How to Fight Poverty With Data

How to Fight Poverty With Data

Private-sector companies are harnessing big data sets to make smarter investment decisions and create breakthrough products that influence everything from the way we get from point A to B to who we end up dating.

But for social sector organizations working to fight poverty in the developing world, the prohibitive costs of data collection and analysis often make it difficult to capitalize on the data revolution. By tapping into the growth of mobile and the generosity of data scientists, Acumen and DataKind are helping organization in the social sector understand their impact and develop the tools they need to more effectively tackle poverty.

For impact investors like Acumen, data is critical in understanding the impact of their portfolio organizations on the lives of the poor. Yet the cost and time required to perform thorough impact evaluations can be prohibitive, and often make impact metrics illusive. “[Portfolio organizations] may know how many kids attend schools, but they can’t tell you if the students are from low-income communities or just transplants from the private school down the street. They may know how many households bought a new solar lantern, but they don’t understand if the children in these homes are still dying from kerosene fires,” said Sasha Dichter, Chief Innovation Officer at Acumen on his blog.

Mobile and the Rise of Lean Data

Fortunately, growing access to mobile phones in the developing world is creating new opportunities for social sector organizations to better understand the people they serve. “Unlike five or 10 years ago, the majority of the 2.5 billion people living in poverty now have access to a cellphone and, in another five years, virtually everyone will be reachable by phone or SMS,” said Dichter recently on his blog. To capitalize on this shift, Acumen developed its Lean Data Initiative. The Initiative uses data collected from low-cost mobile surveys to help organizations quickly and cheaply understand whether their products and services are making a difference in the lives of the poor.

To date, Acumen has completed Lean Data projects with 12 of its portfolio organizations, including Burn Manufacturing, which makes clean cook stoves in Kenya. Although Burn knew that its cook stoves were theoretically more efficient—and cleaner than traditional stoves, it was uncertain whether its product was making an impact at scale. Using an SMS-based survey, Burn was able to validate the impact of its products, learning that customers were saving 60% on the cost of charcoal. The survey was also inexpensive and quick to conduct. It took 4 weeks and cost $3,000—around 1% of the typical $300,000+ price tag of a randomized controlled trial.

 Creating a Platform For Pro-bono Data Science

While Lean Data and mobile surveys show tremendous promise to save time and money collecting data, not all organizations can afford the resources to turn that data into insights or tools needed to scale impact. “The people who have the skills of statistics and computing are just coincidentally rare, and they cost a lot. The market really drags them to Silicon Valley and Wall Street,” said Jake Porway, CEO of DataKind, an organization that connects data scientists with non-profits, on Medium.

Fortunately, many of the same people who work in finance, ad-tech or analytics also want the chance to use their skills for good.

By creating a platform to connect, DataKind facilitates connections and brokers projects that last from a few hours to nine months. So far, its model is having an impact in fields from healthcare to human rights. In healthcare, Datakind volunteers used data sourced from cell phones to help NextLeaf identify systemic reasons life-saving vaccines were spoiling in Kenya and Hati. Working with Refugees United, DataKind is developing a system to connect refugees to their loved ones— and indicate to a refugee what the probability may be of them finding their family in a certain region.

Data and the mobile revolution are revolutionizing the business and the consumer experience in many parts of the world. Thanks in part to the work of Acumen and DataKind, this revolution is being brought to bear on the problems of the world’s poorest. 

Want to learn more? Check out NY+Acumen’s Catalyst for Social Change Fundraiser on Thursday, November 12 at the Fordham Gabelli School of Business in New York. The event will focus on using data and technology to tackle global poverty and manage impact, and feature speakers including Sasha Dichter, Chief Innovation Officer of Acumen Fund, Jake Porway, Founder and Executive Director of DataKind and Professor Samuel Sia at Columbia University. Get your tickets here: