Beyond Randomized Controlled Trials


Iqbal Dhaliwal, John Floretta & Sam Friedlander at SSIR: “…In its post-Nobel phase, one of J-PAL’s priorities is to unleash the treasure troves of big digital data in the hands of governments, nonprofits, and private firms. Primary data collection is by far the most time-, money-, and labor-intensive component of the vast majority of experiments that evaluate social policies. Randomized evaluations have been constrained by simple numbers: Some questions are just too big or expensive to answer. Leveraging administrative data has the potential to dramatically expand the types of questions we can ask and the experiments we can run, as well as implement quicker, less expensive, larger, and more reliable RCTs, an invaluable opportunity to scale up evidence-informed policymaking massively without dramatically increasing evaluation budgets.

Although administrative data hasn’t always been of the highest quality, recent advances have significantly increased the reliability and accuracy of GPS coordinates, biometrics, and digital methods of collection. But despite good intentions, many implementers—governments, businesses, and big NGOs—aren’t currently using the data they already collect on program participants and outcomes to improve anti-poverty programs and policies. This may be because they aren’t aware of its potential, don’t have the in-house technical capacity necessary to create use and privacy guidelines or analyze the data, or don’t have established partnerships with researchers who can collaborate to design innovative programs and run rigorous experiments to determine which are the most impactful. 

At J-PAL, we are leveraging this opportunity through a new global research initiative we are calling the “Innovations in Data and Experiments for Action” Initiative (IDEA). IDEA supports implementers to make their administrative data accessible, analyze it to improve decision-making, and partner with researchers in using this data to design innovative programs, evaluate impact through RCTs, and scale up successful ideas. IDEA will also build the capacity of governments and NGOs to conduct these types of activities with their own data in the future….(More)”.

Smart Village Technology


Book by Srikanta Patnaik, Siddhartha Sen and Magdi S. Mahmoud: “This book offers a transdisciplinary perspective on the concept of “smart villages” Written by an authoritative group of scholars, it discusses various aspects that are essential to fostering the development of successful smart villages. Presenting cutting-edge technologies, such as big data and the Internet-of-Things, and showing how they have been successfully applied to promote rural development, it also addresses important policy and sustainability issues. As such, this book offers a timely snapshot of the state-of-the-art in smart village research and practice….(More)”.

Google redraws the borders on maps depending on who’s looking


Greg Bensinger in the Washington Post: “For more than 70 years, India and Pakistan have waged sporadic and deadly skirmishes over control of the mountainous region of Kashmir. Tens of thousands have died in the conflict, including three just this month.

Both sides claim the Himalayan outpost as their own, but Web surfers in India could be forgiven for thinking the dispute is all but settled: The borders on Google’s online maps there display Kashmir as fully under Indian control. Elsewhere, users see the region’s snaking outlines as a dotted line, acknowledging the dispute.

Google’s corporate mission is “to organize the world’s information,” but it also bends it to its will. From Argentina to the United Kingdom to Iran, the world’s borders look different depending on where you’re viewing them from. That’s because Google — and other online mapmakers — simply change them.

With some 80 percent market share in mobile maps and over a billion users, Google Maps has an outsize impact on people’s perception of the world — from driving directions to restaurant reviews to naming attractions to adjudicating historical border wars.

And while maps are meant to bring order to the world, the Silicon Valley firm’s decision-making on maps is often shrouded in secrecy, even to some of those who work to shape its digital atlases every day. It is influenced not just by history and local laws, but also the shifting whims of diplomats, policymakers and its own executives, say people familiar with the matter, who asked not to be identified because they weren’t authorized to discuss internal processes….(More)”.

Unlocking Technology for the Global Goals


Report by the World Economic Forum: “The Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) is still in its early years yet it is already changing the way we work, live and interact. As 4IR technologies become faster, smarter, and more widely applied, the pace of transformation will only accelerate.

In parallel, we face global challenges of increasing magnitude and immediacy. The United Nation’s 17 Global Goals give a blueprint for what we globally and collectively must do if we are to end extreme poverty, protect our natural environment, revert climate change and create a more sustainable, equal and prosperous future for all.

Despite a rapid rise of 4IR technologies being applied across many aspects of industry and commerce, the potential of these technologies to accelerate progress to the Global Goals is not being realised. Today’s technological revolution is a time of enormous promise to accelerate progress on the Global Goals, both broadening and deepening current action.

But unlocking this potential requires a change in priorities and significant challenges to be overcome. This presents us with a dilemma of how to drive systems-level change in priorities, and to overcome significant challenges to ensure that it has an impact over the next 10 years on the global goals, and also on these challenges in the long term.

In this report, developed in collaboration with PwC, we showcase the significant opportunity to harness new technologies for the Global Goals. Through analysis of over 300 technology applications, the report explores; 1) the extent to which this opportunity is being realised, 2) the barriers to scaling these applications, and 3) the enabling framework for unlocking this opportunity….(More)”.

Taming the Beast: Harnessing Blockchains in Developing Country Governments


Paper by Raúl Zambrano: “Amid pressing demands to achieve critical sustainable development goals, governments in developing countries face the additional complex task of embracing new digital technologies such as blockchains. This paper develops a framework interlinking development, technology, and government institutions that policymakers and development practitioners could use to address such a conundrum. State capacity and democratic governance are introduced as drivers in the overall analysis. With this in hand, blockchain technology is revisited from the perspective of governments in the Global South, identifying in the process key traits and proposing a new typology. An overview of the status of blockchain deployments in the Global South follows, complemented by a closer look at country examples to distill trends, patterns and risks. The paper closes with a discussion of the findings, highlighting both challenges and opportunities for governments. It also provides basic guidance to development practitioners interested in enhancing current programming using blockchains as an enabler….(More)”

Why the Global South should nationalise its data


Ulises Ali Mejias at AlJazeera: “The recent coup in Bolivia reminds us that poor countries rich in resources continue to be plagued by the legacy of colonialism. Anything that stands in the way of a foreign corporation’s ability to extract cheap resources must be removed.

Today, apart from minerals and fossil fuels, corporations are after another precious resource: Personal data. As with natural resources, data too has become the target of extractive corporate practices.

As sociologist Nick Couldry and I argue in our book, The Costs of Connection: How Data is Colonizing Human Life and Appropriating It for Capitalism, there is a new form of colonialism emerging in the world: data colonialism. By this, we mean a new resource-grab whereby human life itself has become a direct input into economic production in the form of extracted data.

We acknowledge that this term is controversial, given the extreme physical violence and structures of racism that historical colonialism employed. However, our point is not to say that data colonialism is the same as historical colonialism, but rather to suggest that it shares the same core function: extraction, exploitation, and dispossession.

Like classical colonialism, data colonialism violently reconfigures human relations to economic production. Things like land, water, and other natural resources were valued by native people in the precolonial era, but not in the same way that colonisers (and later, capitalists) came to value them: as private property. Likewise, we are experiencing a situation in which things that were once primarily outside the economic realm – things like our most intimate social interactions with friends and family, or our medical records – have now been commodified and made part of an economic cycle of data extraction that benefits a few corporations.

So what could countries in the Global South do to avoid the dangers of data colonialism?…(More)”.

What are hidden data treasuries and how can they help development outcomes?


Blogpost by Damien Jacques et al: “Cashew nuts in Burkina Faso can be seen growing from space. Such is the power of satellite technology, it’s now possible to observe the changing colors of fields as crops slowly ripen.

This matters because it can be used as an early warning of crop failure and food crisis – giving governments and aid agencies more time to organize a response.

Our team built an exhaustive crop type and yield estimation map in Burkina Faso, using artificial intelligence and satellite images from the European Space Agency. 

But building the map would not have been possible without a data set that GIZ, the German government’s international development agency, had collected for one purpose on the ground some years before – and never looked at again.

At Dalberg, we call this a “hidden data treasury” and it has huge potential to be used for good. 

Unlocking data potential

In the records of the GIZ Data Lab, the GPS coordinates and crop yield measurements of just a few hundred cashew fields were sitting dormant.

They’d been collected in 2015 to assess the impact of a program to train farmers. But through the power of machine learning, that data set has been given a new purpose.

Using Dalberg Data Insights’ AIDA platform, our team trained algorithms to analyze satellite images for cashew crops, track the crops’ color as they ripen, and from there, estimate yields for the area covered by the data.

From this, it’s now possible to predict crop failures for thousands of fields.

We believe this “recycling” of old data, when paired with artificial intelligence, can help to bridge the data gaps in low-income countries and meet the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals….(More)”.

How randomised trials became big in development economics


Seán Mfundza Muller, Grieve Chelwa, and Nimi Hoffmann at the Conversation: “…One view of the challenge of development is that it is fundamentally about answering causal questions. If a country adopts a particular policy, will that cause an increase in economic growth, a reduction in poverty or some other improvement in the well-being of citizens?

In recent decades economists have been concerned about the reliability of previously used methods for identifying causal relationships. In addition to those methodological concerns, some have argued that “grand theories of development” are either incorrect or at least have failed to yield meaningful improvements in many developing countries.

Two notable examples are the idea that developing countries may be caught in a poverty trap that requires a “big push” to escape and the view that institutions are key for growth and development.

These concerns about methods and policies provided a fertile ground for randomised experiments in development economics. The surge of interest in experimental approaches in economics began in the early 1990s. Researchers began to use “natural experiments”, where for example random variation was part of a policy rather than decided by a researcher, to look at causation.

But it really gathered momentum in the 2000s, with researchers such as the Nobel awardees designing and implementing experiments to study a wide range of microeconomic questions.

Randomised trials

Proponents of these methods argued that a focus on “small” problems was more likely to succeed. They also argued that randomised experiments would bring credibility to economic analysis by providing a simple solution to causal questions.

These experiments randomly allocate a treatment to some members of a group and compare the outcomes against the other members who did not receive treatment. For example, to test whether providing credit helps to grow small firms or increase their likelihood of success, a researcher might partner with a financial institution and randomly allocate credit to applicants that meet certain basic requirements. Then a year later the researcher would compare changes in sales or employment in small firms that received the credit to those that did not.

Randomised trials are not a new research method. They are best known for their use in testing new medicines. The first medical experiment to use controlled randomisation occurred in the aftermath of the second world war. The British government used it to assess the effectiveness of a drug for tuberculosis treatment.

In the early 20th century and mid-20th century American researchers had used experiments like this to examine the effects of various social policies. Examples included income protection and social housing.

The introduction of these methods into development economics also followed an increase in their use in other areas of economics. One example was the study of labour markets.

Randomised control trials in economics are now mostly used to evaluate the impact of social policy interventions in poor and middle-income countries. Work by the 2019 Nobel awardees – Michael Kremer, Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo – includes experiments in Kenya and India on teacher attendancetextbook provisionmonitoring of nurse attendance and the provision of microcredit.

The popularity, among academics and policymakers, of the approach is not only due to its seeming ability to solve methodological and policy concerns. It is also due to very deliberate, well-funded advocacy by its proponents….(More)”.

Responsible Data for Children


New Site and Report by UNICEF and The GovLab: “RD4C seeks to build awareness regarding the need for special attention to data issues affecting children—especially in this age of changing technology and data linkage; and to engage with governments, communities, and development actors to put the best interests of children and a child rights approach at the center of our data activities. The right data in the right hands at the right time can significantly improve outcomes for children. The challenge is to understand the potential risks and ensure that the collection, analysis and use of data on children does not undermine these benefits.

Drawing upon field-based research and established good practice, RD4C aims to highlight and support best practice data responsibility; identify challenges and develop practical tools to assist practitioners in evaluating and addressing them; and encourage a broader discussion on actionable principles, insights, and approaches for responsible data management.

The Digital Roadmap


Report by the Pathway for Prosperity Commission: “The Digital Roadmap presents an overarching vision for a globally connected world that both delivers on the opportunities presented by technology, and limits downside risks. Importantly, it also sets out how this vision can be achieved.

Craft a digital compact for inclusive development

Embracing country-wide digital change will be disruptive. Navigating it requires coordinated action. Reconfiguring an economy will result in some resistance. The best way to achieve buy-in, and to balance trade-offs, is through dialogue: the private sector and civil society in its broadest sense (including community leaders, academia, trade unions, NGOs, and faith groups). The political economy of upheaval is difficult, but change can be managed with discussions that are inclusive of multiple groups. These dialogues should result in a national digital compact: a shared vision of the future to which everyone commits. The Pathways Commission has supported three countries – Ethiopia, Mongolia and South Africa – as they each developed country-wide digital strategies, using the Digital Economy Kit.

Put people at the centre of the digital future

Rapid technological affects peoples’ lives.Failure to put people at the centre of social and economic change can lead to social unrest. The pace and intensity of change means it’s all the more important that people are at the centre of the digital future – not the technology. This requires equipping people to benefit from opportunities, while also protecting them from the potential harms of the digital age. Governments should take responsibility for ensuring that vocational education is truly useful for workers and for business in the digital age. The private sector needs to be involved in keeping curricula up to date.

Build the digital essentials

Digital products and services cannot be created in a vacuum – essential components need to be in place: physical infrastructure, foundational digital systems (such as digital identification and mobile money), and capital to invest in innovation. These are the basic ingredients needed for existing firms to adopt more productive technologies, and for digital entrepreneurs to build and innovate. Having reliable infrastructure and interoperable systems means that firms and service providers can focus on their core business, without having to build an enabling environment from scratch.

Reach everyone with digital technologies

If technology is to be a force for development for everyone, it must reach everyone.Just over half of the world’s population is connected to a digital life; for the rest, digital opportunities don’t mean much. Without digital connections, people can’t participate in digital work platforms, benefit from new technologies in education, or engage with government services online. Women, people with lower levels of education, and people in poverty are usually those who lack digital access. Reaching everyone requires looking beyond current business models. The private sector needs to design for inclusion, ensuring the poorest and most marginalised consumers, to ensure they are not left even further behind.

Govern technology for the future

The unprecedented pace of change and emergence of new risks in the digital era (such as algorithmic bias, cybersecurity, and threats to privacy) are creating headaches for even the most well-resourced countries. For developing countries, the challenges are even bigger. Digital technologies fundamentally shape what people do and how they do it: freelancers may face algorithms that determine chances to get hired. Banks might face a financial system with heightened risk from new, non-bank deposit holders. These issues, and many others, require new and adaptive approaches to decision-making. Emerging global norms will need to consider the needs of developing countries….(More)”.