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When planning rural development, understanding the unique spatial and social features of each settlement is essential. To bring local power systems to villages, engineers must map the area and then figure out the best configuration for the different elements.

A team of data scientists and graduate students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the United States has developed computer software that automatically interprets satellite imagery, identifying different types of buildings and making it easier for rural planners to design ‘microgrids’ suited to the local context.

These pictures illustrate the first stages of the GridForm project, where researchers travelled to rural India to inspect off-grid settlements and, working with local people, collected data to improve their software.

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