Off the map

The Economist: “Rich countries are deluged with data; developing ones are suffering from drought…
AFRICA is the continent of missing data. Fewer than half of births are recorded; some countries have not taken a census in several decades. On maps only big cities and main streets are identified; the rest looks as empty as the Sahara. Lack of data afflicts other developing regions, too. The self-built slums that ring many Latin American cities are poorly mapped, and even estimates of their population are vague. Afghanistan is still using census figures from 1979—and that count was cut short after census-takers were killed by mujahideen.
As rich countries collect and analyse data from as many objects and activities as possible—including thermostats, fitness trackers and location-based services such as Foursquare—a data divide has opened up. The lack of reliable data in poor countries thwarts both development and disaster-relief. When Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), a charity, moved into Liberia to combat Ebola earlier this year, maps of the capital, Monrovia, fell far short of what was needed to provide aid or track the disease’s spread. Major roads were marked, but not minor ones or individual buildings.
Poor data afflict even the highest-profile international development effort: the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The targets, which include ending extreme poverty, cutting infant mortality and getting all children into primary school, were set by UN members in 2000, to be achieved by 2015. But, according to a report by an independent UN advisory group published on November 6th, as the deadline approaches, the figures used to track progress are shaky. The availability of data on 55 core indicators for 157 countries has never exceeded 70%, it found (see chart)….
Some of the data gaps are now starting to be filled from non-government sources. A volunteer effort called Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT) improves maps with information from locals and hosts “mapathons” to identify objects shown in satellite images. Spurred by pleas from those fighting Ebola, the group has intensified its efforts in Monrovia since August; most of the city’s roads and many buildings have now been filled in (see maps). Identifying individual buildings is essential, since in dense slums without formal roads they are the landmarks by which outbreaks can be tracked and assistance targeted.
On November 7th a group of charities including MSF, Red Cross and HOT unveiled, a joint initiative to produce free, detailed maps of cities across the developing world—before humanitarian crises erupt, not during them. The co-ordinated effort is needed, says Ivan Gayton of MSF: aid workers will not use a map with too little detail, and are unlikely, without a reason, to put work into improving a map they do not use. The hope is that the backing of large charities means the locals they work with will help.
In Kenya and Namibia mobile-phone operators have made call-data records available to researchers, who have used them to combat malaria. By comparing users’ movements with data on outbreaks, epidemiologists are better able to predict where the disease might spread. mTrac, a Ugandan programme that replaces paper reports from health workers with texts sent from their mobile phones, has made data on medical cases and supplies more complete and timely. The share of facilities that have run out of malaria treatments has fallen from 80% to 15% since it was introduced.
Private-sector data are also being used to spot trends before official sources become aware of them. Premise, a startup in Silicon Valley that compiles economics data in emerging markets, has found that as the number of cases of Ebola rose in Liberia, the price of staple foods soared: a health crisis risked becoming a hunger crisis. In recent weeks, as the number of new cases fell, prices did, too. The authorities already knew that travel restrictions and closed borders would push up food prices; they now have a way to measure and track price shifts as they happen….”