Poverty in Big DataIt is impossible to remedy the causes of poverty without enough data to make accurate assessments for formulating solutions. There is little infrastructure in fragile countries and developing nations, making data collection difficult. Gaps in data can exist that are a decade wide. Infrequent studies conducted with only a single method of surveyal are inadequate. If there are not multiple methods of gathering data, the data will be skewed, because there will be no means of comparison for bias.

New methods have been developed to gather data remotely. These methods rely on finding signs of poverty in big data. Big data is a term for the massive amounts of data collected by computers. Poverty in big data can be detected by using self-learning artificial intelligence known as machine learning programs.

Cell Phone Data

While smartphones often remain out of reach for the impoverished, basic cell phones are a staple of life even for those living in developing nations. In fact, the greater part of sub-Saharan African countries own mobile phones. For example, in Tanzania, the country with the lowest reported number of phones, 75 percent of the population still owns a mobile device. In South Africa, the country with the highest reported number of phones, only nine percent of the population lives without a mobile phone. Another study on Rwandan households also found that mobile phones were more common than televisions or computers, ubiquitous items to the American household.
Because of these factors, there is an abundance of cell phone data (CPD) even in regions that typically lack data on poverty. According to a study done by the World Bank Group in Guatemala, CPD interpreted through machine learning can yield sufficiently accurate data of urban areas. CPD can be used to determine the location of a person’s home and how far they typically travel. With this data, researchers can see who is likely to travel to a location and who has a means of transportation for getting there.

Satellite Imagery

Civil unrest and harsh conditions can make it dangerous to gather data on poverty in some regions. These factors can disincentive data collection and cause years of gaps in survey data. A new remote method of analyzing public data on physical regions has helped demystify treacherous terrain. Satellite images of the Earth’s terrain, also known as Earth observations, display signals of wealth in a region. By measuring the luminosity of man-made light at night, researchers can make estimates of the economic status of an area. A proven correlation between illuminated areas, electric power consumption, and a country’s GDP justify these estimates. This is a fast and efficient method of obtaining data from a country that has seen natural disasters or civil war.

Social Media

The digital footprint of social media users, or lack thereof, can be useful in estimating data on the development of areas. According to the Pew Research Center, 53 percent of those in emerging nations use social media. Internet use correlates with the GDP per capita of a country, so the rising numbers of users are promising. However, sub-Saharan Africa and India are falling behind the rest of the world.

Finding poverty in big data through machine learning has proven to be informative and safe for researchers. The relatively unobtrusive nature of conducting studies in this manner makes sure that locals do not feel disturbed or angered. Remote and impersonal studies such as these also avoid issues such as under-reported poverty in illiterate households and over-reported poverty from those asked to recall their consumption.

– Nicholas Pirhalla
Photo: Flickr

Pity Poverty on Television
A show called Wowowee aired from 2005 to 2010 on Philippine television. The premise of the show was that contestants would come on the show to play games and recount the story of their daily suffering. Based on the pity their stories invoked in the host, Willie Revillame, the contestants received an award of cash, groceries, livelihood packages and even houses.

Jonathan Corpis Ong’s book “The Poverty of Television: The Mediation of Suffering in the Class-Divided Philippines” explains that Philippine television spectacularly displays poverty rather than sanitizing or ignoring it, as in other countries. This would often come in the form of awarding prizes to impoverished contestants, Wowowee was by far the most extravagant and the only one to specifically reward people for their stories of suffering.

In his book, Ong discusses the moral implications of financially encouraging severely impoverished contestants to engage in this pity poverty on television. Coaxed to share their life stories, the contestants hoped that Willie would singlehandedly alleviate their suffering.

Should Pity Receive Reward?

Wowowee themed its episodes in which all the contestants either had a disability or recently lost their jobs. The contestants would receive a reward for maintaining a convincing and sincere persona while telling their pitiful story. If the host did not deem them deserving enough, this would affect their monetary gain and the audience could be disappointed.

To make the show more engaging, Willie would switch between feigned tears and laughter, while the reality show would exhibit sound effects and canned laughter. Based on how tragic their life story was, contestants could get an award of almost $10 before playing any games on the show. The host, Willie, solely made this decision and he could also give hints during games to the most pitiful contestants.

Educated critics called Wowowee the opium of the Filipino masses, making the impoverished viewership Wowowee’s victims. However, Ong argues that these upper-class critics “lacked acknowledgment of structural conditions of inequality that pushed these contestants to perform suffering in excess on television.”

Wowowee’s high ratings came from the low-income viewers that made up the majority of the audience. These people also waited outside the television studio for the chance to go on the six-day-a-week show. Seventy-five percent of the viewership were low-income Filipinos. With such a huge viewership, Wowowee and its advertisers profited, since its audience’s “low purchasing power was made up for by sheer numbers.”

Ong argues that the show’s format creates patron-client ties in which poor people rely on rich individuals for salvation. This benefits the show more than the individuals waiting in line, who are unlikely to end up on the show but increase the show’s fame.

A Tragedy Without Consequences

The rumors of the prizes for the 2006 first anniversary show were so lavish that people attended who could not afford the return trip. When the show announced that fewer than half of the people who had been waiting days in line would make it in, a stampede started that resulted in the deaths of 73 people and the injuring of over 800. None of the producers of the show faced legal consequences and many viewers actually blamed the victims themselves for their actions of desperation.

In 2010 Wowowee received cancellation due to a controversy unrelated to the topic of the show. The following day a new game show took its place, called Pilipinas, Win na Win, which never matched the fame its predecessor received from its ostentatious use of pity poverty on television.

Daria Locher
Photo: Flickr

Anderson Cooper and Kelly Ripa Honor "CNN Heroes"Last weekend, CNN continued its annual tradition of honoring ten brave and thankless role models throughout the world. Headlined by Anderson Cooper and Kelly Ripa, the “CNN Heroes” award gala took place at New York’s American Museum of Natural History. The two-hour live event featured clips detailing the work of each hero, and at the end, 2016’s Hero of the Year was revealed as chosen by the viewer audience.

From adventurous kayaker Brad Ludden’s First Descents to young father Sheldon Smith’s Dovetail Project, the organizations represented were truly diverse, with notables including those furthering progress in the developing world.

CNN Heroes kicked-off by celebrating Luma Mufleh and her organization, Fugees Family. Founded in 2004, Luma assists refugee children to the United States by offering free academic enrichment programs and coaching after-school soccer games. As a Jordanian refugee herself, she targets children displaced due to war, and tailors services to meet individual needs, whether overcoming language barriers, learning about American institutions or combating discrimination. To date, Fugees Family has assisted more than 850 kids from 28 countries.

Another highlight is Umra Omar’s Safari Doctors which began in 2014. Umra temporarily lived in the U.S. but returned to her home in Kenya to provide medical care to the remote Lamu archipelago near the Somali border. Faced with frequent threats and spillover attacks by Al-Shabaab terrorists, most professionals in health care and education fled the Lamu area. However, Umra looks past the danger and now delivers immunizations and other basic health services, arriving on her own by boat. She estimates that she has treated over 2,000 people so far and maintains that these dire communities would benefit most from the return of trained professionals.

Finally, the 2016 Hero of the Year? Jeison Aristizabal, a native of Cali, Colombia, began a project known as ASODISVALLE to assist disabled persons in one of the poorest areas of his home country. Jeison suffers from cerebral palsy and since 2000, has worked to triumph over prevailing stigmas for all. Part of his mission focuses on the identification of other disabled people in the region, but the more important part focuses on providing inclusive rehabilitation and educational services to integrate these citizens back into the community. He offers everything from job training to healthy meals, stimulating the opportunities and happiness of thousands in the area.

Hosts Cooper and Ripa were seen getting emotional more than once at the event, a testament to their support for such projects around the developing world. Cooper has been a part of the program since its inception 10 years ago, and Ripa joined just this year, though making appearances as a presenter during the last two ceremonies. Ripa is also a known supporter of UNICEF.

While the real stars of the event are undoubtedly the remarkable CNN Heroes honorees, it is likely that Cooper and Ripa will both continue to use their presence to draw attention to similar causes in upcoming years.

Zachary Machuga

Photo: Flickr