Solving Poverty Needs Data That We Don’t Have

Data could help billions of people, but that data doesn't exist yet


When we think about the amount of data in society today, it is often in the context of high-tech companies using information about their customers, athletes being able to access their performance metrics or even customers being able to see their suggestions on Netflix. However, it can have significantly more impact on society as a whole.

We have discussed how humanitarian, conservation and charities can use data in order to maximize their effectiveness, but these represent changes to either disaster areas or small vulnerable elements of our society. Data should be able to have a significant impact on improving the lives of all of the poorest and most vulnerable people in the world.

The problem that some the organizations trying to do this are finding is that the data is simply not good enough in the poorest areas of the world to allow this to happen.

In the world’s most developed countries the amount of data held on even the poorest citizens is extensive. From their online presence through to a complex and deep rooted office of statistics to help create datasets for demographics, geographies and situations. Due to an understandable lack of funding for data gathering organizations in the world’s poorest countries, this kind of information is lacking.

Due to this lack of funding, the Overseas Development Institute estimates that there could be 350 million people around the world living in poverty that we simply don’t know about.

Johannes Jütting from Paris21, a company promoting statistics development, says ‘Without data we are flying blind, and we can’t do evidence-based policy decisions – or any decision at all.’ and he also makes the claim that ‘It’s scandalous that support for data is under 1% of ODA [overseas development assistance] and it’s scandalous it’s under $1bn’. Without this money poorer countries do not have the opportunity to improve their data gathering functions.

Without accurate and plentiful data it becomes difficult to effectively target particular problems and identify where they are and the best ways to approach them. To put in perspective there are 1,645 people in the world who are worth over $1 billion, yet the world contributes only $1 billion to help collect data to help the estimated 3 billion people currently living in poverty.

The problem that governments in these countries find is that in order to maintain power, they need to focus on short-term and visible wins, such as building infrastructure, increasing crop thresholds and improving crime prevention. Investing in data collection in their country will do them no good, but will instead help the governments in one or two terms time. Putting money into this kind of thing when money is so limited is therefore seen as being a waste.

Data is a key element to policy making in the world today, yet we have inadequate data for billions of these people in order to help them climb out of abject poverty. It shows that although data is a vital element for them, more needs to be done to collect it in the first place. 

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