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Can State-of-the-Art Machine Learning Tools Give New Life to Household Survey Data?

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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.”

World Bank

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Rachel Lyons: Shaping the future of humanity in space

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image source: Space for Humanity

Rachel Lyons is the executive director at Space for Humanity. Space for Humanity is a non profit organisation in the US which is cultivating a movement to expand access to space for all humanity. Rachel is working towards making space exploration more inclusive and accessible to people worldwide. Space for Humanity is advocating space inclusivity in the US and is working with space experts, astronauts and other prominent people in the space sector to bring about change. In this conversation with Modern Diplomacy, Rachel discusses more about her experience working in the space advocacy sector.

What role is Space for Humanity playing in the future of the world?

This is a big question. If you think about our world, and the systems that we have in place – the types of people they favor, the types of activities that get prioritized, it becomes clear that these systems were built with foundational values of money and power being the highest priorities. If our values shift to things like the preservation of life, love, and wellbeing of humans and our planet — and this is what S4H is working to fundamentally address — the structures that are built on top of it will also begin to shift. This is what we are working to address. A shift in perspective that will ultimately cause behavior, relationships, and systems to change accordingly.

Why is advocacy important in the space exploration sector? What are some things you want to change about how we explore space? 

Advocacy is important because it influences public opinion and policy. Very often, when I share the importance of space exploration, people question why we are going to space when we face so many challenges on our own planet. The reality is, the technological advancements in space have impacted the lives of people globally in positive ways, and culturally the impacts have been massive (for example, the EarthRise Image of our planet from a distance from the Apollo era is said to have sparked the modern environmental movement). It is important for people to know, we go to space not because we choose it over earth, but because we love earth.

How can countries increase collaboration for space exploration?

This is a big question – I can talk about it from the individual’s perspective. If you are a young person, and you’re interested in space, by joining and supporting organizations like Students for the Exploration and Development of Space and the Space Generation Advisory Council, you can meet like minded people that are just beginning their career. Starting off early, networking, learning about what people are working on can open up collaborative opportunities exponentially for your entire career, no matter where that takes people.

Will all countries get an equal opportunity to. Go to space first when Space for Humanity’s citizen flights start?

Yes – that is our mission. And, there are some restrictions that we need to be realistic about. For example, countries that have more access to the internet are more likely to hear about S4H’s mission. Additionally, because of guidelines and safely with the flight providers, people must speak english in order to fly, so that limits access to others. And, it is extremely important to us for our mission to be as accessible as possible.

Why do you think it’s necessary for people to go to space and see Earth from above?

The perspective shift. Seeing the earth from above — the beauty, fragility, and interconnectedness of everything on it, can change a person for the reason of their lives. This cognitive shift is called the Overview Effect and it has been widely studied. Many astronauts return to earth with a new care for our planet and new care for people. They see how special and finite our existence is. They see the miraculousness and meaninglessness of it all at once. This perspective is essential, given the global nature of our greatest challenges, and what we are currently facing.

How is Space for Humanity planning to increase operations and advocacy across the globe?

Keep sharing our mission! The majority of our online content is totally free. We have people from 100+ countries that have applied to our program, follow us on social media, and attend our events. We are working to bring more and more people from all over onto our leadership board as well. We are so excited to keep expanding, and having efforts across the globe is an essential part of our mission.

How do you plan to share Space for Humanity’s vision with the world?

So many ways. We’re already done it via social media, launch parties, webinars, in person events, at conferences, public events, and more. We will continue doing this – sharing our mission IS our mission. Creating a perspective shift, on earth or off of it, IS our mission. In future years, when we sponsor astronauts to go to space, they will return to earth and commit themselves to sharing our mission. This is how we will continue amplifying the message.

Do you see other organisations like Space for Humanity starting worldwide? With a similar model?

There are similar organizations, like the Space Generation Advisory Council, that is a global network of space professionals.

Then there’s the Space Frontier foundation, that hosts a yearly conference and is a space advocacy organization.

The Planetary Society does a really great job of sharing space globally as well.

Virgin Galactic is a commercial space flight organization, where people will soon be able to purchase tickets to go to space.

These all exist and are doing great work, and there is no other organization like Space for Humanity. There is no organization that is working to start a movement using the spaceflight perspective, by sponsoring people from all over the world to go to space.

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Antivirals, Spaceflights, EdTech, and Hyperloops: 20 Markets That Will Transform Economies

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As the world grapples with the socio-economic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, there is increasing demand to shape a new economy that addresses broader societal and environmental challenges while generating economic growth. To achieve this, the world needs to set an ambitious agenda of technological and socio-institutional innovations to pilot new markets that can help solve these challenges.

The World Economic Forum highlights 20 markets that could transform our economies. Some will rely particularly on advances in technology (e.g. broad-spectrum antivirals, spaceflights), while others will require radically new social and institutional set-ups (e.g. skills capital, water rights, quality credits). Others will emerge from a combination of both elements (e.g. data, genes and DNA sequences). Each of these markets has potential benefits in multiple dimensions. For example, they could help societies to protect and empower people (e.g. precision medicines and orphan drugs, EdTech and reskilling services), advance knowledge and understanding (e.g. artificial intelligence, spaceflights, satellite services), or protect the environment (e.g. greenhouse gas allowances, reforestation services, hydrogen).

“While protecting people remains the priority at present, now is also the time to plan a post-pandemic transformation of our economies. We must ensure that new economic activities do not only generate growth but also provide solutions to the problems that our societies are facing, said” says Saadia Zahidi, Managing Director, World Economic Forum. “The future of our economies, societies and the planet depend on developing these new, inclusive and sustainable markets.”

Creating these markets will require close collaboration between the public and the private sectors to:

  • Invent new products that can be sustainably produced
  • Nurture a set of companies to produce new products and bring them to market
  • Foster enough demand to sustain a commercially viable market
  • Establish clear standards that all actors can rely on and the market can converge on
  • Create alignment within society on how to value the new product
  • Develop the legal frameworks to identify, hold and exchange the new product
  • Build the necessary infrastructure to exchange, distribute and store the new product

Coalitions of actors at country and global level can come together to pursue the establishment of these conditions. For optimal societal outcomes, these markets should be designed around fairer and more sustainable ways of producing and distributing value. Examples include more collaboration between the public and the private sectors, innovative models to finance research and development, and designing the public sector’s risk-taking into the new ventures. Public institutions have a key role to play in catalysing public-private collaborations and create the systemic conditions for selected markets to emerge.

A preliminary mapping of countries’ potential for breakthrough technological and socio-institutional innovation indicates that those with advanced technological capabilities, strong social capital and future-oriented institutions are likely to succeed in developing a broader set of new markets. In particular, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Denmark, Germany and Norway have the highest potential for socio-institutional innovation, while Japan, Germany, the United States, the Republic of Korea and France have the highest potential to generate breakthrough technological development.

Most advanced economies also score highly across both these dimensions. A number of high-income economies from the Middle East (Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates) and East Asia (Indonesia, Malaysia) as well as a few small island states (Barbados, Cyprus, Malta, Mauritius, Seychelles) and emerging African countries (Kenya and Namibia) can rely on significant levels of social capital and future orientation of policy-makers but do not yet have a mature technological system. A smaller group of advanced economies (Czech Republic, Israel, Italy, Japan, Spain) as well as the BRICs and other emerging economies (Hungary, Poland) present solid technological systems but need development in the social and institutional fabric to deliver these markets.

The disruptions brought by the COVID-19 pandemic provide an opportunity to pilot breakthrough technological and socio-institutional innovations that can grow into entire new markets. Success will ultimately depend on how well multistakeholder actors work together to create the necessary conditions for a number of key new markets to emerge that will help make economies more inclusive and sustainable. Existing market structures are not neutral; high levels of concentration and market power in adjacent industries to the new markets might slow down or even curb the establishment of such new markets.

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Light at the end of the tunnel: New technologies to fight the COVID-19 on transport

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Disinfection robots, thermometer robots, smart tunnels, automatic passenger counting, powerful ultraviolet lamps and other examples of how new technologies reshaped public transport amid the COVID-19 outbreak.

The coronavirus pandemic has led to significant changes in many areas of life in just a few months. As the coronavirus continued to spread around the world, governments in several countries took measures to restrict movement, and people themselves tried to avoid traveling on public transport. The demand for the services of transport operators has dropped drastically. So, according to the Moovit Public Transit Index, passenger traffic in public transport on April 15, 2020 decreased in Israel by 92.1%, in Rome – by 89.2%, in Madrid – by 88.1%, in New York-by 74.8% and has not yet recovered. City residents are afraid to use public transport actively again, and their fears are fully justified. High daily passenger traffic and high frequency of contact between passengers make public transport an ideal environment for the spread of infections. The problem of fighting the spread of infections while maintaining normal life activity is particularly acute for large cities, such as Moscow or Beijing, where daily passenger traffic reaches 19.4 and 12.3 million passengers respectively. The average density of passengers on a bus or in a traincar at the same time ranges from 2 to 5 people per square meter, while, according to World Health Organization (WHO) recommendations, in order to comply with safety standards, passengers must maintain a social distance of 1.5 meters. Furthermore, virus particles can remain for a long time on public surfaces inside a bus or a traincar. Handrails on public transport are usually made of plastic, on which the coronavirus can remain up to 3 days, according to the New England Journal of Medicine. By touching them passengers increase the risk of contagion.

The key task for transport operators is to make the usage of public transport safe. To help them solve this problem came technology -all kinds of robots are widely used among innovations. With their help, it is possible to carry out disinfection effectively and safely without the involvement of staff. The Hong Kong Metro, also known as the Mass Transit Railway (MTR), together with the biotechnology company Avalon Biomedical Management Limited, has developed a disinfection robot that can disinfect even the most inaccessible places of traincars and stations. In addition to disinfection, robots can cope with more complex tasks. So, in Ningbo Lishe International Airport was tested a 5G-supporting robot-thermometer, which can measure temperature at a distance of 5 meters up to 10 people simultaneously and also identify those who are not wearing a face mask. Another innovation in many transport operators is the sanitary gate. According to Giulio Barbieri, one of the manufacturers, this is a “a tested, safe, and effective method to sanitize people and objects in just 5 seconds, killing up to 99% of any pathogenic microbes on the surfaces, including COVID-19”For example, the technology was tested in the Moscow and Dubai metros. In Moscow the clothes of the employees entering the depot were processed using a disinfection tunnel; at the same time, the territory was manually disinfected, so that the entire depot was safer for the staff.

The process of digitalization of ticket systems, which began long before the pandemic, also had a positive effect. Thanks to the competent actions of transport operators, the number of contactless payments in public transport around the world increased by 187% in the period from April to June, as evidenced by a report from Visa. Following WHO recommendations, many transport operators have made it mandatory to wear masks and maintain social distance on public transport. A number of digital technologies have been developed to comply with these rules. In the Beijing metro, compliance with a mask regime is controlled by cameras with a facial recognition system that can identify people. In addition, in the Panama Metro, observance of social distance is monitored by sensors which determine the degree of capacity of train cars. The technology called Mastria, which aggregates information from train weight sensors, ticket machines, signalling, management systems, CCTV and mobile networks for the Panama metro was developed by Alstom (a french manufacturer specializing in the production of infrastructure for rail transport) and installed almost a year ago. In just three months, thanks to artificial neural networks, it was possible to reduce average waiting times at stations by 12%. This development became particularly relevant during the pandemic. The Moscow metro is planning to introduce a similar technology. To maintain the social distance digital displays with colored indicators that reflect the level of capacity of subway cars will be installed. In the Moscow metro a new generation of traincars with an automatic air disinfection system built into climate control systems helped to reduce the risk of infection. It makes it possible to disinfect the air without disrupting the train schedule and attracting employees. The Moscow metro rolling stock consists of more than 50% of train cars with built-in UV lamps, and this percentage is constantly growing. After evaluating the effectiveness of using UV lamps to disinfect public transport, the transport operator MTA New York City Transit, together with Columbia University, launched a pilot project worth 1 million dollars on the use of disinfecting lamps. During the first phase of the project, 150 autonomous lamps were purchased and installed to decontaminate wagons, stations and buses in New York, during the second phase it is planned to install equipment in commuter rails. To carry out disinfection measures, the New York City Subway took unprecedented measures – the closure of the subway from 1 to 5 a.m. daily.

The use of robots, disinfection tunnels, digital technologies, ultraviolet lamps, and intensive work of staff – all this helped to reduce the risk of the spread of coronavirus in public transport and made a significant contribution to fighting the global problem. According to the coronavirus distribution model, developed by Imperial College London at the beginning of the pandemic, if no action had been taken by mid-March there would have been over 500,000 deaths from COVID in the UK and over 2.2 million in the USA. At the moment, in the middle of October, there are about 43,000 deaths in the UK and about 214,000 in the USA. Of course, these are high rates, but they could have been much higher if the necessary measures were not taken in time. Technological innovations already available today will continue to be used, which will make the stay of passengers on public transport more comfortable and safer, reducing the risk of the spread of any infectious disease, especially during the flu and cold seasons.

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