COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Orbital Insight and the World Bank are testing satellite imagery and artificial intelligence software that could be used to measure global poverty.
Poverty is currently measured by door-to-door surveys, a costly and time-consuming endeavor. Using satellites for data collection could improve the accuracy of poverty information collected by allowing researchers to collect data more frequently and with a higher level of detail.
“Data depravation is a serious issue, especially in many of the countries where we need it most.” says David Newhouse, senior economist at the World Bank.
A recent study conducted by the World Bank found that more than 50 countries lack legitimate poverty estimates and two-fifths of countries fail to conduct a household survey every five years. Updated and accurate poverty estimations through the use of satellites for data collection could allow the World Bank and other institutions to better meet the needs of the world’s poorest populations.
The new technology will be pilot tested in Sri Lanka. If it is successful, the World Bank plans to launch it worldwide. According to Orbital, its artificial intelligence software will analyze images of cars, building and rooftop heights and other characteristics to see if they can estimate wealth effectively.
“If you see more cars, or more cars overtime, that could be an indicator of relative wealth in a village versus another that hasn’t seen growth in cars overtime,” said Jeff Stein, Vice President of Business Development at Orbital Insight.
Stein believes the satellites and artificial intelligence software will be able to effectively give researchers an idea of where people are and their relative income level.
The information gathered through the pilot study will be compared to census data from Sri Lanka’s government. Comparing the information from using satellites for data collection and previously retrieved census data will allow the World Bank to measure the effectiveness and accuracy of the new technology.
Using satellites to measure poverty may actually cost less than sending a person to administer surveys in remote villages. Satellites can be built for cheap and many companies already have satellites in space that are being used to collect data about human life on Earth.
This project is important because it could help World Bank determine where to allocate its resources. According to Newhouse, a final report from World Bank is expected next May or June.