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Domestic Abuse in South AfricaThis fall, Microsoft and other NGOs will host a hackathon aiming to create solutions for women and children facing domestic abuse in South Africa. The announcement came out during Women’s Month, with the hope to spread awareness about issues surrounding women in South Africa. South Africa has always had an alarming presence of domestic violence, and the coronavirus quarantine has increased abuse reports. Microsoft’s hackathon, however, might produce an app that has the capability to save countless women and children in South Africa from violent households.

Statistics about Domestic Abuse in South Africa

South Africa has the “highest statistics of gender-based violence in the world, including rape and domestic violence.” Domestic violence incidents were scarcely reported before the last three decades because it was considered a private affair to be sorted out among households. However, available data affirms the severity of domestic abuse in South Africa. A 1998 study by the South African Medical Council revealed that 50% out of almost 1,400 men “physically abused their female partners at their homes.”

The World Health Organization found that “60,000 women and children were victims of domestic abuse in South Africa” in 2012. On average, women in South Africa who face abuse are usually unemployed and have an almost non-existent educational background. Moreover, the same study found that the women who were victims of violent relationships were usually from rural areas. The latter piece of information is important because most help-centers or other valuable resources for abuse victims in South Africa are located in urban areas. With Microsoft’s new app, the goal is to disseminate the necessary resources and information regarding abuse to those victims who live outside of South African cities.

Domestic Abuse: The Second Pandemic

As the coronavirus runs rampant across the globe, South Africa faces a second pandemic: a massive increase in domestic violence. Following the country’s lockdown procedure in March, South Africa’s national helpline for victims doubled its usual volume, putting the number of calls from afflicted women and children over 120,000. With fewer places to seek refuge during the lockdown, women and children facing domestic violence are trapped at home. The Jones Safe House is a non-profit shelter group for abuse victims in South Africa. It has been overwhelmed by the increase in abuse cases. Every day they try to make room for another victim who managed to escape from his or her violent residence.

Microsoft’s Hackathon Against Domestic Violence

Microsoft’s [email protected] hackathon will run from September 22 to October 19. The objective is to create apps that help those who are in abusive relationships or face any form of gender-based violence. The organization will account for South Africa’s gender-based digital divide, which leaves many women with less access to certain technologies. Namely, the hackathon has a list of considerations that developers need to keep in mind:

  • “Many of those facing gender-based violence are using 3rd or 4th generation phones that are obsolete
  • Users may not have access to applications like Whatsapp or other one-touch SOS tools or applications
  • Data is expensive and not always readily available – especially in emergency situations
  • Regular load shedding means that cell towers are not always operational
  • Many women in South Africa have limited or no airtime to make calls or send SMSs
  • Many women and children do not have access to transport to find a place of safety”

Also, Microsoft has outlined some possible directions app developers can take, which include assistance, empowerment and recovery. At the end of the hackathon, the top three teams of developers will win monetary prizes. Additionally, Microsoft will grant the first-place team a contract in order to collaborate for the app’s further development.

The coronavirus pandemic has worsened the plight of South African abuse victims, but people have not given up hope. Those facing domestic abuse in South Africa have allies who will be working tirelessly toward virtual solutions. And by the end of the year, one might find an app online that can save thousands of lives. Microsoft’s initiative to develop an app-based solution to domestic violence is a step in the right direction, and their actions will hopefully spur other corporations to get involved.

Maxwell Karibian
Photo: Flickr

Tea Farming in Sri LankaSri Lanka is a small island off the southeastern coast of India. The country is home to around 22 million people and to a long and vibrant history. Sri Lanka has gone from an early Buddhist settlement to a colony under the control of major European powers to, finally, its own independent republic in 1972. Throughout its secular history, tea farming in Sri Lanka has remained a constant activity and has played a massive role in the development of culture on the island.

Sri Lankan tea gained global prevalence after British colonial rulers transformed tea agriculture into a plantation-style economic powerhouse. With the economic success brought on by the explosion of tea farming in the country, the British began pushing peasants and subsistence farmers into producing tea to capitalize on the global interest in the beverage.

Tea Farming in Modern Sri Lanka

Plantation-style agriculture still makes up a notable volume of Sri Lanka’s economy, and tea is the “preeminent crop of the plantation sector” according to the Encyclopedia Britannica.

The global demand for tea has not diminished in modern times and seemingly neither has Sri Lanka’s role in providing it. The country exports hundreds of millions of kilograms of tea every year. For example, from January 2020 to May 2020 Sri Lanka exported over 100 million kilograms of tea to its trading partners.

Therefore, much of the country’s agricultural workforce is devoted to tea farming. More specifically, two million Sri Lankan farmers rely on tea farming and tea production to provide for their families and households. With tea ingrained in so much of Sri Lanka’s culture and economy, modern solutions need to be embraced to soothe the working conditions of the many poor farmers who work to meet the global demand for tea.

How Microsoft is Improving Tea Farming in Sri Lanka

To do so, Sri Lanka has turned to technology and confided in companies to assist the government in finding these solutions. For Sri Lanka specifically, Microsoft has been a superb partner in this goal.

One broad way Microsoft has helped is via a survey conducted with local business leaders to determine if they have an interest in integrating artificial intelligence (or “AI”) as a business solution. The survey discovered that 80% of those business leaders surveyed found AI to be essential to maintain their business’s competitiveness. Acknowledging this, Microsoft is investing millions of dollars into enhancing tech skills for businesses in Sri Lanka, as well as starting programs and providing hardware to assist tech startups rising in the nation.

The implications of this initiative are massive. Considering the vital status of tea farming to Sri Lanka’s culture and economy, Microsoft’s assistance in pushing more technology into businesses can lead to more efficient farming. As a result, there will be more valuable data available to increase crop yields and more companies will engage in tea farming as their enterprise of choice. The introduction of these tools can also lead to an improvement in the lives of millions of tea farmers in Sri Lanka in both safety and economic terms.

The Colombo Tea Auction

Such efforts have already begun to take hold in Sri Lanka. One major example of Microsoft’s valuable assistance to tea farming in Sri Lanka can be found in the Colombo Tea Auction. The Colombo Tea Auction is a weekly event that takes place in the nation’s capital involving the sale and export of tea from farmers. The event is vital to the tea farming community’s success as it is a major method for how the country’s tea is prepped and sold for export around the world.

However, the auction tends to involve a lot of close-quarters contact between attendees; a reality that has proven impossible given the current global COVID-19 pandemic. Despite this, with the help of Microsoft’s Azure team and their Azure cloud and AI products, a local tech company was able to develop an e-commerce platform that allowed sellers and buyers to trade tea from the safety of their own homes. This was developed with extreme speed, and it allowed the tea economy (and two million poor tea farmers) to avoid economic disaster and flourish amongst a dangerous pandemic.

Now that the benefits are starting to become more tangible, and economic success is within reach for Sri Lanka’s farmers, technology may become more and more prevalent in the Sri Lankan tea industry. With the success of the Colombo Tea Auction’s move to digital commerce, along with Microsoft’s continued efforts to support Sri Lanka’s growth in tech and economic fulfillment, the world may see a better-equipped, safer and more successful Sri Lanka in the near future, perhaps beginning with their high-quality tea.

– Domenic Scalora
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

Artificial Intelligence is Helping Developing Countries
Developing countries often suffer from a lack of good teachers and schools. As a result, they frequently do not have very good academic standing and their people are less educated. With this lack of learning and cultivation comes a worse economy as well. The developing world needs to find a way to academically catch up with the developed world. Not only is it lacking in educational resources, but health care is a problem as well. Medical professionals are rarely available, especially in places further from the city. Individual appointments use up human resources fast, leaving others with no help. Even things like farming are getting to be more difficult. With the changing climate, farmers cannot use traditional farming cycles and predictions to determine the best time to plant their crops. Luckily, artificial intelligence is helping developing countries tackle some of their present challenges.

 Artificial Intelligence Can Make a Difference

Artificial Intelligence (AI) can solve many of the problems that developing countries face. Not only can it do more than a human, but it can also learn and adapt as it goes. AI takes the data it receives and uses it in the way it is told but also finds ways to optimize the process. The more that people use artificial intelligence, the more it improves.

Disaster Relief

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs used a system called Artificial Intelligence for Disaster Response (AIDR) to gather all information about the 2015 earthquake in Nepal and its damage, emergency needs and disaster response. AIDR was able to pinpoint the location of actual and potential victims and determine which workers were available. Artificial intelligence can also create digital maps of the area to identify which places need the most assistance. It is able to identify humanitarian aid needs automatically and sort any given data into different categories, such as infrastructure damage, urgent needs and response efforts. Based on this categorization and captured data, available responders could quickly focus their efforts and supplies on the right places.

Tutoring

Artificial intelligence is helping developing countries because it has the power to bring education to those who formerly never dreamed of accessing it. With over 750 million adults unable to read and write, most of them in developing countries, AI could enact big change in their lives. Currently, there are two large learning platforms that utilize artificial intelligence in Africa: Daptio and Eneza Education. Daptio helps students to study remotely. It gathers data on the student, such as their strengths and weaknesses, and adjusts its curriculum accordingly. Eneza Education is a mobile learning platform that gives lessons and assessments to over 860,000 subscribers. Students receive these through web communication or SMS messages. It has quizzes, offline access to Wikipedia, a dictionary and its own feature where users can “Ask-A-Teacher” questions live.

Improving Crop Production

The AI Sowing App, made by Microsoft and the International Crop Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), pinpoints the best time to plant seeds, prepare land and use fertilizer. It also has a function that finds the moisture adequacy index, both in real-time and the future. The app works by gathering data from past climate trends, usually around a couple of decades, and applies it to the present. AI can also assist in weeding; Harvest CROO Robotics created a device that can analyze each plant individually and determine whether it needs pesticides or not, greatly saving on pesticides and their costs.

Improving Health Care and Hastening Economic Development

AI can perform accurate diagnoses, give treatment plans and predict disease outbreak. This saves on human resources and gives those that live farther from civilization the same access to medical care. It can also make basic health care cheaper for those who cannot afford to travel to an actual doctor for medical attention. As for economic development, with AI taking care of menial labor like factory work and educating the public, humans will be able to focus on doing more complicated jobs like working as entrepreneurs or engineers.

Although many developing nations suffer from poor education, lack of health care and economies, artificial intelligence is helping developing countries solve many of these problems. From disaster relief and education to improving crop production and providing medical assistance, artificial intelligence applications have the potential to greatly improve the lives of countless individuals within the developing world.

Nyssa Jordan
Photo: Flickr

Unconventional Education ProvidersPoor infrastructure contributes to the fact that one in five children around the world lacks access to quality basic education. In general, supporting basic education in specific regions requires a massive increase in basic infrastructure, teaching staff and educational supplies. In Turkey, the gap between the demand for education funding for Syrian refugee children and the actual amount received reached 43 percent. Due to conflict in the region, 70 percent of children are out of school. With so much content created and shared online, the internet now is a reservoir of knowledge. These unconventional education providers are trying to bring education to struggling areas through technology.

Unconventional Education Providers

Internet companies dominate online resources and access. Companies such as Microsoft and Google frequently cooperate with non-profit organizations for philanthropic purposes. The primary goal for many of these organizations is to offer accessible education through innovative solutions. Google, for example, made a five-year, $1 billion commitment to improve access to education through partnerships. In particular, Google contributed $5 million to Learning Equality and its offline educational platform Kolibri as a way to promote an innovative way of providing primary education.

Funded by Google, Kolibri is a free education solution that includes both device and content for users who have limited internet access. Content like KA Lite has been installed in 200 countries and reached 4.5 million learners. Besides the widely spreading installations, training personnel in these regions is another major objective for this unconventional education provider. Kolibri project inspired the implementation of a similar platform in Jordan where 10 learning hubs trained 40 Syrian refugees to be Kolibri coaches or coordinators within 10 days.

Artificial Intelligence

Artificial intelligence provides internet companies with a distinct method in their mission to reduce poverty. In 2018, Microsoft initiated AI for Humanitarian Action, a five-year program funded with $40 million that applies artificial intelligence in poverty-related issues. Artificial intelligence can help NGOs in disaster response, childcare and education, the livelihoods of refugees and human rights.

Companies are working on ways to make AI even more efficient. In many impoverished areas, there is a shortage of qualified teachers. As AI continues to develop and improve, it will be able to perform more complex grading tasks. Companies are already working on translation software to offer more content to children in a variety of languages.

Women in Coding

Women suffer from gender inequality all around the world, but more so in impoverished regions. One of the ways to combat this is through acquiring an education. Some unconventional education providers are giving these women a way out of poverty through learning how to code. The nonprofit STEMbees is giving women and girls in Africa the chance to learn to code. In Lagos, Nairobi and Kampala, women engineers make up 30 percent of their total employment.

In short, via funding or technological support to other non-profit organizations, internet companies have become unconventional education providers. The technology they are developing gives impoverished people access to more knowledge at a lower cost. With so many connected online, it may be a good time to start thinking about how to use the internet to help to fight poverty.

Dingnan Zhang
Photo: Prlog.org

Five Microsoft Initiatives Improving Education in India
With 372,601 people under the age of 14, India’s school-age population demonstrates a massive market for scholastic innovations. The country has been working to build the level of technology-infused education throughout the eight years of compulsory education. Only 3.8 percent of India’s GDP is currently being used for education, so outside companies also work to contribute to the educational system.

Microsoft initiatives have influenced STEM education throughout the country. Microsoft has partnered with many schools and government programs to improve education in India. Five Microsoft initiatives improving education in India include Project Shiksha, Project Shaskam, Showcase Schools, Microsoft Academia Accelerator and Microsoft Innovative Educator.

Project Shiksha

Project Shiksha was founded in 2003 to target classrooms lacking technology to aid education. Teachers participate in a six-day intensive program to build computer skills for classrooms and administrative duties. Incorporating technology into Indian classrooms helps to build a more effective learning environment and engage a wider range of students.

As of 2018, Project Shiksha has impacted more than 430,000 students in India. The program has trained 9,246 teachers throughout the country to better incorporate technology into the daily curriculum. Additionally, in the Karnataka region, Project Shiksha has impacted eight districts, 992 schools, 5658 teachers and 3,13,748 students since the project began. In that region alone, the program has instilled three different IT centers to improve computer education and technology literacy.

Project Shaskam

Project Shaskam helps fund professional development classes to train faculty in technological skills for the classroom. The program helps educators to digitize classrooms and bring more technology-based learning lessons to students. This can drastically improve the level of education in India. Less than one in five teachers in India are qualified to teach, as demonstrated through the dwindling numbers of teachers passing evaluation tests in Maharashtra. In 2015, only one percent of teachers tested passed the end of year evaluation tests. Project Shaskam ensures teachers in public education sectors are sufficiently trained to educate students in India.

Since 2011, Project Shaskam has trained more than 4,228 teachers in more than 148 Indian universities. The educators that participated in the program have since trained 1,126 other teachers in these skills. Teachers are trained to use multiple Microsoft programs, including Microsoft Office, Microsoft OneNote Class Notebook, Sway and other programs. The institutes involved in Project Shaskam include SRM University, Geetanjali Girls College, NIMS University, Shaheed Sukhdev College of Business Studies, Jai Narain Vyas University and Integral University. As of 2018, the program impacted 931 teachers at 25 universities.

Showcase Schools

Showcase Schools focuses on building and maintaining leadership skills throughout globally recognized schools to enable educators to create a more effective learning environment in Indian classrooms. The program emphasizes one to one learning techniques. This helps teachers build more personal relationships with students in the classroom and push students to be more successful. Showcase School leaders work together to create a collaborative space to explore teaching ideas and methods to heighten the usage of technology in Indian schools.

More than 126 schools are currently working under the Showcase Schools initiative to impact more than 4,000 students. The Microsoft Showcase School Leaders Forum, hosted in 2016 through a partnership with The Aga Khan Academy, featured multiple Showcase School leaders who shared new ideas for innovative education platforms using technology. One example of the program’s impact on education in India is the two-day INFINITUS Fest held at Delhi Public School in Ghaziabad. The event, in collaboration with Microsoft India, also impacted 17 other schools.

Microsoft Academia Accelerator

The Academia Accelerator program began in 2014 to create a long-lasting relationship between Microsoft and programs benefitting education in India. The program helps facilitate developments in Indian schools and universities to ensure the programs continue to modernize. Furthermore, Academia Accelerator works to improve student understanding of newer technology and ensures that computer-based skills are retained throughout classes.

Academia Accelerator has partnered with 18 different schools throughout India to improve education systems. Microsoft sponsors Code.Fun.Co, an annual event featuring a 20-hour hackathon for the students at partnered universities. This event allows students to address real-world issues through technology and coding programs. The program also hosts AXLE, a Microsoft Academia Accelerator showcase in India, to discuss the impact of AI and technology in learning. This showcase includes keynote speakers, the Code.Fun.Co competition and innovative new technology designs. These activities help inspire students to dive further into STEM education in India and tackle large-scale issues in the community.

Microsoft Innovative Educator

Of the five Microsoft initiatives improving education in India, Microsoft Innovative Educator program seeks out educators who are going above and beyond using technology to reach students in new and exciting ways. The program works as an advocate for technology-infused schools, bringing in outside sources to merge the traditional educational system with more modern technology to strengthen the level of material in schools.

Innovative Educator reached 443 teachers in 2018 to create an educational group that encourages technology use in Indian classrooms. At the 2019 Education Exchange (E2) conference in Paris, India’s representative group was the largest to date with 10 Microsoft Innovative Educator (MIE) Experts, six school leaders and three MIE Fellows. Six of the Indian educators and fellows also participated on winning teams at the conference, showing their unique approaches to adding technology into the classroom.

Five Microsoft initiatives improving education in India are Project Shiksha, Project Shaskam, Showcase Schools, Microsoft Academia Accelerator and Microsoft Innovative Educator. These programs reinforce technology-based education and improve the level of materials in classrooms throughout the country.

– Kristen Bastin
Photo: Flickr

STEM Education in Sri Lanka
On March 8, 2019, Microsoft hosted a #DigiGirlz conference for International Women’s Day at the Office of the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka to inspire 500 women to become more active in science, technology, engineering, math or STEM fields. The conference, which is a part of the company’s #MakeWhatsNext campaign, involved keynote speakers, group workshops and coding exercises with Microsoft MakeCode. #DigiGirlz helped create a voice for female role models for the students and worked to inspire teachers and parents to encourage STEM education in Sri Lanka.

Barriers to Women’s STEM Education

Microsoft’s goal for the conference was to show female students of Sri Lanka that entering STEM fields is a possible and attainable goal despite the country’s current workforce statistics. Currently, only one-third of the women in the country have entered the workforce, and the country holds the 14th largest gender pay gap in the world. Marriage also hampers women’s ability to hold a paying job in Sri Lanka’s workforce, decreasing odds by 26 percent.

One of the issues preventing women’s STEM education in Sri Lanka is the subject itself. Many educators view STEM courses and careers as masculine, citing that female STEM work is of a lower quality than male work. Many of the current teachers believe that female students lack the desire to learn about technology, citing this factor as the driving force for lower rates of female STEM students instead of family values or problems surrounding the teaching of materials. Most women are also unable to enter the STEM workforce because nearly 40 percent lack the educational qualifications needed to succeed in these career fields.

The Conference

The #DigiGirlz conference featured Andrea Della Mattea, President for Asia Pacific at Microsoft, as one of the key speakers. Mattea held small group workshops throughout the day to help empower women to learn and participate in STEM fields around the country. Sook Hoon Cheah, General Manager for the Southeast Asia New Markets, Daiana Beitler, Philanthropies Director for Asia and other female leaders looking to improve girls’ motivations for coding, engineering and education joined her.

More women are beginning to enter post-secondary education with 9,506 males and 15,694 females enrolling in higher education in 2014. Sook Hoon Cheah noted that the enrollment numbers are not an accurate depiction of progress for female STEM education in Sri Lanka, although they are promising to female progress. Cheah mentioned during Microsoft’s panel discussion that more women are entering into liberal arts and social majors than STEM programs in universities. Therefore, Microsoft is finding new ways to draw women into higher-paying STEM careers. The female conference leaders also shared encouraging tips for problem-solving to the students, like breaking down problems into manageable steps to make issues more approachable.

After the panel’s discussion, the 500 students went on to solve group challenges using coding for the rest of the conference. The programs encouraged young women to solve real-world issues using technology and coding formats such as Python, JavaScript and Blocks. Overall, the conference goal was to encourage female curiosity and development into the STEM field through role model representation, hands-on experiences with technology and problem-solving strategies for real-world scenarios using coding and educational technology. Microsoft’s leaders are hopeful that the #MakeWhatsNext campaign and other events will help inspire women to branch into technology-based careers throughout Sri Lanka.

Microsoft’s vision for the #DigiGirlz conference was to include women from all over Sri Lanka, including less developed areas, and to inspire them to participate in STEM education and advancement. The company plans on continuing work in women’s empowerment through workshops and programs in Sri Lanka, and throughout South Asia. For more information on Microsoft’s mission to close the gender gap in STEM fields around the globe, visit its website.

– Kristen Bastin
Photo: Flickr

artificial intelligence for global developmentThe human brain is limited when it comes to computing power and pattern recognition. Luckily, using recent technology, we are able to use machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) for global development purposes, can gain insight on a variety of problems and attempt to make predictions about the future. Computers can analyze massive datasets and learn from them more efficiently than humans can. Around the world, people are taking advantage of AI to do valuable work and improve people’s standard of living. Here are four examples of how people and organizations are using artificial intelligence for global development.

4 Ways to Use Artificial Intelligence for Global Development

  1. Based on patterns of past events, AI can make predictions about the occurrences and effects of disasters. In these situations, knowledge is everything; when people are informed, they can make plans to evacuate or reinforce infrastructure as needed. Google is using AI to predict flood locations during storms in India, and is then able to alert residents. Similarly, IBM is using AI to predict the location and intensity of volcanic eruptions based on past data. Another program by the World Bank is using AI to predict famines, and is arranging for funds to be provided to people in areas affected by famine.
  2. Machine learning and artificial intelligence can be used to advise people on best practices for farming efficiency. Microsoft has worked with farmers in India to help them monitor crop health, identify diseased plants and recommend certain crops based on weather patterns, soil conditions and economic patterns. In another case, Trinchero Family Estates in California partnered with Ceres Imaging, using AI to analyze their watering patterns. This technology, which uses drone images to optimize crop watering, could be useful for water conservation in areas where water is scarce.
  3. AI can help monitor human rights violations. Microsoft has partnered with the Clooney Foundation for Justice to create the TrialWatch app. The project, which is part of Microsoft’s AI for Humanitarian Action program, aims to monitor potentially unjust trials. The app uses AI to record, transcribe and translate courtroom audio, which can be used to determine whether a defendant has a fair trial. It will also form a database so that trial practices from various nations can be observed and compared.
  4. AI helps make analyzing medical data easier. Making decisions about medical diagnoses is often complicated and not entirely clear-cut. AI can analyze patient information and alert doctors to certain issues, often identifying problems more accurately than human medical professionals. A 2017 project from Andre Esteva at Stanford University used AI to classify skin cancer images, and the AI system performed on par with dermatologists. In addition, Professor Rima Arnaut of UC San Francisco has developed a system that uses AI to analyze an echocardiogram, a heart test. So far, the technology has not been used to make judgements about the content of the images, but in early tests in which the system was asked to detect the “type of view” of various echocardiograms, the AI system outperformed trained cardiologists in the task. Certainly many aspects of medical analysis require human analysis, but these programs can accelerate analyses and assist medical professionals in providing the best possible care for their patients.

These impressive uses of AI will save lives and will assist citizens of many countries in achieving a better standard of living. As experts continue to work on machine learning and artificial intelligence, and as computers become smarter and more capable, the use of artificial intelligence for global development will likely continue to improve conditions for people around the globe.

– Meredith Charney
Photo: Flickr

AI to Meet the Sustainable Development Goals
Tech giants are using artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) to create innovative strategies to meet the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals and eradicate global poverty by 2030. A central barrier to development in third-world nations is in-access to high-quality, timely and accessible data.

Big data platforms like AI expand capabilities to acquire accurate, real-time, micro-level information, while ML allows pattern recognition at a macro-level. Combined, these data advances can make data more accessible, applicable and finely scalable while accelerating the speed and scale for private and public development actors to implement change. Companies are partnering across public, private and nonprofit sectors to broaden the collective impact.

Take a look at the innovative approaches tech giants are taking to help global poor communities with data and what the incorporation of AI technologies means for the future of global poverty initiatives. These approaches aim to employ AI to meet the SDGs within its allotted time frame.

Education and Digital Training

On June 19, 2019, the day preceding World Refugee Day, Microsoft announced the inception of two projects partnering with Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project (ASAP) and Kids in Need of Defense (KIND). These projects supplement its AI for Humanitarian Action group to help incorporate AI to meet the SDGs.

The AI for Humanitarian Action group is a $40 million, five-year program part of Microsoft’s larger AI for Good suite (a $115 million, five-year project). The projects will provide AI tools to help staff track court dates, prioritize emergency cases and translate for families with AI speech-to-text. Microsoft also has continuing partnerships to incorporate AI/ML into educational services for refugees with the following groups:

  1. International Rescue Committee (IRC): This committee works to provide humanitarian aid through the creation of sustainable programming for refugees, displaced populations and crisis-affected communities. This includes career development programming and digital skills training to empower refugees and make them relevant for the job markets in each affected country. Microsoft and IRC’s Technology for Livelihoods in Crisis project in Jordan is an example of this.
  2. United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF): Together with the University of Cambridge, the UNICEF is developing The Learning Passport. The digital platform will ensure better access to education and facilitate learning opportunities for youth displaced by conflict and natural disasters. It creates scalable learning solutions tailored to each child. Crises have affected the quality of education for 75 million youth.
  3. Norwegian Refugee Council: This council is providing an AI chatbot service that uses language understanding, machine translation and language recognition to deliver high-quality education and digital skills training to refugees. This helps to close the education gap for the millions of youth affected by conflict. It will also help humanitarian workers communicate with migrants who speak other languages, which will help them best provide the best service.
  4. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR): UNHCR plans to provide 25,000 refugees in Kakuma with access to high-quality, accredited, context-appropriate digital learning and training by 2020 for development in Kakuma markets. UNHCR intends this project to expand across multiple countries.

Food Security and Agricultural Development

The fact that farms do not always have power or internet security limits technological developments that address food security and agricultural development. Here are some efforts that consider the capabilities of farmers and the respective developing regions:

  1. Microsoft FarmBeats: It aims to enable data-driven farming compatible with both the capabilities of the farmer and the region. FarmBeats is employing AI and IoT (Information of Things) solutions using low-cost sensors, drones and vision and ML algorithms. This combined AI and IoT approach enables data-driven improvements in agriculture yield, lowered costs and reduced environmental impacts of agricultural production, and is a significant contribution to help AI to meet the SDGs.
  2. Apollo: Apollo uses agronomic machine learning, remote sensing and mobile phones to help farmers maximize profits in developing markets. Apollo delivers scalable financing, farm products and customized advice to farmers while assessing the farmers’ credit risk. Apollo customizes each product in order to double farm yields and improve credit. The beta project is starting in Kenya.
  3. The International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT)/CGIAR research group: It aims to implement preemptive solutions rather than reactive solutions to end hunger and malnutrition by 2030. CIAT has developed a Nutrition Early Warning System (NEWS), which uses machine learning to make predictions on malnutrition patterns based on current and future estimates of crop failures, droughts and rising food prices. This approach is able to detect an impending nutrition crisis and take action instead of responding after the crisis has taken hold.

Socioeconomic Data Collection

According to a report by The Brookings Institute as a part of its “A Blueprint for the Future of AI series,” data providing national averages “conceal more than they reveal” and inaccurately estimate and map patterns of poverty. Survey data is often entirely unavailable or otherwise low in quality in many of the poorest countries where development needs are greatest. 39 of the 59 countries in Africa conducted less than two surveys between 2000 and 2010.

Even in large countries with sophisticated statistical systems, such as India, survey results remain inaccurate, with the gap between personal reporting and national accounts amounting to as much as a 60 percent difference in some countries. Companies are addressing this by utilizing big data from remote sensing satellites.

The Group on Earth Observations (GEO) is using Earth Observations (EO) to provide finely-tuned and near-real-time data on economic activity and population distribution by measuring nighttime luminosity. Researchers have noted a correlation between luminosity and GDP as well as subnational economic output. Collecting socioeconomic data in this way can ensure higher quality data important to policy implementation and direction to countries with the greatest development needs.

Timothy Burke and Stan Larimer launched Sovereign Sky in 2018, putting satellite data into action. Sovereign Sky is the world’s first space-based blockchain which provides secure private internet networks and powers a new Free World Currency to redistribute the world’s wealth with a goal of eradicating poverty by 2032.

The eight current satellites cover Africa and India and the organization will send boxes of StealthCrypto phones, digital wallets, smart cards and modems to people in need. Sovereign Sky will deploy 36 satellites within three to 10 years to cover the entire world in a secure blockchain internet connection, closing the gap on technological interactions between all nations and including the world’s remotest and poorest areas in internet connectivity.

Pitfalls of AI-Driven Global Development Initiatives, and Moving Forward

AI and ML have crucial capabilities in reshaping education, agriculture and data collection in the developing world. However, these technologies have a history of producing unethical racial profiling, surveillance and perpetuating stereotypes, especially in areas with a history of ethnic conflict or inequality. AI and ML applications have to adapt in ways to ensure effective, inclusive and fair distribution of big data resources in the developing world. Development experts need to be in close collaboration with technologists to prevent unethical allocations.

This diversification is why it is important that tech giants like Microsoft, and projects like those by the ICAT/CGIAR, are created in collaboration with various nonprofit, public and private sector groups to ensure interdisciplinary ethical liability for big data applications in sustainable development contexts. Ensuring the use of AI technologies is context-specific to the affected regions and populations will help prevent misappropriation of the technology and increase quality and effectiveness.

Working with local companies and sectors can create long-lasting engagement and grow permanent technology sectors in the developing areas thus contributing to the local economy. These strategies can put forth effective, ethical and productive applications of AI to meet the SDGs.

– Julia Kemner
Photo: Flickr

Four out of five Zika-infected individuals are asymptomatic. Nevertheless, Zika has become a major global health crisis because of the consequences in unborn babies. It is now well-established that the Zika virus significantly increases the risk of microcephaly in children born to Zika-infected mothers. However, because this link could not be immediately drawn, the significance of the Zika outbreak was initially underestimated. The Zika epidemic irreversibly damaged thousands of lives. Microsoft’s Project Premonition hopes to prevent diseases from reaching such proportions in the future.

Project Premonition involves a three-pronged approach to find, collect and detect. To find and collect the disease vectors, Microsoft will use drones that apply for advances in robotics, genomics, and cloud computing. These drones will be able to identify mosquito hotspots, which have historically been difficult and labor-intensive to identify due to their erratic nature. Before Microsoft’s Project Premonition, mosquito traps were unable to differentiate between mosquitoes and other insects; it required the expertise of human entomologists.

Now, there are traps equipped with smart cells that can identify mosquitoes based on their wing movements. These traps have already been successfully piloted in Texas. Mustapha Debboun, director of Harris County Public Health’s mosquito control division stated, “[Project Premonition’s traps were] really 1,000 times better” than what was previously used. The traps do much more than removing the need for meticulous study by a trained specialist; they also collect a wealth of environmental data that can be used to establish patterns. In addition, machine learning enables Microsoft’s Project Premonition traps to adapt and become more efficient as they collect the additional specimen.

Once the potential vectors have been captured, their genetic material can be converted into actionable data. Drawing from information in public sequence databases, Microsoft’s Project Premonition metagenomics pipeline would identify organisms, including bacteria and viruses, that contributed to the sample’s genetic material. The company plans to make the pipeline publicly available so that others can advance the technology.

Though Bill Gates is no longer at the helm, the company is showing a similar commitment to improving global health. Microsoft’s Project Premonition has already made incredible progress. If successful, it would provide far more than an ounce of prevention to outweigh the pound of cure another outbreak would require.

Rebecca Yu

Photo: Flickr