Satellite-derived nighttime light (NTL) data have been extensively used as an efficient proxy measure for monitoring urbanization dynamics and socioeconomic activity. This is because remotely sensed NTL signals can be quantitatively connected to demographic and socioeconomic variables at regional and global scales. The recently composited cloud-free NTL imagery derived from the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) aboard the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership (Suomi-NPP) satellite provides spatially detailed observations of human settlements. We quantitatively estimated socioeconomic development inequalities across 30 provinces and municipalities in mainland China using VIIRS NTL data associated with both regional gross domestic product (GDP) and population census data. We quantitatively investigated relations between NTL, GDP, and population using a linear regression model. Our results suggest that NTL radiances have significant positive correlations with GDP and population at different levels. Several inequality coefficients, commonly used in economics, were derived from VIIRS NTL data and statistical data at multiple spatial scales. Compared with the statistical data, NTL-derived inequality coefficients enabled us to elicit more detailed information on differences in regional development at multiple levels. Our study of provinces and municipalities revealed that county-level inequality was more significant than city-level inequality. The results of population-weighted NTL inequality indicate an obvious regional disparity with NTL distribution being more unequal in China’s undeveloped western regions compared with more developed eastern regions. Our findings suggest that given the timely and spatially explicit advantages of VIIRS, NTL data are capable of providing comprehensive information regarding inequality at multiple levels, which is not possible through the use of traditional statistical sources.
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