May 25, 2022

Research Tools: New Satellite Image Database Maps the Dynamics of Human Presence on Earth (Open Access Resource)

From the European Commission Joint Research Center:

Built-up areas on the Earth have increased by 2.5 times since 1975. And yet, today 7.3 billion people live and work in only 7.6% of the global land mass. Nine out of the ten most populated urban centres are in Asia, while five out of the ten largest urban centres are in the United States. These are some of the numbers calculated by a new global database which tracks human presence on Earth, launched on 18 October 2016 by the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre at the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development (Habitat III).

Global Human Settlement Layer (GHSL)

While the growth of the global population is closely monitored by statistical offices, until now there has been little consistent, open and detailed information on the spatial distribution of people, and hardly any information on built-up areas with complete and global coverage.

For the first time, the Global Human Settlement Layer (GHSL) developed by the JRC with the support of the Directorate-General for Regional and Urban Policy (DG REGIO) makes it possible to analyse in a consistent and detailed manner the development of built-up areas, population and settlements of the whole planet over the past 40 years.

The GHSL is the most complete, consistent, global, free and open dataset on human settlements from villages to megacities. The datasets are based on more than 12.4k billions of individual image data records collected by different satellite sensors in the past 40 years. It combines satellite imagery on built-up areas, green areas and night lights with census data on population.

The GHSL can be used to check where and how people live, to measure the size of built-up areas and map their growth of over time, to calculate the density of cities and to analyse how green or how exposed to disasters urban centres are. It also provides a practical tool for the monitoring of the implementation of international frameworks.


The GHSL is the core baseline data supporting the first release of the “Atlas of the Human Planet”, an international collaborative effort within the Group of Earth Observation (GEO) Human Planet initiative. It aims to support the monitoring of the implementation of the post-2015 international frameworks: the UN Third Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development (Habitat III, 2016), the post-2015 framework on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, and the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030 (DRR).

The GHSL framework aims to provide new spatial data mining technologies for the automatic processing, analytics and knowledge extraction from large amount of heterogeneous spatial data.
These new tools are used by GHSL to produce new global information that is contributing to new global findings.

The new data mining technologies are openly documented and are freely available for the user and the scientific communities.

Direct to Global Human Settlement Layer (GHSL)

Read the Complete Announcement

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Gary Price ( is a librarian, writer, consultant, and frequent conference speaker based in the Washington D.C. metro area. Before launching INFOdocket, Price and Shirl Kennedy were the founders and senior editors at ResourceShelf and DocuTicker for 10 years. From 2006-2009 he was Director of Online Information Services at, and is currently a contributing editor at Search Engine Land.