In 2014 the UN called for a data revolution to put the best available tools and methods to work in service of achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. Researchers at the World Bank have responded to that call by scouring the globe for the latest machine learning tools to transform our approach to tracking progress in the fight against poverty.
“Collecting household survey data on poverty is expensive and time-consuming, which means that policy makers are often making decisions based on old data,” said Asli Demirguc-Kunt, Director of Research at the World Bank. “Machine learning could drastically change the game, making poverty measurement cheaper and much closer to real-time.”
Machine learning is a field of computer science that allows computers to examine large bodies of data to identify patterns that data scientists would never find on their own.
Olivier Dupriez, a statistician at the World Bank, unveiled results from his and colleagues’ ongoing work on machine learning and poverty measurement at a recent Policy Research Talk. According to Dupriez, machine learning could make it possible to use a handful of easy-to-collect pieces of household information—such as whether a household has basic appliances or consumes a specific type of food—to predict the poverty status of a household. This would allow for poverty estimation based on simpler household survey instruments, and, hopefully, more effective policies to end poverty.
Data scientists have been developing the foundations of machine learning over the last half century, but its use has only become commonplace with the vast increases in computing power of the last decade. Today, machine learning is employed in everything from facial recognition technology to spam filters. In the case of poverty measurement, machine learning tools are employed to examine large national household survey datasets—which can be augmented with data from other sources, such as geospatial data—to develop models that can most effectively identify poor households.
From the outset, Dupriez and his colleagues faced a challenge: academia and the private sector have already created a multitude of machine learning tools, each with its own advantages and disadvantages. One tool may do a great job of predicting national poverty rates, but perform poorly when identifying specific households that fall below the poverty line.
Given the large number of options, the first stage of research has been exploratory. Dupriez and his colleagues have used large, comprehensive datasets on household poverty from Indonesia and Malawi to test four different approaches—with widely varying results.
The first of these applied 10 out-of-the-box machine learning algorithms to predict which households in Malawi and Indonesia are poor based on a handful of available variables. None of these algorithms proved to be a clear winner; different tools performed better on different metrics of poverty prediction. However, combining the results of these 10 out-of-the-box algorithms significantly improved predictive performance on most metrics.
The World Bank researchers also crowdsourced options through a global data science competition that attracted 6,000 submissions. The five winners from Portugal, Russia, China, and the Philippines faced the challenge of predicting household poverty status using anonymized datasets; they had no idea what country the data were from or whether specific households were classified as poor. Their models slightly outperformed the best of the 10 out-of-the-box algorithms used in the first approach.
Dupriez also employed an automated machine learning process, where the computer itself identifies the optimal way to build a model of poverty prediction. This approach requires a truly high-powered computer—in this case a computer with 32 processors worked for two days straight. The model produced via automated machine learning proved to be a disappointment, however, as it fell short on most quality metrics. But this may have been the result of the task assigned to it—the computer was directed to optimize only a single metric.
Instead, the most impressive results came from pairing experts and machines. Big tech companies like Google, Netflix, and Amazon have been innovating in the area of machine learning to produce content recommendation systems. Dupriez hired outside experts (Peter Bull and Casey Fitpatrick of DrivenData), who deployed an algorithm similar to the one Google uses for its Play Store. This algorithm produced excellent results on almost all metrics, making it a strong contender for additional investigation despite its complexity.
While the results so far are promising, the research is still in an early phase, with much more work needed to turn machine learning into a practical tool that can make poverty measurement faster and cheaper. Globally, data scientists need to commit to openness around data, software, and methods to make this a reality.
“The reason that our outside experts were able to build the best performing model is that they know a lot about what model works with what kind of data and what kind of challenge,” said Dupriez. “We need to develop a library of reproducible scripts and open data where researchers can find any kind of machine learning model, no matter who created it, so that we as a community can apply it to the most pressing challenges the world faces.”
Can big data help protect the planet?
How do we get to a more sustainable and inclusive future if we don’t know where we are? This is where data comes in and, right now, we do not have the data we need.
These were some of the questions asked at the Third Global Session of the UN Science-Policy-Business Forum held during the UN Environment Assembly. The virtual discussion delved into the role of big data and frontier tech in the transition to a sustainable future.
Opening the session, United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Executive Director Inger Andersen said science needed to be digitized so it could be more democratic and accessible. She said digital transformation is central to UNEP’s new Medium-Term Strategy.
“Big data and new tech can support real-time monitoring of the environment, help consumers adopt more sustainable behaviour, and create sustainable value chains,” she said. “The [UN] Secretary-General has made it very clear that digital transformation has to be part and parcel of the UN … we have oceans of data but drops of information.”
At the event, participants stressed that knowledge obtained through the latest digital technologies such as Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning and the Internet of Things could speed up progress on environmental goals. Better data could inform interventions and investment, while boosting results and impact measurement.
Bridging the data divide
The data deficit is also hindering the world’s ability to respond to climate change.
Petteri Taalas, Secretary-General of the World Meteorological Organization, said earth observation systems and early warning services were still poor in parts of the world, with around US$ 400 million needed to improve these.
“That is one of the ways to adapt to climate change – to invest in early warning services and observation systems. We have to monitor what is happening to the climate but this monitoring is in poor shape,” he said.
Making the right technology available to developing countries not only presents a financing challenge, but also underlines the profound need for accessible, open-source technology.
Munir Akram, President of the UN Economic and Social Council, said bridging the digital divide is critical. He noted that connectivity was only around 17 per cent in the poorest countries compared to above 80 per cent in richer countries.
“We need to build a database for all the open source technologies that are available in the world and could be applied to build greener and more sustainable structures of production and consumption. These technologies are available but there is no composite database to access them,” he said.
UNEP’s digital transformation
UNEP’s commitment to harnessing technology for environmental action begins ‘at home.’ At the fourth session of the UN Environment Assembly in 2019, Member States called for a Big Data Strategy for UNEP by 2025.
The organisation is currently undertaking a digital transformation process, while also focusing on four key challenges:
- Help producers measure and disclose the environmental and climate performance of their products and supply chains;
- Help investors assess climate and environmental risks and align global capital flows to climate goals;
- Enable regulators to monitor real-time progress and risks;
- Integrate this data into the digital economy to shape incentives, feedback loops and behaviours.
- Indispensable tools
- Other cutting-edge digital transformation initiatives are also in progress. UNEP’s World Environment Situation Room, a platform put together by a consortium of Big Data partners in 2019, includes geo-referenced, remote-sensing and earth observation information and collates climate data in near real-time.
- At the event, Juliet Kabera, Director General of the Rwanda Environment Management Authority, described how her country had invested heavily in technology, including connectivity, drones and online platforms, such as the citizen e-service portal, Irembo.
- “There is no doubt that technology has a critical role in addressing the urgent challenges we all face today, regardless of where we are in the world,” Kabera said. “The COVID-19 pandemic once again reminded us that science and technology remain indispensable tools for humanity at large.”
Women and girls belong in science
Closed labs and increased care responsibilities are just a two of the challenges women in scientific fields are facing during the COVID-19 pandemic, the UN chief said in his message for the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, on Thursday.
“Advancing gender equality in science and technology is essential for building a better future”, Secretary-General António Guterres stated, “We have seen this yet again in the fight against COVID-19”.
Women, who represent 70 per cent of all healthcare workers, have been among those most affected by the pandemic and those leading the response to it. Yet, as women bear the brunt of school closures and working from home, gender inequalities have increased dramatically over the past year.
Woman’s place is in the lab
Citing the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) he said that women account for only one third of the world’s researchers and hold fewer senior positions than men at top universities, which has led to “a lower publication rate, less visibility, less recognition and, critically, less funding”.
Meanwhile, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning replicate existing biases.
“Women and girls belong in science”, stressed the Secretary-General.
Yet stereotypes have steered them away from science-related fields.
Diversity fosters innovation
The UN chief underscored the need to recognize that “greater diversity fosters greater innovation”.
“Without more women in STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics], the world will continue to be designed by and for men, and the potential of girls and women will remain untapped”, he spelled out.
Their presence is also critical in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), to close gender pay gaps and boost women’s earnings by $299 billion over the next ten years, according to Mr. Guterres.
“STEM skills are also crucial in closing the global Internet user gap”, he said, urging everyone to “end gender discrimination, and ensure that all women and girls fulfill their potential and are an integral part in building a better world for all”.
‘A place in science’
Meanwhile, despite a shortage of skills in most of the technological fields driving the Fourth Industrial Revolution, women still account for only 28 per cent of engineering graduates and 40 per cent of graduates in computer science and informatics, according to UNESCO.
It argues the need for women to be a part of the digital economy to “prevent Industry 4.0 from perpetuating traditional gender biases”.
UNESCO chief Audrey Azoulay observed that “even today, in the 21st century, women and girls are being sidelined in science-related fields due to their gender”.
As the impact of AI on societal priorities continues to grow, the underrepresentation of women’s contribution to research and development means that their needs and perspectives are likely to be overlooked in the design of products that impact our daily lives, such as smartphone applications.
“Women need to know that they have a place in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and that they have a right to share in scientific progress”, said Ms. Azoulay.
‘Pathway’ to equality
Commemorating the day at a dedicated event, General Assembly President Volkan Bozkir informed that he is working with a newly established Gender Advisory Board to mainstream gender throughout all of the UN’s work, including the field of science.
“We cannot allow the COVID-19 pandemic to derail our plans for equality”, he said, adding that increasing access to science, technology, engineering and mathematics education, for women and girls has emerged as “a pathway to gender equality and as a key objective of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development”.
Mr. Volkan highlighted the need to accelerate efforts and invest in training for girls to “learn and excel in science”.
“From the laboratory to the boardroom, Twitter to television, we must amplify the voices of female scientists”, he stressed.
Meanwhile, UNESCO and the L’Oréal Foundation honoured five women researchers in the fields of astrophysics, mathematics, chemistry and informatics as part of the 23rd International Prize for Women in Science.
In its newly published global study on gender equality in scientific research, To be smart, the digital revolution will need to be inclusive, UNESCO shows that although the number of women in scientific research has risen to one in three, they remain a minority in mathematics, computer science, engineering and artificial intelligence.
“It is not enough to attract women to a scientific or technological discipline”, said Shamila Nair-Bedouelle, Assistant UNESCO Director-General for Natural Sciences.
“We must also know how to retain them, ensuring that their careers are not strewn with obstacles and that their achievements are recognized and supported by the international scientific community”.
Importance of information technology and digital marketing in Today’s world
In the current times, to cope up with the demands of the changing world, we need to adopt digital and modern platforms. With the world rapidly growing towards digitalization and investing in information technology, our state is also going for unconventional means for carrying out different tasks in a more appropriate and time saving manner.
Firstly, we can take an example of online shopping. Many international and local brands have their online stores. Customers can order anything from any part of the world without traveling from one place to another. This initiative has contributed towards time saving and efficient use of technology. One can get whatever they want at their doorstep without any hustle of the traffic. This initiative has boosted the business as there are walk in customers as well as online. This initiative has also attracted a large number of audience due to ease and convenience in shopping. This phenomenon comes under the digitalization process. We should not forget the significance of internet in this regard as it was the first step towards digitalization. All the communication and digital platforms we are using are accessible to us due to internet.
Another aspect of information technology is combating the communication gap between states and its masses. Today, there are many applications like WhatsApp, Skype, Facebook, messenger etc. through which one can communicate with his/her friends, relatives without being physically present there.
We have websites of different organizations as well as educational institutions through which we can get the information of that specific organization. Like, when we are registered with an organization, all our data is stored on its official page and accessible to specific persons. Same is the case with students that their educational record is held by university and when they are registered with their institutions, they can receive any updates or any new events or job opening through emails and messages.
The Covid-19 factor cannot be ignored in this regard. Due to the rise in Corona cases, jobs have been shifted from physical to online. Work-from-home is the new normal. All this is happening due to the digitalization process. It would not be wrong to say that the progress in information technology and digital platforms has made the life easier for the people.
Another prominent component is the online banking. Through this people can easily do transactions through their phones or PC’s by logging in to their bank accounts while sitting at their home and can access it any time. Bills can be paid through it. This is definitely a sigh of relief for the people who are tired of standing in the long queue outside banks to submit their bills or complexities while going to banks and doing transactions over there. This facility has also minimized the time wasted in traffic jams and standing in queue for long hours while going to banks. This time could be used for other productive tasks.
Online registration of cars in Islamabad initiated during the COVID-19 is another wonder of digitalization process. Islamabad administration has made it easier for its people to register their cars while sitting at their homes without the fear of being infected. Food delivery systems should also be appreciated for their smart work. There are apps like food panda, cheetah etc. through which people can order their desired food through a call. Many food chains offer home deliveries that has made the lives of the people much convenient.
The much-appreciated step by the government is producing Pakistan made ventilators and stents in the view of the rapidly increasing Corona cases. This was possible due to appropriate scientific and technological knowledge. The government has also said that soon we will be seeing Pakistan made chargeable vehicles on the roads. They will prove to be economical and fuel saving; they will be easy to handle and have human friendly interface.
Developments in Nadra is another milestone as now everything is computerized, there is no paperwork required and all the records are saved in computers. Recently, our interior minister has said that Nadra will now exempt the cost of making identity cards and the card will be provided to the person after 15 days as previously it to took more time to give the card to the concerned person. Removing check posts in the capital and substituting them with other efficient measures like cameras, drones is another achievement. Another recent development in the line of digitalization that cannot be ignored is inauguration of online system by the Islamabad traffic Police through which people can get their license and other paperwork can be done through the online portal.
It can be concluded that we are gradually moving from traditional ways of working towards a digitalized era. However, there is still a room for improvement, the good thing is that people are understanding the importance of the digitalization process by gradually accepting it but further awareness through innovative campaigns does not bring any bad. An interesting take pertinent to advanced digitalization and technological growth is that it had definitely made people to completely rely on digital processes and solutions that now people have to opt for these advanced strategies in any case, whether they are comfortable with or not. Obviously, good things take time and using digital resources for fruitful purposes is not a bad idea at all; unless and until resources are not wasted.
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