How GiveDirectly is finding the poorest people in the world - and sending them cash.
The economic effects of Covid-19 have not been kind for the world's poorest but, the good news is that a charity called GiveDirectly, which has spent 10 years sending direct cash transfers to people in poverty around the world, particularly in Africa, has been escalating its pandemic relief efforts - and continually innovating to find groundbreaking ways to target those most in need of money.
The charity’s latest innovation is utlising an algorithm, designed by UC Berkeley, that uses artificial intelligence to identify the poorest individuals in the poorest areas, and transfer cash relief directly to them.
This new initiative allows the targeting to be faster and more accurate, completely contactless (which is vital during the pandemic), and naturally adapting and evolving as data changes over time. The algorithm works in two stages, using two distinct data sources. First, it finds the poorest neighborhoods or villages in a certain region, by analyzing high-resolution satellite imagery. The tool identifies those areas from hundreds of poverty markers that distinguish poorer from wealthier places, such as roof material, building density, sizes of farm plots, and paved or unpaved roads.
Once the geography is set, the second stage is finding the poorest individuals within those areas, by analyzing their mobile phone data, provided by Togo’s two principal carriers, Togocel and Moov. It distinguishes between richer and poorer folks using clues for more expensive or cheaper usage, like lengths and frequency of phone calls, number of inbound versus outbound calls, and amount of mobile data used. After the poorest individuals are identified, they will be prompted to enroll via mobile phone, and then instantly paid. “The aim is to pick out as many extremely poor as possible, as quickly as possible,” says Han Sheng Chia, special projects director at GiveDirectly.
He hopes governments and NGOs are able to use the tool in the future, and the system could prove to be a model for “pre-positioning” relief ahead of disasters and humanitarian crises. “We don’t think of this as the only mechanism to provide cash and social protections to needy people,” Blumenstock says. “But it is an effective way to get cash out really quickly, to a lot of people.”
So far, the charity has received donations of $260m and has distributed cash support to over half a million people.