Fall ArmywormMachine learning, a variation of artificial intelligence that includes the development of algorithms that independently learn new information, has innumerable applications. An example of this is visible in Africa where the fall armyworm pest in Uganda has ravaged crop yields. Amid the destruction, a new machine learning-based app created by a Ugandan developer has the potential to stop the spread of the crop-destroying pest.

Agriculture in Uganda and the Fall Armyworm

Approximately 22% of Uganda’s GDP comes from agriculture, with most Ugandans working in the agricultural sector, often engaging in subsistence farming. With the nation’s economic performance relying on successful agricultural harvests and the population’s everyday food sources coming from their own crop yields, any invasion of pests in Uganda can have serious consequences.

In 2016, Uganda experienced its first invasion of the fall armyworm pest, the larva of the armyworm moth. A native of the tropical regions of the western hemisphere, the fall armyworm pest eats through crops for nourishment before its transformation into a moth. By mid-2017, the fall armyworm had been detected throughout Uganda and estimations indicate that the infestation led to $192 million in maize crop losses alone. In some regions, farmers noted crop yield losses of up to 75%.

Despite the severe threat posed by the fall armyworm pest in Uganda, local developers have created a machine learning-based tool to assist Ugandan farmers with detecting the presence of the fall armyworm in their crops and preventing its spread.

Machine Learning to Protect Crops

In the aftermath of the arrival of the fall armyworm pest, Nazirini Siraji, a Ugandan woman from the city of Mbale, began work on a modern solution to the age-old problem of pest invasions. After attending one of Google’s Codelabs events, Siraji used Google’s TensorFlow platform to develop her Farmers Companion App. TensorFlow is an open-source machine learning tool that enables developers like Siraji to create digital solutions powered by artificial intelligence.

The Farmers Companion App enables farmers to use mobile technology to identify this specific pest on their crops and their lifecycle stage. Using this information, the app notifies the users about the threat level their crops face and the extent to which the fall armyworm has the potential to spread. The app also recommends specific pesticide treatments that farmers can use based on the level of threat to the farmers’ crops.

According to Google, the app has already been deployed in the agricultural lands surrounding Mbale where Siraji partners with local farmers to put the Farmers Companion App to use.

Big Tech Meets Local Developer

The global expansion of the internet is accompanied by a rise in local innovation aiming to solve local issues. In Africa, pest invasions have been responsible for countless crop shortages and famines, which exacerbates problems of instability and poverty. While invasions from pests like the fall armyworm will inevitably occur in the future, they will not happen again without opposition from new technology.

John Andrikos
Photo: Flickr

Companies Fighting for Women's Rights
Women around the globe are still fighting for a world in which they can receive equal treatment. In many developing countries, women are more vulnerable to human rights abuses and others often deny them opportunities to reach their full potential. Here are three technology companies fighting for women’s rights.

3 Tech Companies Fighting for Women’s Rights

  1. IBM: The multi-national technology company has celebrated the success of women throughout its history. IBM has had a female CEO since 2012 and has been strategic in empowering women throughout the company and around the globe. For International Women’s Day, IBM Systems Lab Services created a #BalanceforBetter campaign. The campaign engages employees around the world to advocate for women’s rights. IBM employees held up signs challenging stereotypes and biases, celebrating IBM women and supporting gender equality. IBM’s Corporate Service Corps (CSC) gives women and girls across the globe the opportunity to thrive. Additionally, the organization supports organizations that serve women in 40 countries. These organizations support economic growth, health care and violence prevention among others. In Ghana, an IBM team paved the way for educating girls in rural communities. In Kenya, India and Mexico, IBM has supported organizations preventing violence against women. Additionally, in Peru, IBM supports initiatives increasing cervical cancer screenings. Through these efforts, IBM hopes to empower and protect women, while continuing to bridge the gap between women and STEM.
  2. Microsoft: For years, Microsoft has used its research technology for good to protect vulnerable populations. For example, the organization has partnered with WorldPop to count every person on Earth. By using Microsoft Azure, organizations can track the location and distribution of vulnerable populations. Microsoft hopes to aid in the creation of programs and policy changes that protect vulnerable populations and empower women. Microsoft researchers recognize that women are more vulnerable to poverty. However, they also recognize that pulling them out of poverty has exponential effects on their families and communities. In January 2020, Microsoft partnered with Care Egypt Foundation (CEF) and the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology (MCIT) to launch a women empowerment campaign. Through this initiative, all organizations hope to empower women through the development of practical skills necessary for the workforce. Since 2014, Microsoft has also had an ongoing partnership with the Central Department for Community Development, aiming to tackle unemployment and economic issues through the empowerment of women in Egypt.
  3. Google: Another prominent tech titan among companies fighting for women’s rights is Google. The company equips young women with skills they need to thrive in the tech world and advocates for gender equality around the world. For example, Google’s partnership with Technovation Girls empowers young women around the globe to learn and develop technology that will impact their community. Technovation is a tech education nonprofit that empowers individuals to problem-solve, create and lead. Each year through its Technovation Girls program, the organization invites young women from all over the world and equips them to solve real-world problems through technology. Google is a platinum sponsor and has hosted these young innovators to pitch their apps at the company’s main campus in California for the chance to win scholarships. Additionally, in Google’s Arts and Culture section, the company has created a “Women in Culture” page, celebrating women in a variety of different fields. The page highlights women like Dolores Huerta, creator of the United Farm Workers, who advocated for the rights of impoverished farmers in Central America. It also features the unheard stories of women in India who have impacted Indian culture. Above all, the page champions women’s equality around the world, highlighting many unsung female heroes who have fought against injustice.

Why It Matters

An increase in women’s rights around the globe can have drastic effects on the global economy. According to U.N. Women, there is a very strong connection between empowered women and thriving economies. Providing women with job opportunities increases productivity and growth within economies. Supporting women through health care and education can also protect them from potential violence and discrimination. Large companies fighting for women’s rights have the potential to use their prominent platforms to advocate for women and to reflect these values within their own companies.

– Megan McKeough
Photo: Wikipedia Commons

AI Improves FarmingOnce a far-fetched, abstract idea, artificial intelligence is now proving to be a valuable asset in solving world hunger. Although AI is still in its earlier stage of development, progress is being made by corporations and university programs such as Google and Stanford University’s Sustainability and Artificial Intelligence Lab. No longer merely science fiction, now AI improves farming, helps identify disease, predicts crop yields and locates areas prone to scarcity.

FarmView Increases Sorghum Yields

Researchers from Carnegie Mellon University created FarmView to help solve the issue of a rapidly increasing population. By 2050, over 9.8 billion people will live on the planet, making food scarcity a topic of increasing importance. Additionally, CMU wants to help current farmers grow more food using the same amount of crops. And as AI improves farming methods, CMU believes it’s a possibility.

CMU is working with plant scientists and agricultural leaders to develop and deploy a system of AI, sensing and robotics technologies to improve plant breeding and crop management. One aim is to increase yields of drought and heat resistant sorghum–a crop that can thrive in famine-stricken countries. Researchers first collect data with drones, robots and stationary sensors. Then, machine learning technologies analyze the data to determine what factors yield more sorghum.

Agricultural Improvement with Google’s TensorFlow

Another AI technology created to help the agriculture industry is PlantMD. Created by high school students Shaza Mehdi and Nile Ravanell, PlantMD is an app that allows a farmer to detect plant diseases.  Mehdi and Ravanell built the app using Google’s TensorFlow, an open-source machine learning library.

Inspiration for PlantMD came from Nuru, an app built by a research team at Penn State University called PlantVillage in tandem with the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture.

Nuru was created as a solution to disease and pest susceptibility in cassava, a crop that feeds half a billion Africans daily. Because it is difficult for farmers to inspect and manage every crop, machine learning is being used to increase efficiency. First, a machine learning model was trained using thousands of classified cassava images. The model was then turned into an app where farmers can send images of their crop and receive information not only identifying diseases but also giving options to manage them. With this information, vital African agriculture can be better sustained to feed people.

Stanford University’s Research

Similar to PlantVillage and the IITA, Stanford University is utilizing machine learning in order to understand and predict crop yields in soybeans. But these models may be expanded to help underdeveloped countries.

Marshall Burke, an assistant professor of earth system science at Stanford, said: “If we have a model that works for U.S. soybeans, maybe we can train that model for areas with less data.”

Machine learning can also identify areas in underdeveloped countries suffering from food scarcity. Because these countries often lack reliable agricultural data, machine learning technology is extracting information from satellite images to discover areas where agriculture is suffering.

Solving the World’s Problems with AI

Google’s open-source TensorFlow allows machine learning technologies to be applied to agriculture. Moustapha Cisse, lead of the new Google AI center in Accra, Ghana, mentioned how farmers use TensorFlow-based apps like PlantMD and Nuru to diagnose plant diseases. Cisse said: “This wasn’t done by us but by people who use the tools we built.” Although not everyone owns a phone, it’s an excellent step in demonstrating the possibilities of AI in reducing poverty. And as AI improves farming, it brings us another step closer to reducing world hunger.

Lucas Schmidt
Photo: Flickr

Affordable Smartphone in NigeriaDuring a Google for Nigeria event in Lagos last month, Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai announced that they would be launching a new affordable smartphone in Nigeria. The ICE2, which will be available starting in September, will cost only $40.

As of December 2016, an estimated 47.9 percent of the Nigerian population of 191 million uses the Internet. Google hopes to reach the other half of the population that does not utilize the Internet but wish to do so.

The ICE2 is a good smartphone for the price. It includes a 5.5-inch 720p display and 8GB of internal storage that can be extended to 32GB. The phone also has a 5MP back camera and a 2MP front camera and runs on a 2800mAH battery.

The ICE2 will come with all Google apps including Google Maps and Google Search. It will also be the first device to come with Google Play Protect, which helps protect against harmful apps.

Google’s GBoard, a virtual keyboard app, now supports all major Nigerian languages. The keyboard can be used to type in Yoruba, Igbo and Hausa, making the device even more relevant for Nigerians.

With an affordable smartphone in Nigeria, Google hopes to improve lives and innovation in the country and in Africa as a whole. Pichai explained at the event that giving Africans internet access, platforms and products will allow them to create the internet they want.

Pichai also announced a plan to train 10 million African for digital jobs over the next five years. Google’s Digital Skills program has trained a million African inhabitants this past year and wishes to expand. The program offers 89 courses through an online portal, as well as in-person training in 20 countries. Google hopes that this training will prompt the young generations in Africa to build businesses and create jobs, which will overall boost the continent’s economy.

Hannah Kaiser

Photo: Google

Nonprofits in AfricaGoogle’s more philanthropic arm, Google.org, has connected and extended the endeavors of distinctive nonprofits and companies working to better their communities since 2005. This year’s efforts include providing around $50 million in funding, expertise, and tools to support these organizations. Additionally, the organization plans to train 10 million people in sub-Saharan Africa in this same time span, in order for them to be more employable and gain access to information and communications technologies, and it will train another 100,000 to develop mobile and global-capable apps. Thus far, Google.org has decided to put aside $20 million over the next five years for a range of nonprofits in Africa.

A leader in not only search engines but charity as well, Google has already chosen two African technology startups to receive $2.5 million in grants: Gidi Mobile and Siyavula. Gidi Mobile Ltd. focuses on expanding the visions of over 350 million young Africans and giving them the ability to accomplish such goals as Africa’s first mobile personal development platform. It allows people to complete courses and study materials online for all types of professional careers, connect with other learners and form a community and share personal progress with others. The company advances free content, cloud computing and both international and distinctly African content through its product Gidimo.

Siyavula similarly allows free online access to their line of published and curriculum-aligned math and science textbooks, alongside practice and teaching capabilities within the program. These are unlike restricted, copyrighted materials but adaptable without incurring costs, and allow educators to create and share accessible and open-licensed Open Education Resources (OERs). Both have in turn supported the unstifled digital education of over 400,000 underprivileged students in South Africa and Nigeria.

Through Google.org, almost $110 million has already been committed in the last five years to nonprofits in Africa and even other parts of the world that center around closing the education gap. Looking to their current portfolio, they are hoping technology will bring kids the right materials, as those who grow up in low-income areas have less access to books or are forced to use outdated, irrelevant texts. Around 221 million students today are taught in a language foreign to them, and 130 million do not learn basic math or reading despite placement in a four-year or more school system.

Moreover, 4.3 billion people lack consistent access to the internet. Technology can help solve this issue in bringing in more resources to students they can adapt to while remaining engaging and not being a financial burden. One of the first groups to win a grant in this area is the Foundation for Learning Equality, whose new platform Kolibri has brought 7,000 videos and 26,000 interactive exercises to offline students in 160 countries. This year, Google technicians are expanding Learning Equality’s content library and working with them on UX/UI, content integration and video compression technologies.

Next, Google is looking to keep teachers trained and engaged through such technology and is helping local leaders invest in tools offering such. In 2015, only 13.5 percent of teachers passed the India Central Teacher Eligibility Test. The first grant to address this went to the Million Sparks Foundation’s ChalkLit, which utilizes an app to share public curriculum-aligned content to teachers. And in 2016, the Delhi State Council of Education Research and Training (SCERT) selected Million Sparks as their online capacity building partner to offer in-service training for 60,000 teachers.

Lastly, Google.org hopes to reach students in conflict zones, as 32 million primary-school aged children cannot reach traditional classrooms due to crisis or displacement. One of their grantees, War Child Holland, addresses this with a game-based system that allows for a year of lessons and exercises that align with that host country. When deployed in Sudan, results showed students learned at equal and worthy rates from the approach. War Child Holland is hoping to expand to reach 170,000 children by 2020 and reach significant numbers in the Middle East and Africa.

In order to stimulate technological promise across this region, Google.org is launching an “Impact Challenge” in Africa in 2018, where the most innovative and worthwhile ideas can earn almost $5 million in grants. Similar challenges have been completed in Brazil, India and the U.K. in the past. With the support and backing of major companies like Google, such already influential nonprofits in Africa and beyond will gain further means to improve lives and educate all those otherwise lacking access to adequate education in developing parts of the world.

Zar-Tashiya Khan

Photo: Flickr

Google's education
Google, one of the world’s most prominent and well-known companies, has massively impacted the world. People can have any piece of information desired at our fingertips, and Google’s education has drastically changed the way children learn.

Google’s education has become so pertinent that the corporation has launched its own app to help teachers in the classroom make assignments, known as Google Classroom. More than 30 million children use Google educational apps such as Google Classroom or Google Docs. The corporation has become so important in schools that Chromebooks (Google-powered laptops) are used by thousands of students and teachers in the classroom. A child in the state of Nebraska has the same access to information as a child in New York, Florida or California. Google’s education has made the world smaller, but it comes at the price of shrinking our brains.

The connectivity of the internet is useful, but some see the internet as a drawback to education as well. Google’s education has made the world smaller, but it comes at the price of shrinking our brains. Having constant access to almost limitless information is not only bad for human discourse; it’s reportedly making us worse at remembering things. And even if we aren’t conscious of it, our brains are primed to think about the Internet as soon as we start trying to recall the answer to a tough trivia question.

Google’s education has transformed education from learning over time into a faster process, one that can easily become a mental-crutch. “Google established itself as a fact in schools,” said Hal Friedlander, former chief information officer for the New York City Department of Education, the U.S.’s largest school district. Before Google established itself in school systems, children would have to research information in textbooks and have to talk to specific adults or mentors about certain topics. Now, the first place students conduct research is on Google.

While students are capable of having research at the touch of a button, teachers are concerned about the newfound capabilities of students’ almost unlimited information resources. Teachers feel that students may be overconfident with their research methods and capabilities. Some teachers believe that students are missing out on the true and somewhat old-fashioned research experience of looking through textbooks and talking to librarians. There’s also the risk of credibility with internet sources. Not every piece of information found on Google is a reliable source of information, and without accurately researching, students are blind to false information versus the truth.

Google’s education has helped expand informational resources to every person with internet access, but there is also the possibility that this access is making our minds less powerful. There has not been much extensive research on this topic yet, and more will need to be done in the future to better understand how Google’s education affects developing minds.

Mary Waller

Photo: Flickr

Cold Chain EquipmentVaccines are highly sensitive to high and low temperatures, therefore high-performing and well-maintained cold chain technologies are necessary to ensure their effectiveness. The Vaccine Alliance Gavi’s mission is to help lower-income countries gain access to the necessary vaccine cold chain equipment, and thanks to a recent deal with Google, it will have more resources to do so.

The new partnership between Gavi and Google is aimed to help tech start-up Nexleaf Analytics, which will contribute tech development and analytical knowledge as well as lessons learned from years working on the ground in countries.

The startup uses a wireless remote temperature to trace vaccine cold chain equipment and collect data on its efficiency. The critical data is intended to empower healthcare workers in making educated decisions on their purchase of equipment. This is especially important because, according to a recent World Health Organization and United Nations Children’s Fund’s joint statement, 78 percent of vaccine cold chain equipment in low and middle-income countries is either poorly functioning or non-functional.

Google’s contribution of $2 million USD, which will be matched by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, will be used to improve the efficiency and safety of vaccines by increasing cold chain equipment operating time, reducing running costs and improving temperature control.

With more than 30 million children still unimmunized, in large part because vaccines are unavailable, Nextleaf’s vaccine cold chain equipment is not only revolutionary but necessary. The start-up will collect data from every point of the health system, and make them readily available to workers in low-income countries. This easy access to key analytics will allow health system personnel to make the necessary adjustments and make educated decisions about the efficiency of the equipment.

The new collaboration is a part of Gavi’s INFUSE platform, which connects private sector partners and funders with high-tech innovators. INFUSE helps to find solutions to challenges that have led millions of children to not receive a full course of the most basic vaccines. The work is aimed to drive more impact at scale and ensure safe vaccinations for all.

Mayan Derhy

Photo: Flickr

Africa Smartphone Plant
When discussing typical hotspots for smartphone usage, Sub-Saharan Africa isn’t usually the first place that comes to mind. However, thanks to a recent software licensing deal with Google, a South African startup is set to open Africa’s first smartphone plant. After receiving $10.8 million in funding, the Johannesburg-based Onyx Connect is set to begin production in the first quarter of 2017.

Why is Africa’s first smartphone plant so important? While some companies in South Africa are already assembling smartphones from imported kits, Onyx is taking advantage of local talent by manufacturing the device and saving on import duties. The plastic cases are being produced locally, and Onyx has its own research and development capability. Because of this, Onyx claims that it could make a smartphone with one gigabyte of memory and a camera for roughly $30.

The company is licensed to load Google software, including Android and Chrome, onto devices sold under its own brand or products it makes for others.

Africa’s remarkable average annual growth rate of 5.1 percent over the past decade is largely due to increased trade. This continued growth in the world’s most underdeveloped continent creates good jobs and reduces poverty, which in turn helps Africa gain strong economic and trade ties with the U.S. and serves to benefit both parties.

The region has already seen massive leaps into the 21st century with the number of smartphone connections across the continent almost doubling over the last two years, reaching 226 million. Though this is a significant advancement, it leaves ample room for growth to supply Africa’s population of 1.2 billion.

By supporting local production, this deal also helps Google boost sales in Africa, which is one of the few regions where it isn’t the outright browser leader. The company is setting up a distribution center in Ethiopia within the next 12 to 18 months which will create 600 jobs, according to Bloomberg Markets.

Africa’s first smartphone plant is likely to be a big step towards the region’s digital revolution.

Mayan Derhy

Photo: Flickr

who is my representative
A tweet from Google Trends on January 3 declared that a spike in searches for “who is my representative” followed the GOP vote to put the Office of Congressional Ethics under control of the House Ethics Committee last Monday.

Comprised primarily of attorneys and other experts in ethics law, the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) was established in 2008 to oversee the ethics of the House of Representatives. The independent, nonpartisan group reviews allegations of wrongdoing by lawmakers and their staff and refers cases to the House Ethics Committee when appropriate.

The immediate backlash from Democrats led House Republicans to call an emergency meeting and reverse the proposal before the Congressional session began the next day.

To be put under the control of the House of Representatives would have significantly undermined the ability of the OCE to monitor and report corruption in Congress. The House Ethics Committee in particular has been accused of ignoring credible allegations of misconduct.

Each person in the U.S. is represented by two Senators for their state and one member of the House for their district. A spike in searches for “who is my representative” is indicative of either a seasonal curiosity or of a particular issue causing enough concern to mobilize the public.

Contacting members of Congress is the easiest, most direct way for ordinary people to take action in the government. Anyone can call, email, or even write letters to their representatives in Congress to ask them to support issues that are important to them. Each representative’s staff will tally the number of calls they receive on various issues and put this in a report for the member.

Members of Congress usually decide how to vote based on the issues that are important to the people they represent. If they do not vote according to the wishes of voters, they run the risk of not being reelected for the next term.

It is important for voters to contact their representatives in Congress so that they know which issues their people care about. For example, without supporters of The Borgen Project contacting Congress to ask for the support of anti-poverty legislation, Congress will not grasp the importance of alleviating global poverty to its constituents.

Calling Congress takes less than a minute. The staff member answering the phone may ask for the caller’s name or zip code to verify that they live in the area the member of Congress represents. Contact information for representatives is usually easy to find on their official website.

A Google search trend on its own has no effect on elected members. But every year, thousands of supporters of The Borgen Project across the U.S. regularly call and email Congress in support of anti-poverty legislation. This has led to the passage of the Electrify Africa Act, the Global Food Security Act and the Foreign Aid Transparency and Accountability Act in 2016. Many volunteers for The Borgen Project call and email each of their representatives every week.

To learn more about calling Congress and to find your representatives, visit us here or email Congress using one of The Borgen Project’s email templates. It’s as easy as asking “who is my representative”.

Cassie Lipp

Photo: Flickr

Silicon Valley superpower Google is developing artificial intelligence technology that is intended to help the world solve some of its healthcare issues. Teaming up with the U.K.’s governmental healthcare structure, they hope their new invention will be able to detect and prevent eye diseases and blindness.

In collaboration with its subsidiary DeepMind, a company that uses complex algorithms to teach computers how to better analyze information and learn from it, Google will introduce about one million eye scans to DeepMind’s algorithms. They hope the artificial intelligence system will be able to analyze scans and conclude a diagnosis faster than ever before. This has the potential to allow doctors to treat a patient before a “point of no return.”

DeepMind, a London-based artificial intelligence startup acquired by Google for $500 million, is an expert at making computers behave and think like humans. They were praised for teaching a computer to master Atari system games. The computer was able to beat world masters.

Now, Google hopes to harness the cognition powers of their computers to serve the world’s sick. Although as of now the system is implemented at just one of the National Health System hospitals in the U.K., it has a global reach in its implications. More than 100 million individuals worldwide are inflicted by vision problems relating to diabetes or age. This technology could help all those millions to prevent their eye diseases and vision loss before they are even aware they have it. For global health advocates, this is a very promising innovation that could find widespread success

Google has been diligent in designing groundbreaking solutions to intractable problems. The tech giant and its umbrella company, Alphabet, have been investing a large amount of resources toward global health. Businesses are beginning to realize that investing in a healthy world returns profit, and benefits everyone.

Connor Borden

Photo: U.N. Multimedia