Mapping Informal Settlements in Developing Countries using Machine Learning and Low Resolution Multi-spectral Data

Bradley Gram-Hansen, Patrick Helber, Indhu Varatharajan, Faiza Azam, Alejandro Coca-Castro, Veronika Kopackova, Piotr Bilinski

In: AAAI/ACM Conference on Artificial Intelligence, Ethics, and Society. AAAI/ACM Conference on Artificial Intelligence, Ethics, and Society (AIES-2019) January 27-28 Honolulu Hawaii United States AAAI 2019.


Informal settlements are home to the most socially and economically vulnerable people on the planet. In order to deliver effective economic and social aid, non-government organizations (NGOs), such as the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), require detailed maps of the locations of informal settlements. However, data regarding informal and formal settlements is primarily unavailable and if available is often incomplete. This is due, in part, to the cost and complexity of gathering data on a large scale. An additional complication is that the definition of an informal settlement is also very broad, which makes it a non-trivial task to collect data. This also makes it challenging to teach a machine what to look for. Due to these challenges we provide three contributions in this work. 1) A brand new machine learning data-set, purposely developed for informal settlement detection that contains a series of low and very-high resolution imagery, with accompanying ground truth annotations marking the locations of known informal settlements. 2) We demonstrate that it is possible to detect informal settlements using freely available low-resolution (LR) data, in contrast to previous studies that use very-high-resolution (VHR) satellite and aerial imagery, which is typically cost-prohibitive for NGOs. 3) We demonstrate two effective classification schemes on our curated data set, one that is cost-efficient for NGOs and another that is cost-prohibitive for NGOs, but has additional utility. We integrate these schemes into a semi-automated pipeline that converts either a LR or VHR satellite image into a binary map that encodes the locations of informal settlements. We evaluate and compare our methods. See here for both the source code and data sets:

Deutsches Forschungszentrum für Künstliche Intelligenz
German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence