The Land Where Displaced People Settle

    The Challenge

    Characterize land cover/land use at informal settlements of displaced populations using NASA satellite datasets.


    The number of people displaced from their home communities because of natural disasters or conflict has grown to 68.5 million people worldwide. Approximately 40 million of these people are Internally Displaced People (IDP), since they remain inside their country's borders. Another 25.4 million leave their countries and settle abroad as refugees, with the remaining roughly 3.1 million being at an intermediate stage of seeking asylum.

    Many IDP and refugees re-settle in urban areas or settlements planned by a humanitarian organization, while others self-settle in unplanned, usually rural settlements. Despite vulnerable people living in these informal settlements for many years and even decades, informal settlements are usually not well mapped and tend to be broadly excluded from census data collection and environmental monitoring. This leaves little systematic information about these settlements regarding their history, land-based opportunities (e.g., local access to water, firewood, and food), and environmental challenges.

    Remote sensing imagery collected by NASA satellites and instruments, such as Landsat, MODIS, GRACE, VIIRS, and others, capture an abundance of data related to environmental and climatic conditions, infrastructural change, and nighttime lighting conditions, as well as the multi-year and potentially multi-decadal changes therein. These data can thus give unique insights, and can help to improve global awareness of living conditions at informal settlements, which are home to ever-increasing populations of displaced people around the world.

    Your challenge is to design an approach that uses NASA Earth observations data to characterize land cover/land use conditions at informal settlements.

    Your approach should be:

    • Scalable (i.e., appropriate for application to several settlements),
    • Sensitive to the local geography and climate, and
    • Easily understandable for the residents, humanitarians, policy makers, scientists, and others who are committed to the welfare of vulnerable populations

    Potential Considerations

    Your approach could include many kinds of assessments, such as (but not limited to):

    • Tracking changes in agricultural or garden greenspace within or surrounding informal settlements;
    • Tracking changes in nighttime lights emissions;
    • Estimating fuel-wood consumption around the settlement;
    • Measuring changes in groundwater; and/or
    • Tracking changes in local land cover to identify the specific date when the settlement was established.

    These are merely suggestions. You are not required to take on all, or any, of the above, but rather you are encouraged to have a targeted question and application, even if some uncertainty or limitations remain.

    Your approach may not be consistently effective across a variety of landscapes populated by informal settlements. That is okay! Consider applying your approach at a range of different sites and identifying where and why your approach works or does not work.

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    SpaceApps is a NASA incubator innovation program.