Facebook Is Putting Us All on the Map
2019 has been a distinctly dramatic year for Facebook. Since January, the social media behemoth has been hit with a $5 billion fine for privacy violations and remains embroiled in U.S. antitrust investigations. In June, the company announced the release of Libra, its very own form of cryptocurrency, sparking criticism and speculation around the world.
Amidst all this hubbub, you may have missed that Facebook has also begun using artificial intelligence to map most of the population of the African continent. Facebook researchers combined computer vision techniques, population data, and high-resolution satellite imagery to search for built-up structures across the continent. They then created population density maps based on the number of buildings they observed.
Facebook’s Connectivity Lab has already released similar population maps for 22 countries, including Malawi, South Africa, Ghana, Haiti, and Sri Lanka, but this is its first continent-wide effort. Eventually the company plans to map population density around the world.
Facebook positions its map-making as a humanitarian effort emphasizing how the data (which is freely available to everyone) will enable aid agencies to “determine how populations are distributed even in remote areas, so that health care workers can better reach households and relief workers can better distribute aid.” It’s rhetoric that sounds rather similar to how Facebook is pitching the Libra cryptocurrency, which it claims will help poor people access financial services. Both Facebook’s altruistic-sounding maps and Libra invite the same key question: What’s in it for Facebook?
When Facebook first announced its mapping program in a February 2016 blog post, it didn’t use the word “humanitarian” at all. Instead, it described how the company was making better maps to “connect the unconnected and underserved in the world,” and how “accurate knowledge about the population distribution” was at the core of its efforts to get more people onto the internet. The map-making project was presented as a component of the company’s Internet.org project, a 2013 plan to get people around the world online, initially by partnering with telecom operators to offer internet services to people in developing markets…