Celebrating World Population Day

How Facebook’s population density maps help nonprofits and other organizations realize their goals

July 11 marks World Population Day, a United Nations (U.N.) observance that seeks to call attention to the urgency and importance of population issues. The U.N. has set two main themes as this year’s focus: prioritizing the reproductive health and rights of all people, and addressing recent dramatic growth in the global population, which has huge implications for the world’s economic development, employment, income distribution, and poverty. 

Through Facebook Data for Good, we build privacy-preserving data products to address some of the world's greatest social issues, including population issues. We are acutely aware that population data in many countries is poor quality and out-of-date. In collaboration with Columbia University, we have built high-resolution population density maps that help nonprofit and multilateral agencies plan vaccination campaigns, respond to natural disasters, and evaluate rural electrification plans. We are commemorating World Population Day with a selection of stories from partners around the world who are leveraging our maps to provide services to people in need, as documented in recent working papers by NetHope and the GovLab. These maps are publicly available for over 150 countries and were downloaded over a million times last year.

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Supporting COVID-19 response around the world

Our population density maps have proved to be a valuable tool for organizations working to contain the COVID-19 virus. Through the Development Data Partnership, the World Bank (which is providing up to $160 billion to help countries address the health, social, and economic impacts of COVID-19) leveraged our population density maps to develop a framework to help city leaders prioritize resources for areas with the highest exposure risk, based on how difficult physical distancing might be, as well as conditions where people might need to congregate in order to access shared infrastructure, like public toilets and water pumps. For example, in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, researchers found that the distribution of population, together with the location of water kiosks, left 6.42 million people at increased risk of COVID-19 infection. These kinds of insights can allow local officials to determine the best way to distribute scarce resources throughout the city.

Used with permission from the World Bank.

Planning for the next wave of water investments in Malawi, Zambia, and Rwanda

In Malawi, 62 percent of the rural population depends on groundwater; however, it is estimated that one in three of the country’s water points does not work at any given time, leaving close to four million people without access to safe drinking water. Malawian social enterprise BASEflow is working to improve the sustainability of groundwater sources for the rural population. BASEflow has been providing support for a two-year mapping project to determine the location and usage of every water point in rural areas, which will inform an update to the country’s Rural Water Supply Investment Plan for the next 10 years. 

As part of this work, BASEflow has been using a feature called Population Within on the mWater platform, which leverages our high-resolution population density maps to determine how many people are within a given distance of a water source. This is important for determining whether locations are meeting the Malawi Government standard that requires a single hand pump to serve no more than 250 people within a radius of no more than 500 meters.

“Having accurate, accessible, and usable data helps curb a waste of scarce resources, which is all the more important in this time where governments are cutting back on their financial commitments towards water supply projects,” said Muthi Nhlema, BASEflow’s Team Leader. “Facebook’s high-resolution population density maps are extremely valuable to developing countries such as Malawi for effective planning, targeted investments, and efficient allocation of infrastructure investments.”

Similar to work being done in Malawi, the international nonprofit organization World Vision is leveraging Facebook’s population density maps to plan their next five years of water investments in Zambia, Rwanda, Ghana, and Honduras. For example, using Facebook’s high-resolution maps, World Vision has been able to determine exactly how populations in Rwanda and Zambia are distributed across targeted districts, as well as the proportion of them that are not currently served by existing waterpoints. These population-based insights will play an important role in tracking progress for World Vision’s 2021–2025 Business Plan, which aims to accelerate universal and equitable access to water, sanitation, and hygiene services in support of SDG 6 as well as to deepen focus on serving the most vulnerable people. Over the five-year period, World Vision seeks to support government counterparts in delivering clean water to 15 million people, improved sanitation to 14 million people, and improved hygiene to 18 million people. 

Supporting national electrification in Rwanda

Over 570 million people in sub-Saharan Africa, more than half of the region’s total population, lack access to electricity. But Waya Energy (WE), a company founded in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 2019, is tackling the issue. WE is building data models and software that address the UN’s seventh Sustainable Development Goal, which aims to ensure universal access to affordable, reliable, and modern energy services by 2030.

For example, WE has been supporting the development of Rwanda’s National Electrification Plan. Rwanda’s government, which has set the target of universal electrification by 2024, has stated that access to electricity is crucial to the country’s economic growth. As part of these efforts, WE used our high-resolution population density maps, also referred to as the High Resolution Settlement Layer (HRSL), to determine the location of residential customers as well as the expected growth in urban and rural areas for 2024. 

By combining population data and the location of different customer types, WE and its partners developed the design document for the Rwandan electrification plan, which aims to connect three million customers across the country by the end of this year.

As we commemorate World Population Day, we hope that our high-resolution population density maps continue to support the work of nonprofit organizations and researchers around the world, providing life saving services to populations in need. Over the course of this year, we will continue to update these maps to ensure that they provide timely and accurate insights to our partners working across the globe.

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