Using Big Data and the Internet of Things to Help End Poverty

Most of us have been bombarded by fantastical visions of the future – where we no longer need roads, machines take care of our every need, and a doctor can replace a human heart with one created by a 3-D printer.

That time is coming. With smart phones increasingly commonplace in even the poorest countries, we’re on the brink of a new age, where technology will help solve some of the world’s biggest challenges.

But will poverty be one of them?

At the World Bank Group, we think the answer to that question should be yes. We’re committed to doing all we can to help developing countries harness innovation and build the human capital they will need to compete in the technology-dominated economy of the future.

To that end, we’re engaging and learning from innovators and disruptive technology firms; collaborating on research; and exploring new partnerships to leverage data, knowledge, and new technology to help achieve our goal of ending extreme poverty by 2030.

Last week at the Mobile World Congress 2018 in Barcelona, I announced two new initiatives that deepen the partnership between the World Bank Group and the Global System for Mobile Communications Association (GSMA). These new initiatives open the door for us to work with GSMA’s members around the globe to bring the power of Big Data and the Internet of Things to development challenges.

First, we’re joining forces with GSMA’s Big Data for Social Good. At the World Bank Group, we’ve had some experience using mobile data, for example to help Haiti rebuild its transit system after the 2010 earthquake. We used it to track the flow of refugees in Africa, and to reduce traffic congestion and pollution in the Philippines.

As the digital revolution advances, technology companies will have a critical role in making connectivity work for everyone.

Second, we’re creating a new Internet of Things Big Data Initiative with operators, convened by GSMA. Just as the smartphone brought an unprecedented level of new opportunities for the poor to access markets and finance, we believe IoT can bring us closer to our goal of ending extreme poverty.

We’ve seen the potential of IoT to solve intractable problems – for example, indoor pollution from cookstoves that burn fuel from biomass such as wood or animal dung. This practice kills 4.3 million people globally per year – more than malaria, TB and HIV/AIDS combined. In India, we provided IoT devices to identify homes with toxic levels of air pollution, then intervened with cash incentives to encourage people to shift to clean cooking and heating, which is saving lives.

This is just the first of many problems IoT can help to solve. IoT is already playing a role in helping vaccinate children by monitoring the supply chain. And it’s being used to mitigate the impact of natural disasters, respond to epidemics, and improve education.

As the digital revolution advances, technology companies will have a critical role in making connectivity work for everyone. Their technologies will be essential to help countries unlock new drivers of economic growth.

It’s imperative that we find those new paths to prosperity. The traditional route to economic growth and job creation through industrialization is rapidly closing. Lower skilled jobs are disappearing as robots begin to replace workers in garment factories and other industries.

At the same time, with smart phones and internet access, nearly everyone can see how everyone else lives. Some studies estimate that by 2025, all 8 billion people around the world could have access to broadband. By that time, nearly everyone will likely have access to a smartphone, which we know is a powerful accelerator of aspirations. We must make sure these aspirations are met by opportunity – not frustration – or we risk greater inequality and insecurity in the world.

It comes down to this: children everywhere simply want the kinds of opportunities they see on smartphones. If we can leverage technology to tackle the biggest global challenges of our lifetime – from poverty and inequality; to pandemics, famine, and climate change – if we help countries find new drivers of economic growth; we can make the global market system work for everyone and the planet. This is an urgent task, and we have no time to lose.

For more, check out the full speech.

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