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What bright lights can tell you about a nation's economy

Composite image of the Earth at night assembled from data acquired by the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership (Suomi NPP) satellite over nine days in April 2012 and thirteen days in October 2012.

The pale blue dot aglow with millions of little lights. It's an image that never ceases to fascinate. But those lights might tell us more than you think.

A new study published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics says that cities and regions that are the birthplaces of a country's leader recieve perferential political and economic treatment in some nations, evidenced by how bright they appear from space after the leader comes into power.

From Wired Magazine:

Paul Raschky from the Monash Centre for Development Economics and Sustainability at Monash University in Australia compared the night-time light intensity of 38,427 subnational regions between 1992 and 2009 with the birthplaces of political leaders of 126 countries.

"Our results suggest that being the leader's birthplace increases night-time light intensity and regional GDP by around four and one per cent respectively," Raschky said, citing previous research that confirms the connection between economic activity and light generated at night.

Here's a look at some of the cities that the study examined, and other images from orbit that show how different economic conditions can change the view from space:

Gbadolite, Zaire (Democratic Republic of Congo)

A screenshot from NASA's "Blue Marble" application showing the city of Gbadolite. (Image courtesy of NASA Earth Observatory)

This small town in the Democractic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire) was emphazised by the study for the lavish economic favoritism bestowed upon it by the country's authoritarian president, Mobutu Sese Seko, who was born near Gbadolite.

"Mobuto built a huge palace complex costing millions of dollars, luxury guesthouses, an airport capable of handling Concords, and had the country's best supply of water, electricity and medical services," says study researcher Paul Raschky.

Hambantota, Sri Lanka

A screenshot from NASA's "Blue Marble" application showing the region of Hambantota, on the southern tip of Sri Lanka. (Image courtesy of NASA Earth Observatory)

Another region identified in the study for receiving preferential treatment from Sri Lankan president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was born in the district. The largest city in the area, Hambantota has a population of 11,000, has seen the construction of a 35,000-seat cricket stadium, and has plans to build a large port.

North Korea and South Korea

An image taken from the International Space Station on Jan. 30, 2014, shows South Korea (lower right) and China (upper left) with North Korea in the center. (Image courtesy of NASA Earth Observatory) 

A photograph from space perfectly illustrates differences in economic development between North and South Korea — a brightly illuminated South, and an eerily dark North.

The Nile River

(Image courtesy of NASA Earth Observatory)

The Nile River with its valleys and delta make up less than five percent of Egypt’s land area, but more than 90 percent of its population lives there. The string of lights illuminating the river's path through the country at night highlights the societal importance of the Nile in Egypt.

North Dakota's fracking fields

Illustration by NPR/NASA

An NPR science writer was looking through NASA's images of Earth at night, and noticed an unusual glow coming from the normally fairly dark North Dakota, one that revealed how the light across the U.S. is still subject to economic changes.

Their explanation:

What we have here is an immense and startlingly new oil and gas field — nighttime evidence of an oil boom created by a technology called fracking. Those lights are rigs, hundreds of them, lit at night, or fiery flares of natural gas. One hundred fifty oil companies, big ones, little ones, wildcatters, have flooded this region, drilling up to eight new wells every day on what is called the Bakken formation.

What was previously wheat and corn fields has quickly become a blazing energy business that has made North Dakota the second largest gas-producing state in the country.

About the author

Shea Huffman is a graduate of USC's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, and a fill-in web producer for Marketplace.

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