maps

Cell data reveal where people are poorest

Researchers are using mobile phone data to pinpoint extreme poverty.

The effort, which focuses on Senegal, aims to improve maps that imprecisely break down poverty by 14 geographical regions. For example, Tambacounda (an area roughly the size of Tennessee) receives a blanket poverty assessment that covers more than 680,000 people, regardless of where in the region they live and under what circumstances.

Researchers believe that call data records from millions of people, when fused with census and household survey data, can be used to drill down to at least 123 arrondissements (similar to US counties) nationwide, providing an unparalleled look at which communities lack access to food, health care, education, and other human necessities.

The images above are maps of Senegal. The lighter the color, the more poverty the region suffers. Using cellphone data records, Researchers were able to drill down from 14 regions (left map) to 123 areas (right map). (Credit: Neeti Pokhriyal)
The images above are maps of Senegal. The lighter the color, the more poverty the region suffers. Using cellphone data records, Researchers were able to drill down from 14 regions (left map) to 123 areas (right map). (Credit: Neeti Pokhriyal)

The approach, described in a research paper presented at a Massachusetts Institute of Technology conference earlier this year, could be replicated in other developing nations. It also could provide aid organizations and government agencies a quick and cost-efficient tool to prescribe policy solutions for specific regions or groups of people often marginalized, such as women or the elderly.

“The lack of data in underdeveloped countries is a serious concern. It impedes development and disaster-relief, as well as efforts to provide hundreds of millions of people with basic necessities of education, health, and livelihood,” says Neeti Pokhriyal, a computer science PhD candidate at the University at Buffalo who is analyzing the mobile phone records.

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To create poverty maps, the team examines nationwide where mobile phone calls and texts are placed and where they are received. The greater the flow of information to and from a region, the less likely that region suffers from extreme poverty.

Researchers then compare their findings to existing poverty maps at coarser resolution. The positive correlations between the two sets of data provide information that the team uses to generate poverty maps of increasingly finer resolution.

The team is working with the Senegalese government, as well as Sonatel, the nation’s major telecom provider, to develop a model that can be implemented nationwide.

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The ultimate goal, Pokhriyal says, is to provide a more in-depth analysis. For example, the team aims to drill down from the 123 arrondissements to individual communities, and provide information on women, the elderly, and other demographics often marginalized.

Pokhriyal, assistant professor Wen Dong, and professor Venu Govindarju began the project in 2014, after the Senegalese Ministry of Higher Education and Research announced the Data for Development Senegal Challenge, a worldwide contest that provided scientists with anonymous data from the country’s mobile phone network.

In April 2015, contest organizers declared the researchers team one of nine winning teams. They received an additional boost in July when the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation awarded the team a grant to continue the research.

Source: University at Buffalo

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