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Governments are blind to their poorest citizens – a data revolution will make them see

Press release 

Embargoed until Monday 20th April 00:01 GMT 

Governments are blind to their poorest citizens – a data revolution will make them see

Global estimates of how many people living in extreme poverty could be out by more than a quarter, because of a dearth of reliable data. 

In a new report from the Overseas Development Institute, researchers say that oft-quoted hard ‘facts’ about global progress are often little more than educated guess-work.


The data revolution: Finding the missing millions’ chronicles how little is actually known about the lives of the poorest.  It says more investment, combined with the application of big data analytics to explore data gathered by a variety of technologies, including satellite, mobile phones and drones, is needed if governments are to make informed decisions to help the poor.

Amongst the gaps highlighted:

• 1.2 billion people ‘officially’ live in extreme poverty, but surveyors often don’t reach the very poor, so there could actually be 350 million missing from the global total
• Twice the number of women could be dying in childbirth in Sub-Saharan Africa than the published number
• 600 nationally representative household surveys containing uniquely detailed data on income poverty and inequality languish in a World Bank private database

Report author Elizabeth Stuart said, “Even when people are counted, the counting is not good enough. We need better surveys, better use of the data we have, underpinned by more investment so governments know the size of the problem, and how well they are tackling it”.

Amongst the promising big data technologies highlighted:
• Use of satellite technology to track proxy poverty levels, through recording patterns of settlements’ light emissions
• Smartphones; already being used to upload data about working water-points in Liberia
• Drones: usually associated with controversial surveillance, but could be used harnessed to map land rights, track disaster relief efforts, or gather information on nomadic communities

The report says that policy-makers are often working in the dark, making major spending decisions – like building new hospitals - without hard facts to base them on.

It says global investment in data for the developing world would more than pay for itself.  Kenya’s open data initiative around government procurement – the first in Sub-Saharan Africa - could save £1bn annually.

“Using data to hold political  leaders to account, as well as to empower the poor, could be game-changing, “ said Elizabeth Stuart, “From Columbia,  Kenya, to India, we’ve heard of data being harnessed,   to help citizens with everything from growing crops,  to mobile banking,  to claiming land rights. The data revolution isn’t in the future, it’s already here.”

For more information please contact Arron Merat, Development Progress Media Officer on [email protected] or call +44 (0)20 7922 0432