Technology is changing how we measure poverty

There's definitely a move toward more evidence-based decision-making in the social services sector. Much of what drives that, of course, is the increasing amount of data available to inform those decisions. Read below how the World Bank and countries it works with are transitioning from the days of using paper and pens to collect household data about poverty levels to using technologies that produce more and better data about poverty. – Liz Enbysk


“The tech revolution is really changing the way we work. For the better," suggests Alvin Etang Ndip, a World Bank economist who leads the organization's Listening to Africa (L2A) initiative (video link) which collects information on living conditions on the continent.

L2A has piloted the use of mobile phones to monitor well-being, starting with face-to-face interviews and then regularly following up with interviews by phone. It hands out mobile phones and solar chargers to participants.

As a news piece on the World Bank site points out: "Mobile phone surveys have become a reliable and useful complement to household surveys, and in many cases are enabling countries to reach and respond to their citizens during crises, conflict and economic shocks when face-to-face data collection would be extremely difficult and when immediate information is critical."

With a goal to end extreme poverty by 2030, it's important to have accurate data on what's working and where progress is being made – and not being made.

Mobile phones are just one approach to modernizing the collection of data on poverty. Here are a few more:

  • Putting a human face on poverty: In the World Bank's Pulse of South Sudan initiative (video link), tablets are used not only to collect data, but also to record short, personalized testimonials from the people interviewed – giving the data and statistics a human face.
  • Smart Survey boxes: In energy-challenged Tajikistan in Central Asia, teams are installing technology to monitor energy usage. By automatically sending information on outages in real time, the smart boxes can help identify patterns.
  • Satellite imagery: In Mexico the World Bank and partners are using satellite images along with survey data to get a better estimate of the number of people living below the poverty line down to the municipal level.

“Technology can be harnessed in three different ways,” suggests Utz Pape, an economist with the World Bank. “It can help improve data quality of existing surveys; it can help to increase the frequency of data collection to complement traditional household surveys, and can also open up new avenues of data collection methods to improve our understanding of people’s behaviors.”

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This article is from the Council's Compassionate Cities initiative which highlights how city leaders and other stakeholders can leverage smart technologies to end suffering in their communities and give all citizens a route out of poverty. Click the Compassionate Cities box on our registration page to receive our weekly newsletter.

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