Facebook has been mapping rural areas all over the world in an attempt to bring technological connectivity to everyone. Facebook Connectivity Lab released the population of the following places: Malawi, South Africa, Ghana, Haiti and Sri Lanka. They also promised to release more data of more places in the coming time. This project is a joint effort of the Facebook Connectivity Lab, Columbia University and the World Bank, though the reasons why Facebook is a part of it are different. It wants to launch wireless communications service all over the world even in rural area, and for this reason it is a part of this project. Facebook and its partners used software to locate buildings in commercially available satellite images, and then calculated population using census data and a few other surveys and programs. Convolutional neural networks launched a model capable of identifying individual buildings in images from across the world.
“There has been a lot of work recently on neural networks that can recognize individual buildings with very high accuracy, but these models are finely tuned on the local characteristics of the region where they are trained,” the Connectivity Lab’s Tobias Tiecke writes. “We found that these models do not perform well at a global scale with realistic amounts of training data. Therefore, we developed a model that is trained only on binary labeled data — if an image does or does not contain a building — which allows for fast acquisition of the training data.”
For this purpose Facebook is using its own technology – the image-analysis technology that powers the social network’s photo tagging features – to create detailed maps of where people live and how things such as population density impact their power to connect to the Internet. Facebook’s early findings show that of the 23 countries it researched, 99 percent of the population lives within 63 km of the nearest city, with 44 percent of people who line in cities. “Hence, if we are able to develop communication technologies that can bridge 63 km with sufficiently high data rates, we should be able to connect 99 percent of the population in these 23 countries,” Tiecke says.
Facebook has been researching some options for rural communication technologies, including the shoebox-size OpenCellular platform and a satellite initiative. The population maps will help Facebook further elaborate and redefine its models. “We would love to hear ideas (preferably also in an open manner) on how to bridge this distance in an economically viable fashion for line of sight and non-line of sight use cases, and we hope that by sharing these datasets we will stimulate further research,” Tiecke says. These highly-detailed maps can also be used for other uses, such as improving responses to natural disasters, the company said in a blog post announcing the project on Monday.