By Tom Simonite
WHEN THE NOVEL coronavirus reached Togo in March, its leaders, like those of many countries, responded with stay-at-home orders to suppress contagion and an economic assistance program to replace lost income. But the way Togo targeted and delivered that aid was in some ways more tech-centric than many larger and richer countries. No one got a paper check in the mail...
Government officials contacted Joshua Blumenstock, codirector of University of UC Berkeley’s Center for Effective Global Action, who’d been researching how big data can fill information gaps facing countries like Togo. His lab had shown that phone records could predict individual wealth in Rwanda about as well as in-person surveys, and that satellite images could track areas of poverty in sub-Saharan Africa.
Blumenstock offered to adapt his technology to help and enlisted a team that came to include Berkeley grad students, two faculty members from Northwestern, and the nonprofit Innovations for Poverty Action. He also connected Lawson with GiveDirectly, which distributes cash payments in poor countries. GiveDirectly had talked with Blumenstock before about using his work to prioritize aid and now saw a chance to put the idea into action...
Blumenstock and his team trained image analysis algorithms to create a fine-grained map of Togo from satellite images, calibrated using a 2018 household survey that had reached only part of the country. The algorithms picked up indicators of wealth and poverty such as different roofing materials and road surfaces. The researchers built a second system that estimates the wealth of users of Togo’s two primary cell networks, using calling patterns and other account details, like credit top-ups. That part of the system was based on a phone survey in September of about 10,000 people in the poorest regions flagged by the satellite analysis. GiveDirectly also sent a small team to Togo to gather additional information on communities in need.
Joshua Blumenstock is an associate professor at the UC Berkeley School of Information, the director of the Data-Intensive Development Lab, and the faculty co-director of the Center for Effective Global Action.