This type of information – Nighttime light emissions data – can help companies doing business in affected regions to identify disruptions in real time, rather than waiting for official statistics, which may be slow, inaccurate, and without local data. Senior leaders need access to timely and accurate information to manage what is an inherently daunting challenge. Combined with other real-time proxies for consumer behavior, such as geolocation data and credit card transactions as well as more novel sources of information such as ground emission monitoring stations, social media posts, and traffic congestion readings, nighttime light emissions data can help leaders detect economic trends during a time of crisis with a level of timeliness once unimaginable.

The complete article is available here.