World Bank use satellite photos to understand global poverty

Between 1990 and 2010, the level of global poverty has been halved, in accordance with the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) targets.

However, it remains a global phenomenon and levels are still unacceptably high. It is estimated that 896 million people live on less than $1.90 a day, roughly the cost of a cup of tea in the UK. This means that many people are suffering from lack of nutrition, sanitation and clean drinking water, resulting in a huge number of deaths every year.

UNICEF have estimated that 22,000 children under 5 die each day due to poverty. Organisations such as UNICEF and the World Bank are actively monitoring and helping to alleviate the effects of global poverty. Its monitoring is often difficult, as poverty is multi-faceted, comprising factors such as an individual’s income, housing, availability of healthcare and education. This information is frequently obtained by conducting nationwide household surveys which help to identify the areas in greatest need of support.

However, some locations are considered too remote or dangerous to conduct these surveys, and thus 29 countries were reported to have no poverty data at all. So how do we understand poverty in these regions? And without this data, how are we supposed to help?

The World Bank have stated that high-resolution satellite photos could complement existing studies to further our understanding of global poverty. They piloted the scheme in Sri Lanka, and found that by obtaining satellite images for different regions, they could obtain proxy data for the state of poverty in that area.

A company called Orbital Insight have developed an algorithm to automatically count the number of houses in an area, an important economic indicator of poverty. Using the shadows of building, their height can be determined, and this is also used as a measure of social wealth (as typically higher building show greater development). Agricultural productivity can also be monitored which could be used as an indicator of income, and food availability in a region. Therefore, satellite photos are proving an amazing resource to help understand different aspects of poverty, in a much faster way than if this information was gathered manually.

The World Bank have stated that it is still very much a ‘work in progress’, but its future use will be paramount for global poverty studies. They hope that by comparing this data over time, trends and patterns of poverty can be analysed to identify the areas which need help. We hope that satellite photos can help to further reduce the state of global poverty so that less and less, people are affected every year.

For more information on how poverty is normally monitored please visit the World Bank website or for how satellite photos are helping, visit CityLab.

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