How Satellite Data and Artificial Intelligence could help us understand poverty better

Maya Craig at Fast Company: “Governments and development organizations currently measure poverty levels by conducting door-to-door surveys. The new partnership will test the use of AI to supplement these surveys and increase the accuracy of poverty data. Orbital said its AI software will analyze satellite images to see if characteristics such as building height and rooftop material can effectively indicate wealth.

The pilot study will be conducted in Sri Lanka. If successful, the World Bank hopes to scale it worldwide. A recent study conducted by the organization found that more than 50 countries lack legitimate poverty estimates, which limits the ability of the development community to support the world’s poorest populations.

“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. “This technology has the potential to help us get that data more frequently and at a finer level of detail than is currently possible.”

The announcement is the latest in an emerging industry of AI analysis of satellite photos. A growing number of investors and entrepreneurs are betting that the convergence of these fields will have far-reaching impacts on business, policy, resource management and disaster response.

Wall Street’s biggest hedge-fund businesses have begun using the technology to improve investment strategies. The Pew Charitable Trust employs the method to monitor oceans for illegal fishing activities. And startups like San Francisco-based Mavrx use similar analytics to optimize crop harvest.

The commercial earth-imaging satellite market, valued at $2.7 billion in 2014, is predicted to grow by 14% each year through the decade, according to a recent report.

As recently as two years ago, there were just four commercial earth imaging satellites operated in the U.S., and government contracts accounted for about 70% of imagery sales. By 2020, there will be hundreds of private-sector “smallsats” in orbit capturing imagery that will be easily accessible online. Companies like Skybox Imaging and Planet Labs have the first of these smallsats already active, with plans for more.

The images generated by these companies will be among the world’s largest data sets. And recent breakthroughs in AI research have made it possible to analyze these images to inform decision-making…(More)”