The Tech Revolution That’s Changing How We Measure Poverty

Alvin Etang Ndip at the Worldbank: “The world has an ambitious goal to end extreme poverty by 2030. But, without good poverty data, it is impossible to know whether we are making progress, or whether programs and policies are reaching those who are the most in need.

Countries, often in partnership with the World Bank Group and other agencies, measure poverty and wellbeing using household surveys that help give policymakers a sense of who the poor are, where they live, and what is holding back their progress. Once a paper-and-pencil exercise, technology is beginning to revolutionize the field of household data collection, and the World Bank is tapping into this potential to produce more and better poverty data….

“Technology can be harnessed in three different ways,” says Utz Pape, an economist with the World Bank. “It can help improve data quality of existing surveys, it can help to increase the frequency of data collection to complement traditional household surveys, and can also open up new avenues of data collection methods to improve our understanding of people’s behaviors.”

As technology is changing the field of data collection, researchers are continuing to find new ways to build on the power of mobile phones and tablets.

The World Bank’s Pulse of South Sudan initiative, for example, takes tablet-based data collection a step further. In addition to conducting the household survey, the enumerators also record a short, personalized testimonial with the people they are interviewing, revealing a first-person account of the situation on the ground. Such testimonials allow users to put a human face on data and statistics, giving a fuller picture of the country’s experience.

Real-time data through mobile phones

At the same time, more and more countries are generating real-time data through high-frequency surveys, capitalizing on the proliferation of mobile phones around the world. The World Bank’s Listening to Africa (L2A) initiative has piloted the use of mobile phones to regularly collect information on living conditions. The approach combines face-to-face surveys with follow-up mobile phone interviews to collect data that allows to monitor well-being.

The initiative hands out mobile phones and solar chargers to all respondents. To minimize the risk of people dropping out, the respondents are given credit top-ups to stay in the program. From monitoring health care facilities in Tanzania to collecting data on frequency of power outages in Togo, the initiative has been rolled out in six countries and has been used to collect data on a wide range of areas. …

Technology-driven data collection efforts haven’t been restricted to the Africa region alone. In fact, the approach was piloted early in Peru and Honduras with the Listening 2 LAC program. In Europe and Central Asia, the World Bank has rolled out the Listening to Tajikistan program, which was designed to monitor the impact of the Russian economic slowdown in 2014 and 2015. Initially a six-month pilot, the initiative has now been in operation for 29 months, and a partnership with UNICEF and JICA has ensured that data collection can continue for the next 12 months. Given the volume of data, the team is currently working to create a multidimensional fragility index, where one can monitor a set of well-being indicators – ranging from food security to quality jobs and public services – on a monthly basis…

There are other initiatives, such as in Mexico where the World Bank and its partners are using satellite imagery and survey data to estimate how many people live below the poverty line down to the municipal level, or guiding data collectors using satellite images to pick a representative sample for the Somali High Frequency Survey. However, despite the innovation, these initiatives are not intended to replace traditional household surveys, which still form the backbone of measuring poverty. When better integrated, they can prove to be a formidable set of tools for data collection to provide the best evidence possible to policymakers….(More)”