When a major disaster strikes in remote parts of the world, knowing if the area is populated, and how densely, is crucial for the effective organisation of humanitarian operations. The Global Human Settlements Layer (GHSL), developed by the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC), will soon provide this detailed information for the first time on a global scale. The breakthrough is new advanced algorithms, developed by the JRC, that allow automatic analysis of medium resolution data provided by European satellites. The first test results confirm that the combined use of ICT technologies permit fast and precise mapping of built-up areas, anywhere in the world. In addition, the algorithms allow massive datasets to be processed more efficiently and rapidly, making it possible to monitor the changes in human settlements regularly and equally importantly, to collect the same information from heterogeneous satellite data. This can help to reduce risks in areas that experience recurrent disasters and to focus post-disaster humanitarian interventions on the most likely populated places in disaster affected countries and regions.