Posts

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

India's EducationIndia is the world’s seventh largest country by size and the home to the second biggest population after China. With these features, India’s education system has an enormous responsibility. Some of the main problems that affect education in India are a lack of infrastructure, poor global rankings, social/gender gaps and lack of economic resources to support education.

However, there are efforts to reform education in India through the National Skill Council (NSC) that works with the Confederation of Indian Industry. These groups are focused on improving vocational and management schools through renovating curriculum and faculty.

The government hopes that by the year 2022, there will be 500 million people trained in varied skills that would match tomorrow’s demands. The real challenge for the success of this initiative is to the creativity and involvement of non-governmental organizations.

Quality education will make India’s youth gain valuable skills to tackle societal and economic challenges. It would “provide children with the protection they need from poverty, exploitation and disease; and give them the knowledge, skills, and confidence to reach their full potential.”

The global corporation Microsoft also aims to improve the quality of education by decreasing the gap between those who have the opportunities and those who don’t. Microsoft launched a global initiative known as YouthSpark. It aims to provide opportunities for 300 million youth over the course of three years. In India, the project targets 80,000 youth.

The problems that India faces in its education can be also improved by bringing new technologies into the classrooms and schools. Efficiency will cut down the running costs for a massive education network. Also, there needs to be an inclusive and a quality education while utilizing the public-private model of sources.

Noman Ashraf

Photo: Flickr

https://www.flickr.com/photos/36182550@N08/3347465868/in/faves-100442662@N03/
In a continued effort to increase its network to reach over seven million people across the Middle East and Africa by the end of the year, Microsoft is looking to create over 100,000 new job opportunities via partnerships with public, private and non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

Microsoft’s target markets for what it refers to as future “employability platforms” to include Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa, Botswana, Algeria and Ghana, and will eventually expand into 21 Middle Eastern and African countries.

According to Microsoft Middle East and Africa’s corporate vice president Ali Faramawy, employment opportunities for poor communities will have to be realized by helping to establish business-friendly climates and specialized training for higher-level students.

“Part of the unemployment problem is caused by a lack of economic opportunity as well as the fact that graduates from secondary and tertiary institutions lack the skills required by employers,” she said. “But there is no shortage of determination and even in a country like Iraq that has been faced with some dire situations, our platform has helped put 30,000 youths into jobs in the past 14 months.”

Microsoft has launched a number of initiatives aimed at providing grant funding, leadership mentoring and specialized training to a wide range of civilians, from motivated students at the secondary levels of education to already-established startups looking for financial backing.

One such initiative is known as EmployMentor, a Microsoft program that aims to provide female tech and business graduates with job opportunities and entrepreneurial guidance throughout Africa. Over the course of the weeklong training program, participants engage in mock interviews, business case studies and financial-modeling training aimed at providing them experience with real-world business scenarios.

Another initiative has provided innovation grants to seven African startup companies, a program that was announced at Microsoft’s 4Afrika Advisory Council meeting in Nairobi in November 2014. Through the program, seven startups received funding, technical support and mentorship to stimulate their growth.

According to Microsoft’s general manager of Africa Initiatives Fernando de Sousa, Microsoft’s business grants largely go to startups that focus on sustainable and wide-reaching solutions.

“We’re supporting startups that have developed their solutions beyond the idea stage. They are either in the process of acquiring their first batch of clients or well under way in expanding their existing portfolio of clients,” he said. “All startups have created solutions that are addressing key sectors fuelling growth across the continent.”

With its employment and entrepreneurial training initiatives in Africa, Microsoft is setting an example for American companies looking to help those in poor and developing countries while simultaneously creating opportunities for themselves to tap into new and emerging markets. When companies invest in the lives of those living in poor communities, they are helping to create business-friendly conditions in emerging markets, and are creating opportunities for both American companies and African students in ways that are more direct and involved than vaguely directed aid contributions.

Zach VeShancey

Sources: African Business Review, Microsoft, , Naija 247 News
Photo: Flickr

windows_10
For the past two decades, Microsoft has been a staple for innovation and progress society. While its achievements have touched billions of people across the globe and made its founder the world’s richest man, the technology giant has found ways to reshape the lives of those less fortunate. In launching its newest software update in Microsoft 10, Microsoft has made a huge investment in bettering those entrenched in poverty.

When it launched at the end of July, the Windows 10 operating system promised to be the most accessible and groundbreaking version put out by this conglomerate. As part of this new release, Microsoft has made a monumental pledge to donate large sums of money to ten non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in order to facilitate the alleviation of global poverty.

Some of these organizations include Save the Children and Keep a Child Alive, which are set to receive $500,000 each. An excerpt from an article in the Inquirer reads, “Microsoft will collaborate with 10 non-government organizations (NGOs) with causes on education, environment, poverty, HIV, and humanitarian relief, among others.” These collaborations were born out of a vision for technology to be the driving force for development in third world countries.

By instituting a grassroots approach to integrating technology with poverty zones, Microsoft 10 is hoping to be a bridge between previous centuries of poverty worldwide and a completely accessible society in the future. By donating an estimated $10 million combined to all of its nonprofit partners, Microsoft’s “Upgrade Your World” initiative is looking at some extremely promising results.

In addition to the massive success of this update, Microsoft has gone further by re-establishing its image as a global force for positive change. Its partnership with these NGOs, as well as all of its contributions, are an inspiration to groups all across the world to become more involved in the fight against poverty.

Diego Catala

Sources: Game Politics, Inquirer
Photo: Wired

UNDP and Microsoft
The United Nations Development Programme in partnership with Microsoft East Africa Limited, has a launched an initiative to support the continued development of entrepreneurship activities in Ethiopia.

The initiative, which is a part of Microsoft’s 4Afrika Initiative, will bring mentoring and support to around 200,000 young entrepreneurs. These entrepreneurs will also have access to Microsoft’s BizSpark program, which provides free software to start-up entrepreneurs, helping them to launch their products and gain global recognition.

To date, there are 625 start-ups supported through this program. In addition, specific assistance geared toward micro and small business entrepreneurs will be included through a ‘Build Your Own Business’ training program.

Ethiopia has a population of 96 million, the second largest of all African countries. With over 40 percent of those 96 million between the ages of 0-14 and 20 percent between 15-24, creating an entrepreneur program geared toward younger people interested in business can have a powerful long-term effect.

As UNDP is Ethiopia’s first private sector partnership, there are high expectations on all ends. However, UNDP and Microsoft have successfully worked together and built programs in the past which now promote sustainable development, work to eradicate poverty, advance women’s rights agendas and encourage good governance.

This newest program is focused on empowering citizens and preparing them to join both their local and the global workforce. Based on the belief that technology can and will have a big role to play in Africa, the Microsoft 4Afrika Initiative provides one step forward in empowering local people through practical skills.

Microsoft has been active in Africa since 1992 and currently has 22 offices in 14 countries. It has also been named one of the top employers in Africa in both 2012 and 2013 by Certified Top Employers.

Empowerment through skill training is a good way to provide Africans a way to enter the global marketplace, contribute their ideas and raise their level of income and that of those living around them. Eradicating poverty is a battle that can be fought on many different fronts and the new partnership in Ethiopia is one step toward making eradication in that country a reality.

 – Andrea Blinkhorn

Sources: Biztech Africa, BERNAMA, Microsoft 1, Microsoft 2, Microsoft 3, The Borgen Project, CIA
Photo: Africatime

$25 phone
In a bid to introduce itself to emerging markets, Microsoft will soon be launching a $25 phone for new consumers in Africa and Asia. The Nokia 130 will be available later this year in select markets like Egypt, India, China, Kenya, Nigeria, Pakistan and the Philippines. The technology titan describes the low-priced phone as an attractive choice for people looking to purchase their first mobile phones.

More than an estimated 1 billion people worldwide still lack mobile phones, as mainstream options that cater to the already industrialized world are too costly. Simultaneously, there is a growing demand in both high-growth and mature markets for dependable backup phones. Microsoft touts the Nokia 130 as perfect for both scenarios, calling it “an ideal handset for first-time mobile phone buyers, or for people seeking a reliable backup phone to complement their existing smartphones.”

“As demand in the affordable mobile segment continues to grow, Microsoft remains committed to delivering market-leading mobile innovation at each and every price point,” said Microsoft’s corporate vice president for phones, Jo Harlow.

According to the company, an annual 300 million phones are sold in the under-$35 sector. Shipments of low-end smartphones are projected to reach 1.1 billion in just four years at an annual growth rate of over 19 percent.

The Nokia 130 is a basic phone with limited features and no internet capability, sacrifices that were required in order to achieve its low price tag of $25. However, it does include several more advanced features like music and video playback, content sharing through Bluetooth, SD card, or USB and a flashlight. The music player will provide up to 46 hours of playback on just a single charge and the battery can last for more than five weeks on standby.

“With handsets like the Nokia 130, we see tremendous potential to deliver the experience of a ‘mobile-first’ world to people seeking their first device, and we continue to invest in ultra-affordable devices that will introduce people to a ‘cloud-first’ world,” said Harlow.

Though the cheap handset business is uncharted waters for Microsoft, Nokia is a veteran of this market. Microsoft acquired the latter’s handset business previously this year and hopes that reaching consumers of developing nations will build a new audience base.

Nokia once reigned mighty in the mobile business, but its market share has deteriorated in recent years. However, the recognition and credibility that is still associated with the Nokia brand will help attract consumers to Microsoft’s new phone, and the easily affordable $25 phone will introduce new consumers to Microsoft’s other services, like Bing and OneDrive. Eventually, when these new consumers decide to upgrade beyond basic phones, they may be inclined to choose a Microsoft smartphone.

“Microsoft doesn’t have any other project that can reach these consumers,” said Harlow. “These consumers will create a Microsoft account and become part of the Microsoft ecosystem.”

Annie Jung

Sources: Market Watch, PC Mag, CNBC, Recode
Photo: PCMag

youthspark
While Bill Gates’ name is as synonymous with Microsoft as it is with his philanthropic endeavors, Microsoft has unveiled its latest giving back investment: Microsoft YouthSpark. Though only a few years old, the program has helped over 103 million people all across the world.

The program gives grants to boys and girls from all over the world and hopes that the computer skills and training received can create better lives for these adolescents. On the YouthSpark main Web site are some of the people who were able to take advantage of the grants and use the skills to jump start them out of poverty.

From around the world, Yutiao Wang from China and Mary Mwende from Kenya are among the bevy of girls who benefit. Both come from traditionally poor towns where the cycle of poverty is repeated over many generations. Wang’s parents were unable to send her to school and Mwende was postponed from entering university. Though many women are forced back into the cycle of poverty, Wang and Mwende persevered.  Even though they faced setbacks, they were able to get in contact with Microsoft YouthSpark.

Microsoft YouthSpark works in collaboration with many local organizations. In addition to funding, they add support and resources to help create a global network for adolescents. Through the efforts of YouthSpark and the allied organization, Mwende was able to attend university and Wang was able to get vital employment skills with Microsoft Office.

Though they both faced adversity, they overcame it with the skills to help them for a lifetime. Wang and Mwende’s stories, though, are just a few of the testimonials of the success of YouthSpark. Investing in the education of the future generation of leaders helps to end the cycle in many of these rural poor areas.

Many of the innovations that have come from these grants are promising for the future of technology. With examples of Wang and Mwende’s success, hope for the future classes of YouthSpark is to help break the cycles of poverty with opportunity.

– Kristin Ronzi

Sources: Microsoft 1, Microsoft 2, Neowin
Photo: Microsoft

wage inequality
At Solbridge International School of Business in South Korea, students and teachers gathered at a seminar and spoke of how Asian markets were booming because of the combination of huge labor pools, unregulated industry and extreme wage inequality. In combination, these factors have attracted business and manufacturing firms from around the world, producing products at miniscule costs.

Every lecturer spoke with great confidence on the boon of wage inequality and unregulated industry. For the corporate beneficiaries at Apple, Microsoft, Nike, Wal-Mart and other manufactures with production lines in Asia, the low wages, no labor benefits and unregulated industries are certainly a great benefit. But what about the actual worker on the assembly line?

Estimates from the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics approximate that Chinese factory workers earn a paltry 64 cents an hour. Such low wages are not sufficient to lift oneself out of the perpetual cycle of poverty. Lack of labor unions or collective bargaining rights prevent worker representation to counter corporate interests, resulting in long hours in unsafe working conditions for little pay and no benefits.

The prevailing economic ideology at the seminar ignored the blatant instances of social and financial inequality that perpetuates so many instances of poverty around the world. From a moral perspective, workers should be given fair wages and proper representation because that’s what’s “right.” But big business and fairness are rarely considered simultaneously. However, even from a financial perspective, a well-paid, safe and cared-for labor force can benefit everyone.

Robert Reich, former U.S. Secretary of Labor, wrote on the validity of paying workers fair wages. Reich pointed out that in 1914, business magnate Henry Ford paid his workers $5 per eight-hour work day for his Ford Model T production – triple what the average factory worker earned at the time. And yet to the chagrin of critics who called Ford crazy, socialist or both, these high wages created a class of laborers capable of remaining financially secure and able to become consumers of their own product. With higher wages, Ford’s autoworkers could eventually purchase a Model T of their own, reimbursing the company for money spent on higher wages. In the next year, Ford’s profits doubled.

Reich makes an important note in his book, “Aftershock:” “Workers are also consumers,” he says. “Their earnings are continuously recycled to buy the goods and services other workers produce. But if earnings are inadequate…an economy produces more goods and services than its people are capable of purchasing.” In the end, everyone suffers from unfair wages. The economy stagnates and poverty reigns.

In addition, the seminar wrongfully ignored the potential for blow-back resulting from the unfair wages and dangerous working conditions. This is highlighted at Foxconn in China, the primary electronics manufacture for Apple. Work conditions and pay have been strenuous enough to cause a stream of suicide attempts. In 2010 alone, 18 workers leapt from the company’s rooftops. Without financial recourse, factory workers like those at Foxconn strike for better working conditions, damaging both the company’s profits, investors’ returns and the workers’ ability to provide for themselves and their families.

Criminally cheap labor is not conducive to an efficient workforce, and while the Asian markets continue to boom, laborers have not seen a proportional share of that growing economy. Promoting prosperity is as simple as decreasing this vast inequality.

– Michael Giacoumopoulos

Sources: Business Week, Aftershock: The next Economy and America’s Future, Telegraph
Photo: Cult of Mac

Education_in_Maldives
Maldives has made significant strides in creating a robust and effective education system for its young students. In 1978, the government of Maldives created a unified state education system. As a direct result, the literacy rate of the nation has increased from 70 percent in 1978 to 98 percent today. Additionally, the literacy rate is now even for men and women while primary education is universal throughout the nation.

However, there are unique challenges in further improving access to education in Maldives. One of the toughest challenges is a matter of geography. There are 192 inhabited islands in Maldives, many of which are isolated and difficult to travel to and from. While secondary and special education is particularly strong in the capital city of Male, 70 percent of students live on islands far away from Male, so access to these institutions is difficult.  Furthermore, two-thirds of teachers on these islands are untrained and do not have proper facilities or resources to hold classes. And recruiting teachers from other islands or teachers from abroad is tough.

While Male has flourished as a contemporary cultural center, there is a distinct disconnect between the city and the rural areas of the country. Students from islands deemed too small to even host a secondary school must make costly and time-consuming travel arrangements to schools in larger areas. This leads to families hesitating to send their children off to school. It also creates a gender gap in secondary schooling.

Only 65 percent of the population attends secondary school and only seven percent attend a university. The result is a workforce that is not qualified for an industrial and technological job market that can further improve and diversify the economy of Maldives. And with 35 percent of its population under the age of 18, Maldives will face a significant amount of young people entering the job market as under-qualified.

To combat these issues, organizations such as UNICEF and Microsoft are partnering with the government of Maldives to create innovative solutions.  UNICEF is in the process of creating 20 “Teacher Resource Centers,” which will give rural teachers Internet and satellite access to online databases and curriculum.  Microsoft is launching the “Coding Your Way to Opportunity” grant program to encourage youth in Maldives to participate in computer programming.  These programs are crucial steps in helping Maldives continue to develop a sustainable education system.

– Taylor Diamond

Sources: UNICEF, World Bank, UN Development Program
Photo: EDC Online