Industries in Depth

The gaps in global internet connectivity - as mapped by Facebook

People are silhouetted as they pose with mobile devices in front of a screen projected with a Facebook logo, in this picture illustration taken in Zenica October 29, 2014. Facebook Inc warned on Tuesday of a dramatic increase in spending in 2015 and projected a slowdown in revenue growth this quarter, slicing a tenth off its market value. Facebook shares fell 7.7 percent in premarket trading the day after the social network announced an increase in spending in 2015 and projected a slowdown in revenue growth this quarter.   REUTERS/Dado Ruvic (BOSNIA AND HERZEGOVINA  - Tags: BUSINESS SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY BUSINESS LOGO) - RTR4C0UZ

New maps show uneven distribution of internet access. Image: REUTERS/Dado Ruvic

Lynsey Chutel
Correspondant, Quartz
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To bring people the internet, first you have to figure out where there is no internet.

That’s why Facebook this week released a series of maps that begin the process of charting the gaps in access and connectivity around the world. The first set of maps, made available on Nov. 16, include Pretoria in South Africa, Lilongwe in Malawi, and the Ghanaian capital Accra, as well as cities in Haiti and Sri Lanka. The social media giant hopes to increase connectivity around the world by collecting data to better understand the challenges facing unconnected communities.

The open-source maps were created in collaboration with the Columbia University Center for International Earth Science Information Network and World Bank statistics to create datasets that incorporate population demographics, infrastructure development and existing internet penetration to identify the connectivity gaps and how to fix them. Making them open source means NGOs, innovators or companies can access them. They plan to release more maps over the coming months.

 Population and settlement in and around Pretoria, South Africa.
Image: Quartz/Facebook Connectivity Lab and Center for International Earth Science Information Network
 Population settlement in and around Accra, Ghana.
Image: Quartz/Facebook Connectivity Lab and Center for International Earth Science Information Network
  Population settlement in and around Lilongwe, Malawi.
Image: Quartz/Facebook Connectivity Lab and Center for International Earth Science Information Network

To create the maps, Facebook’s Connectivity Lab started by layering detailed satellite images and using computer vision techniques to identify physical infrastructure like buildings, then Columbia University researchers applied census data and population estimation. The data is made more precise and insightful with findings from the World Bank’s Living Standards Measurement Study.

In the countries they’ve analyzed so far, the project has found that about 50% of the population lives in cities. But almost everyone—99% of the population—live within 63 kilometers (nearly 40 miles) of a city. That could mean infrastructure developments to create internet access should be done with cellular services (rather than, say, wifi) which is better suited to connecting people who live far apart. The maps could also help identify natural or existing features that could help or hinder point-to-point links for scattered communities, for example a road or river.

Global satellite images of Malawi (left) and Kenya (right) and the generated models of building aggregation.
Image: Quartz/Facebook Connectivity Lab and Center for International Earth Science Information Network

Some might say Facebook’s determination to bring internet to the disconnected in the developing world is all about accessing more customers. Initiatives like its Free Basics program have had a mixed reception, but Facebook is pushing ahead with data-speeding projects like Voyager and nurturing a crop of African developers. Still, the social network does seem genuinely interested in connecting more people around the world, and whatever its intentions are, Africa is likely to benefit from that.

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