How satellite images are helping find the world’s hidden poor

From The Washington Post:

Satellite images can reveal a lot of surprising secrets about the world. They have given us insight into the Islamic State’s destruction of archaeological sites, illegal logging in Brazil and black markets operating in North Korea. Now, images from space are also rapidly becoming a tool to help fight poverty, by giving researchers a badly needed look at how people are really living in the world’s poorest places.

You might be thinking that the state of global poverty isn’t exactly a secret. Organizations like the IMF, for example, publish spreadsheets of numbers about economics development. But often there is a lot of guesswork behind these figures. Researchers gather this data by going door to door, and then extrapolating those figures out to a national level. Poor countries often lack the resources to do this; other times, governments just don’t want to, for fear of publishing statistics that show they are doing a bad job.

This is especially a problem in the parts of the world that suffer from the worst poverty, like sub-Saharan Africa. In fact, between 2000 and 2010, 14 African countries carried out no surveys from which national poverty statistics could be constructed at all, the World Bank says.

These statistics are important because international organizations, governments and charities need them in order to design poverty alleviation programs that work — for example, to meet the U.N.’s ambitious goal to end global poverty by 2030.

Neal Jean, one of the authors of a new study published in Science, says the U.N.’s goal will be very hard to accomplish without good measurement. “People are coming up with potential policies and interventions. But if you can’t measure your progress toward your goals, how do you know these policies are even effective?”

But satellite imagery offers a potential answer to this problem. And that answer is getting …

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