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How mapping poverty can inform public policy
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Data analytics are one of the fast growing business trends of this decade. Policymakers are also finding use of big data, and are using more detailed mapping of poor areas to better deliver services. - photo by Daniel Bendtsen
Cities have used mapping to help smooth traffic snarls for years.

But tackling poverty with maps? That's a tougher issue. For a time, analysts only had sad maps, which showed that the city's slums had a uniform concentration of poverty-related variables.

Maps for crime rates, school retention and infant mortality measures all tell similar geographical stories: the darkest shades of the map, indicating the most severe disparities, represent the same few neighborhoods, according to economist Matthew Tyler.

When there was no meaningful regression, there wasn't much to learn from.

But when leaders from 39 major U.S. cities met last month at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, they said they've made big strides in the past year. The key was simply to compare poverty maps with a wider range of variables now more and more cities are hiring "chief data officers" to do just that.

When they compare the sad maps to the distribution of social services, the researchers can find disparities that can inform policymakers to retool their efforts. Leaders said they now compare poverty maps to infrastructure allocations to see if there is discriminatory policymaking in place.

Researchers have also stretched the study of these indicators over time, thereby tracking to see if one problem is more likely to cause the other. For example, say you want to know if education retention is likely to cause low crime rates or vice versa. Tracking these variables over time can possibly show researchers one tends to precede the other. In Chicago, policymakers were able to determined that failing Algebra I was the best indicator that someone might drop out of high school this led to more intensive tutoring for that course, Tyler wrote.

Because of the high availability of data, it is relatively easy to map poverty variables in the developing world and study regressions. But areas of the world that have the greatest need are also less likely to have the systematic means to compile data.

To facilitate that need, the World Bank announced last week it would begin working with the 78 poorest countries in the world to ensure that household surveys are taken every three years.

Twenty-nine of those countries currently collect no information on poverty. The first round of surveys is set to be completed by 2020.

The World Bank hopes these surveys will allow it to map issues of education, sanitation, infrastructure and others a clear view of which locations are most affected will allow for more specific targeting.

The World Bank has already begun mapping poverty in areas where it had invested in projects. By tracking how surrounding poverty changed (or didn't change), analysts can determine which types of projects are most effective.

The Brookings Institution published a report this summer asserting that while these intensive surveys can provide a more detailed understanding, they take a long time to put into place.

The think tank believes the proliferation of cellphones could be a valuable asset for researchers. Brookings has begun a pilot project for Senegal, which already has a rough estimate of how poverty is distributed among its 14 regions.

Researchers can then compare that data to cellphone usage for each region and find a general correlation between cellphone usage and poverty.

With the detailed records afforded by cellphone usage, they can apply their correlation to make a more specific poverty map. Brookings is currently working to test this on the ground in Senegal before expanding it to other countries.