Informal Settlement Detection: The Challenge


Informal Settlements: Hiding In Plain Sight

Why we must shine a light on the scale (and exact location) of these massively disadvantaged populations.

Note: FDL Europe has focused on informal settlement detection in 2018, with key support of partners such as the European Space Agency, the Satellite Applications Catapult, University of Oxford, NVIDIA, and UNICEF. This article overviews the human context for this challenge. The current results of FDL Europe’s research in informal settlement detection can be found in part two of this article: FDL 2018 Informal Settlement Challenge.

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This is Asma.

Like many people reading this, she lives in a city. And like many 17-year old girls, she goes to school and loves being with her friends. She dreams of becoming a nurse and helping her family build a better life.

However, unlike you, she must share her worn out mattress with her six-year-old brother. When it rains, the roof leaks and the floor floods so she and all of her siblings pack into the one bed that will remain dry. Even when it doesn’t rain, she worries about rats and snakes creeping into her room since the door has a big gap at the bottom.

Unlike you, she doesn’t have a toilet  running water or electricity in her house. She says she feels horrible having to depend on a neighbour for a latrine. Especially when she has her period. Even going to the bathroom, she has no privacy.

Unlike you, she goes to school hungry, and sometimes goes an entire day without having a single meal. Luckily her friends sometimes share their food with her. She wishes her father could help her family  more, especially when they get sick. Which is often.

In so many ways, Asma is just like you and me. Yet in thousands of big and small ways, we can’t imagine how different her life is growing up and living in an informal settlement. But Asma’s story is not unique. In fact, to better understand the scale of the human challenge of informal settlement life, you need to take Asma’s story and multiply it by 1,800,000,000.

That’s how many people the UN projects will be living in conditions like Asma (or worse) by 2025. Already one in every four people living in a city around the world now lives in informal housing. In developing countries, it’s one in every three people. In Africa, where Asma lives, that rate is nearly two out of every three.


And the numbers are growing. 90% of urban growth is happening in developing countries. Leading all regions is sub-Saharan Africa, with urban growth rates double that of Latin America and Asia. Taken together, the population in informal housing is projected to total 1.8 billion within the next seven years.

That’s 1.8 billion people facing a lack of access to essential resources. Higher barriers to entry to economic markets. Greater vulnerability to disease outbreaks. Increased gender inequality. Higher risk of personal insecurity and sexual violence. Higher risks from natural and man-made disasters.

Out Of Sight, Out Of Mind.

Of course it’s easy to ignore a problem you can’t or don’t want to see. This is why informal settlements often spring up and then consolidate on unused lands on city fringes and packed into areas wedged between blocks of formal settlement. On paper, few of these informal settlements actually exist. They remain inadequately documented or even hidden from official maps, official planning and urban infrastructure. And while it’s true that climate change, natural disasters and wars contribute to an ever evolving distribution of informal settlements, even settlements that have existed in the same place for 20 years or more simply remain largely  undocumented, ignored, and unacknowledged.

An ongoing legacy of denial, acceptance, demolition and displacement has either continued the poverty cycle or, in fact, made it worse. This is often true with even the best intentioned, yet ad hoc and isolated humanitarian interventions. This is due to the fact that the causes of informal settlements are so complex and intertwined between social, economic and policy factors, there are few easy answers or quick fixes. It’s no wonder the challenge of integrating informal settlements has been largely ignored for so long.

Further clouding the issue is that studies on the quality of life in developing countries generally delineate solely between rural and urban populations - without breaking down differences within the urban population itself. When urban survey data aggregates both the “haves” and the “have-nots”, the extent of the daily challenges for children and families like Asma’s become obscured. The assumed increased quality of urban life versus rural life is true in aggregate, but these advantages are clearly out of reach of millions upon millions of urban dwellers.


Fortunately, world leading organizations such as the UN Human Settlements Program (UN-Habitat) are providing a clearer road map to sustainable urban development for the developing world. One of the key principles is that any housing and slum upgrading initiatives must focus on making targeted, incremental progress.  A step-by-step approach allows informal housing to be adapted over time. It also allows for the government to engage the community and assess and optimize formalization initiatives over time.

Another key roadmap principle is the need for evidence-based, multi-scale and multi-disciplinary approaches to integration. The challenges of informal settlements extend far beyond access to running water and sanitation. Politicians, urban planners, social services and commercial leaders must coordinate on interventions at multiple scales to provide a network of safe, open spaces, affordable public transportation and facilities that break down the formal / informal barriers that traditionally exist.

However, before a problem can be taken on and addressed in such a comprehensive way, it must be recognized. Politicians, NGO’s and society need to be confronted with the scope and scale of the issues facing those living in informal housing.

According to UNICEF, two new types of tools are seriously needed to enable this vision for informal integration:

  1. Disaggregated Urban Research: Studies tracking social development indicators must go beyond binary classifications of rural vs urban populations. When data for different wards of a given city are examined separately, it becomes clear that poverty and deprivation in low-income urban areas is often more severe than in rural areas.

  2. Effective Settlement Mapping: New innovations must arise enabling accurate, real-time mapping of informal settlements. Understanding the exact settlement locations and size of these settlements - as well as how these settlements have grown and changed over time - will provide a critical foundation for future integration initiatives.

As of right now, policy makers and development planners can’t clearly see the severity and scope of this challenge. It’s not that they aren’t looking at the maps and the research, it’s the lack of detail in these tools simply obscures the reality of daily life for Asma and myriad others.

We simply cannot allow 1.8 billion people to be hidden any longer.

Enter FDL Europe.

Frontier Development Lab (FDL) Europe is an artificial intelligence research accelerator established to apply AI technologies to challenges in space exploration for the benefit of all humankind. As part of its commitment to space-based Earth observation, FDL Europe has taken on the challenge of laying the foundation for AI-powered detection and mapping of informal settlements on a global basis.

Key to this initiative are public / private partnerships with the European Space Agency (ESA), the Satellite Applications Catapult, Oxford University and NVIDIA. With their support, FDL Europe has focused on training neural networks to recognize informal settlements on earth observation imagery from various satellite sources. Once completed, this initiative will enable real-time mapping of informal settlements around the world. It will also potentially enable historical mapping back in time as well as possibly the creation of important models that would help predict continued trends into the future.

To continue reading more about the progress of this FDL Europe initiative, go to part two of this article: Informal Settlements Detection: Results To Date.