The Tech Revolution That’s Changing How We Measure Poverty


The initiative hands out mobile phones and solar chargers to all respondents. To minimize the risk of people dropping out, the respondents are given credit top-ups to stay in the program. From monitoring health care facilities in Tanzania to collecting data on frequency of power outages in Togo, the initiative has been rolled out in six countries and has been used to collect data on a wide range of areas. 

“While collecting data through mobile phones is a relatively recent phenomenon, in five years, this will become a very common approach to data collection,” says Johannes Hoogeveen, a lead economist in the Poverty Global Practice in the Africa region. “The technology revolution has just begun and with the right capacity in national statistical offices and with a proper funding model, the opportunities for collecting data through technology from a development standpoint are limitless.”

Hoogeveen thinks that this approach could work particularly well in fragile and conflict settings as well as during crises such as natural disasters, famine, and pandemics. For instance, mobile phone surveys were used to monitor the Ebola crisis in West Africa, the floods in Dar es Salaam, and the forced displacement in Mali.

But Hoogeveen cautions that the approach is still in its early stages and it needs to strengthen linkages with policy responses so that its true value is realized, and that could help bring in additional funding and aid in further scaling up. 

Technology-driven data collection efforts haven’t been restricted to the Africa region alone. In fact, the approach was piloted early in Peru and Honduras with the Listening 2 LAC program. In Europe and Central Asia, the World Bank has rolled out the Listening to Tajikistan program, which was designed to monitor the impact of the Russian economic slowdown in 2014 and 2015. Initially a six-month pilot, the initiative has now been in operation for 29 months, and a partnership with UNICEF and JICA has ensured that data collection can continue for the next 12 months. Given the volume of data, the team is currently working to create a multidimensional fragility index, where one can monitor a set of well-being indicators – ranging from food security to quality jobs and public services – on a monthly basis.