The virtual launch event of the Atlas of the Human Planet 2020 Open geoinformation for research, policy, and action organised by the Directorate for Space, Security and Migration of the European Commission Directorate General Joint Research Centre (JRC), gathered about 100 participants from several continents and various expertise. Alessandra Zampieri, Head of the Disaster Risk Management Unit of the JRC, moderated the meeting.

In the first part of the event, JRC and the Group on Earth Observations (GEO) introduced the Atlas 2020 in the perspective of the support of geospatial information to global policy frameworks and the COVID-19 pandemic. In the second part of the event, seven experts from International Organisations and the European Commission discussed relevant applications and opportunities of geospatial data for policy and action.


Dan Chirondojan, Director at the Directorate for Space Security and Migration of the JRC opened the webinar, highlighting the special role of the JRC as the science and knowledge service of the European Commission. This role is particularly relevant in times of the COVID-19 global health crisis that require strong evidence and information systems to take decisions. An example in this regard is the JRC COVID-19 developed by the Disaster Risk Management Unit.

The COVID-19 pandemic is sometimes referred to as an ‘urban’ disease, because it needs close contacts to transmit. In order to fight the virus better we need information about the whereabouts of people and features of the settlements. The Global Human Settlement Layer (GHSL) provides information in that respect and is a prime example of the JRC mission to provide science-based evidence for EU policy making. Over the past ten years, the GHSL has contributed to the transformation of Earth Observation data into accepted statistics on global human built-up and population: on the basis of the GHSL data, the UN Statistical Commission endorsed in March 2020 a methodology for delineation of cities and urban and rural areas for international and regional statistical comparison purposes.

The Atlas of the Human Planet 2020, Open geo-information for research, policy, and action, shows that the uses of GHSL cut across several policy domains of the EU: the innovative tools based on advanced machine learning and artificial intelligence contribute to the digital transformation agenda; the GHSL data can measure human and physical exposure to natural and man-made hazards and consequently contribute to the protection of European citizens and disaster risk reduction; in combination with other data sets, the GHSL data can report about the quality of our urban environment hence contributing to the European Green Deal. Detailed knowledge about population and infrastructure is also crucial for sustainable development. This was recognized when 193 world leaders agreed upon the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015, and promised to “leave no one behind.” Nevertheless, without reliable and timely population data linked to location, we cannot ensure that everyone is accounted for and that no one will be left behind. This is only one of the reasons why in the future the GHSL data will be produced by the Copernicus Emergency Management Service to assure a regular update of the built-up and population data that is required for SDG monitoring and is crucial for crisis management.

Steven Ramage, Head of External Relations at GEO presented the Group as a community based on Open Data and Open Science, important for reproducibility, accountability and transparency with almost 120 member states and hundreds of national government agencies. GEO operates via an international work programme with 70 activities. One of the leading activities is the Human Planet Initiative (HPI), which aims to support novel evidence-based assessment of the human presence on the planet Earth. The HPI leverages on advances of Earth Observation technologies and geo-spatial data analytics for improving global awareness on the spatial patterns and processes of the urbanising world of today. New open, inclusive and consistent data are needed for assessing humanity’s impact on the planet, access to resources, and exposure to risk. New knowledge is needed in order to translate these new data into actionable information to support decision making by governments, organizations and individuals.

The HPI involves more than 150 individual scientists and policy makers belonging to 85 different organisations including academies, international stakeholders, governmental bodies and the private sector.

The Atlas

Thomas Kemper, GHSL Project Leader at the JRC, presented the Atlas of the Human Planet 2020. The presentation started from the GHSL concept of data and tools for assessing the human presence on the planet Earth through global information on built-up areas, population, and settlements. These data and tools are produced for the understanding and monitoring of the human and physical exposure to natural and man-made disasters, of the impact of human activities on the ecosystems, and human access to resources.

The Atlas of the Human Planet is the annual science for policy report that offers a thematic exploration of GHSL data. The 2020 edition is the fifth in the series.

Previous editions focused on

Graphics from the cover of the Atlas of the Human Planet 2020
Graphics from the cover of the Atlas of the Human Planet 2020
This year the Atlas contains 37 showcases of application of the GHSL data from partners (including the JRC, the European Commission, the GEO HPI, and other international organisations). The focus of these applications is on four thematic domains:

  • Disaster Risk Management (12 applications);
  • Urbanisation (9 applications);
  • Development (9 applications);
  • Environment (7 applications).

Each of the thematic domains has a close link to the following policy domains:

  • disaster risk management (the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction);
  • urbanisation (SDG 11 and New Urban Agenda);
  • Development (the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development);
  • Environment and sustainability (European Green Deal and UNFCCC Paris Agreement).

All applications show action oriented, transformative and scalable solutions to make progress in the aforementioned policy frameworks.

Since the first public data release, GHSL has evolved in terms of sensors of the input data, from Landsat to Sentinel sources, has improved its methods (symbolic machine learning and convolutional neural networks), and diversified its products (raster grids and databases). In 2021 a new release of GHSL data is planned, based on Sentinel-2 imagery, and at new resolutions of 10 m for the built-up grid, and 100 m for the population and built-up grids. Such improvements will help minimizing overestimation of built-up areas, but also the mapping of the population at higher spatial resolutions. The Atlas contains an outlook section where the GHSL research team has highlighted areas of potential research to improve information on human settlements. In addition to these improvements, the integration of the GHSL data production in the operational Copernicus Emergency Management Service is expected to assure a long-term availability of updated GHSL data. This will allow the delivery of regular updates of global grids, starting possibly in 2022.


Robert Chen, Director of the Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN) at Columbia University, delivered the first presentation on the Atlas thematic areas. Prof. Chen discussed the showcase “Mapping the COVID-19 Pandemic and Potential Risk Factors”. CIESIN-SEDAC operates the web platform “Global COVID-19 Viewer” to fill the gap in the information about the spread of the COVID-19. The platform supports the visualisation and analysis of COVID-19 cases and deaths in relationship to the population in areas of interest to users around the world. The viewer takes into account epidemiological models for predicting the spread of the virus, and allows the analysis of the spread of the pandemic in relation to sex, age, air quality, degree of urbanisation, elevation and air temperature. The GHS-SMOD is among the data sources used to create this tool, and it is the reference for urbanisation and settlement classification statistics to show population and land area by settlement classes for both existing and user-defined geographic areas. The Global COVID-19 Viewer can show the correlation between age-sex and other parameters, cases and mortality per 100k people, and the visualisation of trends among others.

SEDAC Global COVID-19 Viewer showing a population-weighted 7-day moving average of cases in Europe as of 1 December 2020 and an age pyramid for the combined populations of the UK, Spain, and Portugal.
SEDAC Global COVID-19 Viewer showing a population-weighted 7-day moving average of cases in Europe as of 1 December 2020 and an age pyramid for the combined populations of the UK, Spain, and Portugal.

Michael Sutcliffe, Partner at City Insight ltd, presented the showcase "Metropolitan spaces in Africa" as example of the Urbanisation section of the Atlas 2020. Metropolis, the metropolitan section of the World Organisation of United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG), is the world agency for big metropolitan areas across the world. Metropolis collects indicators for its member cities focusing on metropolitan spaces rather than jurisdictional units and conducted their first regional report on African metropolitan spaces. GHSL data were combined with other socio-economic and governance related data on metropolitan spaces to analyse the status of metropolises in Africa. The research found evidence that metropolisation leads to improvements in governance, economy, social development, gender disparities and the ability to address climate change and improve environmental sustainability.

Population growth in large cities in Africa 1975 - 2015
Population growth in large cities in Africa 1975 - 2015

Nuno Nunes, Coordinator of the Displacement Tracking Matrix (DTM) at the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), presented the showcase “Estimates of Rural and Urban Displacement Trends”. IOM utilizes the GHSL data to better understand how people are internally displaced due to conflicts and disasters around the world. The enables decision makers and responders to provide these people with better context specific assistance by analysing the geographical distribution of internally displaced persons across urban, peri-urban, and rural areas using the GHS-SMOD database.

Algorithm for Urban Disaggregation of IDPs from area-based assessments. The procedure comprises a matching between the Global Human Settlement Layer and geo-localised displacement figures.
Algorithm for Urban Disaggregation of IDPs from area-based assessments. The procedure comprises a matching between the Global Human Settlement Layer and geo-localised displacement figures.

Monica Crippa, Air and Climate Unit, JRC, presented the showcase “Global air pollutant emissions in urban centres” as example of the environment and sustainability section of the Atlas. The Emissions Database for Global Atmospheric Research (EDGAR) produced by JRC provides consistent greenhouse gas and air pollutant emissions at the global scale from 1970 to today, also disaggregated by emission sector. The EDGAR database is widely used in atmospheric modelling and policymaking. The disaggregation by quality of emission has improved thanks to the GHS-SMOD database that enabled the quantification of emissions from urban centres compared to rural areas at the global level and the estimation of their evolution over the past 45 years. Results from this analysis can help identifying the most polluting areas all over the world and the definition of adequate mitigation measures to improve local, regional and global air quality.

Air pollutant and CO2 emissions by sector in urban centres in 2015
Air pollutant and CO2 emissions by sector in urban centres in 2015

Panel discussion

Lewis Dijkstra, Head of the Economic Analysis Sector, DG REGIO, moderated the discussion on the relevance and the challenges of global open geoinformation in supporting decision making and implications for the GHSL.

Dennis Mwaniki, Spatial Data Expert at the Global Urban Observatory Unit (UN-HABITAT), described the role of open and global geospatial information in the context of the New Urban Agenda and the SDG’s. He explained that the SDGs have also created new challenges for countries that should provide data for monitoring many indicators. In this context, open data has proven to be very useful and the GHSL is particularly convenient because it provides multi-temporal data and disaggregated population data that are required for some indicators. Meanwhile geospatial data has become a key component for UN-HABITAT to link data with spatial analysis. Mr. Mwaniki has also highlighted the ample application range of open geospatial data and the usefulness of open methods and tools that allow countries to apply those methods to their own data.

Ioannis Andredakis, Security and Situational Awareness Unit, DG ECHO, presented how DG ECHO uses GHSL population and settlement information through the Copernicus Emergency Management Services (CEMS) and Global Disaster Alert and Coordination System GDACS. For the Emergency Response and Coordination Centre (ERCC) in Brussels the GHSL data has become essential for day-to-day operation and they are used to estimate amounts of population subject to hazards or emergencies of for early warning systems. The information is directly used for policy decisions: budget to commit and number of people affected among others.

Lars Gronvald, Sustainable Transport and Urban Development Unit, DG INTPA, discussed the challenges that development and cooperation actors may face regarding urban information for data poor countries and how those gaps can be mitigated. DG INTPA identify that GHSL data can help in monitoring systematically the impact of the SDGs in urban areas compared to rural areas and recognises the importance of engagement to mitigate the gaps in information for data poor countries and of the training to partners. GHSL data proved helpful for urban and infrastructure planning to improve investment gaps leading to better prioritisation and better planning.

Rüdiger Arend, Head of the Economic Analysis, Statistics and Multi-Level Governance Division, OECD Centre for Entrepreneurship, SMEs, Regions & Cities, explained the importance of open, harmonised global data for the development of a global definition of cities, urban and rural areas, making reference to the Cities in the World report recently released by the OECD and the EC, which relies on GHSL data. In order to succeed with the SDGs and the goals of the Paris Agreement, the indicators used to monitor such goals need to be on global scale and harmonised due to the different definitions of urban and rural areas. These definitions, although fitting on a local scale, render the comparison across countries useless, if not harmful. Indicators and the underlying data need also to be open for credibility and impact and for the reproducibility of results. Moreover, if data are open and free, more people can do more and make more progress. Open data are also important because organisations requiring data are often non-profit and might not have the resources to buy commercial data. The global definition of urban and rural areas, based on GHSL open data and methods allows for a global scale analysis. OECD is setting up the Geospatial Lab as a network for people that want to share work and knowledge on geospatial data and to link academic community, institutions and private sector; the second objective of the Geospatial Lab is to harmonise the way geospatial data are used and create a repository of geospatial data.

Ellen Hamilton, Lead Urban Specialist at The World Bank, explained how the Bank is using open geospatial information on settlements and offered an outlook about future data sets on human settlements that users need the most. She argued that GHSL data allow a better understanding of population location, in what sort of concentration, what kind of risks people are facing, how that has changed over time. A promising field of development would be to make population geospatial data broken down by age.

Hugo de Groof, DG ENV, discussed about how open data with global and European coverage could support the European Green Deal in policy formulation and implementation. He underlined how getting the right data can help supporting the European Green Deal, hence the importance of sharing public data, also with the private sector. He also stressed that the European Commission is preparing a regulatory framework, part of the Open Data Directive, to make sure that open data becomes the common standard.

Andrea de Bono, Head of Data & Information Sustainability (DIES) at UNEP, explained how his organisation uses globally harmonised information on population and settlements to implement the workplan. UNEP is in charge of the climate change panel and uses the GHSL data to show climate changes in relation to the population changes and the spatial distribution to show the correlation between the human activities and the CO2 emissions. A valuable deployment of GHSL data is also in support to projects of UNEP such as the Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction (GAR) and to produce land take and land use indicators to support the Barcelona Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment and the Coastal region in the Mediterranean basin.

Tom De Groeve, Deputy Head of Unit in the JRC Disaster Risk Management Unit, closed the meeting inviting the audience to expect a GHSL data release in 2021 based on Copernicus Sentinel-2 data.