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Top Lights: Bright cities and their contribution to economic development

Richard Bluhm and Melanie Krause ()

No 41, MERIT Working Papers from United Nations University - Maastricht Economic and Social Research Institute on Innovation and Technology (MERIT)

Abstract: Tracking the development of cities in emerging economies is difficult with conventional data. We show that satellite images of nighttime lights are a reliable proxy for economic activity at the city level, provided they are first corrected for topcoding. The commonly-used data fail to capture the true brightness of many cities. We present a stylized model of urban luminosity and empirical evidence which both suggest that these 'top lights' can be characterized by a Pareto distribution. We then propose a simple correction procedure which recovers the full distribution of city lights. Our results show that the brightest cities account for nearly a third of global economic activity. Applying this approach to cities in Sub-Saharan Africa, we find that primate cities are outgrowing secondary cities but are changing from within. Poorer neighborhoods are developing, but sub-centers are forming so that Africa's largest cities are also becoming increasingly fragmented.

Keywords: Development; urban growth; night lights; top-coding; inequality (search for similar items in EconPapers)
JEL-codes: O10 O18 R11 R12 (search for similar items in EconPapers)
New Economics Papers: this item is included in nep-big, nep-geo, nep-gro and nep-ure
Date: 2018-11-05
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Working Paper: Top Lights - Bright Cities and their Contribution to Economic Development (2018) Downloads
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