The Stoplight Battling to End Poverty

Nick Dall at OZY: “Over midafternoon coffees and Fantas, Robyn-Lee Abrahams and Joyce Paulse — employees at my local supermarket in Cape Town, South Africa — tell me how their lives have changed in the past 18 months. “I never dreamed my daughter would go to college,” says Paulse. “But yesterday we went online together and started filling in the forms.”

Abrahams notes how she used to live hand to mouth. “But now I’ve got a savings account, which I haven’t ever touched.” The sacrifice? “I eat less chocolate now.”

Paulse and Abrahams are just two of thousands of beneficiaries of the Poverty Stoplight, a self-evaluation tool that’s now redefining poverty in countries as diverse as Argentina and the U.K.; Mexico and Tanzania; Chile and Papua New Guinea. By getting families to rank their own economic condition red, yellow or green based upon 50 indicators, the Poverty Stoplight gives families the agency to pull themselves out of poverty and offers organizations insight into whether their programs are working.

Social entrepreneur Martín Burt, who founded Fundación Paraguaya 33 years ago to promote entrepreneurship and economic empowerment in Paraguay, developed the first, paper-based prototype of the Poverty Stoplight in 2010 to help the organization’s microfinance clients escape the poverty cycle….Because poverty is multidimensional, “you can have a family with a proper toilet but no savings,” points out Burt. Determining questionnaires span six different aspects of people’s lives, including softer indicators such as community involvement, self-confidence and family violence. The survey, a series of 50 multiple-choice questions with visual cues, is aimed at households, not individuals, because “you cannot get a 10-year-old girl out of poverty in isolation,” says Burt. Confidentiality is another critical component….(More)”.

The rush for data risks growing the North-South divide

Laura Mann and Gianluca Lazzolino at SciDevNet: “Across the world, tech firms and software developers are embedding digital platforms into humanitarian and commercial infrastructures. There’s Jembi and Hello Doctor for the healthcare sector, for example; SASSA and Tamween for social policy; and M-farmi-CowEsoko among many others for agriculture.

While such systems proliferate, it is time we asked some tough questions about who is controlling this data, and for whose benefit. There is a danger that ‘platformisation’ widens the knowledge gap between firms and scientists in poorer countries and those in more advanced economies.

Digital platforms serve three purposes. They improve interactions between service providers and users; gather transactional data about those users; and nudge them towards behaviours, activities and products considered ‘virtuous’, profitable, or valued — often because they generate more data. This data  can be extremely valuable to policy-makers interested in developing interventions, to researchers exploring socio-economic trends and to businesses seeking new markets.

But the development and use of these platforms are not always benign.

Knowledge and power

Digital technologies are knowledge technologies because they record the personal information, assets, behaviour and networks of the people that use them.

Knowledge has a somewhat gentle image of a global good shared openly and evenly across the world. But in reality, it is competitive.
Simply put, knowledge shapes economic rivalry between rich and poor countries. It influences who has power over the rules of the economic game, and it does this in three key ways.

First, firms can use knowledge and technology to become more efficient and competitive in what they do. For example, a farmer can choose to buy technologically enhanced seeds, inputs such as fertilisers, and tools to process their crop.

This technology transfer is not automatic — the farmer must first invest time to learn how to use these tools.  In this sense, economic competition between nations is partly about how well-equipped their people are in using technology effectively.

The second key way in which knowledge impacts global economic competition depends on looking at development as a shift from cut-throat commodity production towards activities that bring higher profits and wages.

In farming, for example, development means moving out of crop production alone into a position of having more control over agricultural inputs, and more involvement in distributing or marketing agricultural goods and services….(More)”.

Illuminating GDP

Money and Banking: “GDP figures are ‘man-made’ and therefore unreliable,” reported remarks of Li Keqiang (then Communist Party secretary of the northeastern Chinese province of Liaoning), March 12, 2007.

Satellites are great. It is hard to imagine living without them. GPS navigation is just the tip of the iceberg. Taking advantage of the immense amounts of information collected over decades, scientists have been using satellite imagery to study a broad array of questions, ranging from agricultural land use to the impact of climate change to the geographic constraints on cities (see here for a recent survey).

One of the most well-known economic applications of satellite imagery is to use night-time illumination to enhance the accuracy of various reported measures of economic activity. For example, national statisticians in countries with poor information collection systems can employ information from satellites to improve the quality of their nationwide economic data (see here). Even where governments have relatively high-quality statistics at a national level, it remains difficult and costly to determine local or regional levels of activity. For example, while production may occur in one jurisdiction, the income generated may be reported in another. At a sufficiently high resolution, satellite tracking of night-time light emissions can help address this question (see here).

But satellite imagery is not just an additional source of information on economic activity, it is also a neutral one that is less prone to manipulation than standard accounting data. This makes it is possible to use information on night-time light to monitor the accuracy of official statistics. And, as we suggest later, the willingness of observers to apply a “satellite correction” could nudge countries to improve their own data reporting systems in line with recognized international standards.

As Luis Martínez inquires in his recent paper, should we trust autocrats’ estimates of GDP? Even in relatively democratic countries, there are prominent examples of statistical manipulation (recall the cases of Greek sovereign debt in 2009 and Argentine inflation in 2014). In the absence of democratic checks on the authorities, Martínez finds even greater tendencies to distort the numbers….(More)”.

The Cost-Benefit Revolution

Book by Cass Sunstein: “Why policies should be based on careful consideration of their costs and benefits rather than on intuition, popular opinion, interest groups, and anecdotes.

Opinions on government policies vary widely. Some people feel passionately about the child obesity epidemic and support government regulation of sugary drinks. Others argue that people should be able to eat and drink whatever they like. Some people are alarmed about climate change and favor aggressive government intervention. Others don’t feel the need for any sort of climate regulation. In The Cost-Benefit Revolution, Cass Sunstein argues our major disagreements really involve facts, not values. It follows that government policy should not be based on public opinion, intuitions, or pressure from interest groups, but on numbers—meaning careful consideration of costs and benefits. Will a policy save one life, or one thousand lives? Will it impose costs on consumers, and if so, will the costs be high or negligible? Will it hurt workers and small businesses, and, if so, precisely how much?

As the Obama administration’s “regulatory czar,” Sunstein knows his subject in both theory and practice. Drawing on behavioral economics and his well-known emphasis on “nudging,” he celebrates the cost-benefit revolution in policy making, tracing its defining moments in the Reagan, Clinton, and Obama administrations (and pondering its uncertain future in the Trump administration). He acknowledges that public officials often lack information about costs and benefits, and outlines state-of-the-art techniques for acquiring that information. Policies should make people’s lives better. Quantitative cost-benefit analysis, Sunstein argues, is the best available method for making this happen—even if, in the future, new measures of human well-being, also explored in this book, may be better still…(More)”.

Message and Environment: a framework for nudges and choice architecture

Paper by Luca Congiu and Ivan Moscati in Behavioural Public Policy: “We argue that the diverse components of a choice architecture can be classified into two main dimensions – Message and Environment – and that the distinction between them is useful in order to better understand how nudges work. In the first part of this paper, we define what we mean by nudge, explain what Message and Environment are, argue that the distinction between them is conceptually robust and show that it is also orthogonal to other distinctions advanced in the nudge literature. In the second part, we review some common types of nudges and show they target either Message or Environment or both dimensions of the choice architecture. We then apply the Message–Environment framework to discuss some features of Amazon’s website and, finally, we indicate how the proposed framework could help a choice architect to design a new choice architecture….(More)”.

Long Term Info-structure

Long Now Foundation Seminar by Juan Benet: “We live in a spectacular time,”…”We’re a century into our computing phase transition. The latest stages have created astonishing powers for individuals, groups, and our species as a whole. We are also faced with accumulating dangers — the capabilities to end the whole humanity experiment are growing and are ever more accessible. In light of the promethean fire that is computing, we must prevent bad outcomes and lock in good ones to build robust foundations for our knowledge, and a safe future. There is much we can do in the short-term to secure the long-term.”

“I come from the front lines of computing platform design to share a number of new super-powers at our disposal, some old challenges that are now soluble, and some new open problems. In this next decade, we’ll need to leverage peer-to-peer networks, crypto-economics, blockchains, Open Source, Open Services, decentralization, incentive-structure engineering, and so much more to ensure short-term safety and the long-term flourishing of humanity.”

Juan Benet is the inventor of the InterPlanetary File System (IPFS)—a new protocol which uses content-addressing to make the web faster, safer, and more open—and the creator of Filecoin, a cryptocurrency-incentivized storage market….(More + Video)”


Book by Steven Johnson: “Big, life-altering decisions matter so much more than the decisions we make every day, and they’re also the most difficult: where to live, whom to marry, what to believe, whether to start a company, how to end a war. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach for addressing these kinds of conundrums.

Steven Johnson’s classic Where Good Ideas Come From inspired creative people all over the world with new ways of thinking about innovation. In Farsighted, he uncovers powerful tools for honing the important skill of complex decision-making. While you can’t model a once-in-a-lifetime choice, you can model the deliberative tactics of expert decision-makers. These experts aren’t just the master strategists running major companies or negotiating high-level diplomacy. They’re the novelists who draw out the complexity of their characters’ inner lives, the city officials who secure long-term water supplies, and the scientists who reckon with future challenges most of us haven’t even imagined. The smartest decision-makers don’t go with their guts. Their success relies on having a future-oriented approach and the ability to consider all their options in a creative, productive way.

Through compelling stories that reveal surprising insights, Johnson explains how we can most effectively approach the choices that can chart the course of a life, an organization, or a civilization. Farsighted will help you imagine your possible futures and appreciate the subtle intelligence of the choices that shaped our broader social history….(More)”.

This surprising, everyday tool might hold the key to changing human behavior

Annabelle Timsit at Quartz: “To be a person in the modern world is to worry about your relationship with your phone. According to critics, smartphones are making us ill-mannered and sore-necked, dragging parents’ attention away from their kids, and destroying an entire generation.

But phones don’t have to be bad. With 4.68 billion people forecast to become mobile phone users by 2019, nonprofits and social science researchers are exploring new ways to turn our love of screens into a force for good. One increasingly popular option: Using texting to help change human behavior.

Texting: A unique tool

The short message service (SMS) was invented in the late 1980s, and the first text message was sent in 1992. (Engineer Neil Papworth sent “merry Christmas” to then-Vodafone director Richard Jarvis.) In the decades since, texting has emerged as the preferred communication method for many, and in particular younger generations. While that kind of habit-forming can be problematic—47% of US smartphone users say they “couldn’t live without” the device—our attachment to our phones also makes text-based programs a good way to encourage people to make better choices.

“Texting, because it’s anchored in mobile phones, has the ability to be with you all the time, and that gives us an enormous flexibility on precision,” says Todd Rose, director of the Mind, Brain, & Education Program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “When people lead busy lives, they need timely, targeted, actionable information.”

And who is busier than a parent? Text-based programs can help current or would-be moms and dads with everything from medication pickup to childhood development. Text4Baby, for example, messages pregnant women and young moms with health information and reminders about upcoming doctor visits. Vroom, an app for building babies’ brains, sends parents research-based prompts to help them build positive relationships with their children (for example, by suggesting they ask toddlers to describe how they’re feeling based on the weather). Muse, an AI-powered app, uses machine learning and big data to try and help parents raise creative, motivated, emotionally intelligent kids. As Jenny Anderson writes in Quartz: “There is ample evidence that we can modify parents’ behavior through technological nudges.”

Research suggests text-based programs may also be helpful in supporting young children’s academic and cognitive development. …Texts aren’t just being used to help out parents. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have also used them to encourage civic participation in kids and young adults. Open Progress, for example, has an all-volunteer community called “text troop” that messages young adults across the US, reminding them to register to vote and helping them find their polling location.

Text-based programs are also useful in the field of nutrition, where private companies and public-health organizations have embraced them as a way to give advice on healthy eating and weight loss. The National Cancer Institute runs a text-based program called SmokefreeTXT that sends US adults between three and five messages per day for up to eight weeks, to help them quit smoking.

Texting programs can be a good way to nudge people toward improving their mental health, too. Crisis Text Line, for example, was the first national 24/7 crisis-intervention hotline to conduct counseling conversations entirely over text…(More).

Motivating Bureaucrats through Social Recognition

Evidence from Simultaneous Field Experiments by Varun Gauri,Julian C. Jamison, Nina Mazar, Owen Ozier, Shomikho Raha and Karima Saleh: “Bureaucratic performance is a crucial determinant of economic growth. Little is known about how to improve it in resource-constrained settings.

This study describes a field trial of a social recognition intervention to improve record keeping in clinics in two Nigerian states, replicating the intervention—implemented by a single organization—on bureaucrats performing identical tasks in both states.

Social recognition improved performance in one state but had no effect in the other, highlighting both the potential and the limitations of behavioral interventions. Differences in observables did not explain cross-state differences in impacts, however, illustrating the limitations of observable-based approaches to external validity….(More)”.

The Role of Behavioral Economics in Evidence-Based Policymaking

William J. Congdon and Maya Shankar in Special Issue of The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science on Evidence Based Policy Making: “Behavioral economics has come to play an important role in evidence-based policymaking. In September 2015, President Obama signed an executive order directing federal agencies to incorporate insights from behavioral science into federal policies and programs. The order also charged the White House Social and Behavioral Sciences Team (SBST) with supporting this directive. In this article, we briefly trace the history of behavioral economics in public policy. We then turn to a discussion of what the SBST was, how it was built, and the lessons we draw from its experience and achievements. We conclude with a discussion of prospects for the future, arguing that even as SBST is currently lying fallow, behavioral economics continues to gain currency and show promise as an essential element of evidence-based policy….(More)”.