Sometimes a picture is worth more than a thousand statistics:
In this dazzling NASA satellite image of the earth at night, Rwanda is dark. Assuming that darkness means little is happening, we can form hypotheses involving production and education and safety.
Where are we going? To the new statistics.
Locating Better Numbers
Economist Morten Jerven tells us that we have a problem with data from most African economies. In 2007, Dr. Jerven visited the Zambian Central Statistical Office in Lusaka. It was staffed with 3 people. The one person in the office pulled together cement purchases to estimate national construction. The value of agricultural production was based on crop forecasts for eight crops. Growth for retail, wholesale and transport were taken from prior growth rates. The result, though, was one precise number, a GDP number.
The question then is where to find more dependable data.
One possibility is cell phone calls. Concluding that a cell phone could predict an Individual’s socioeconomic characteristics, a group of researchers looked at hundreds of surveys and billions of phone records. After corresponding specific data from the surveys with phone records, they had a springboard for interpreting billions of phone records.
Think of what your phone can say. It tells your location, the length of your talk and the time. Phone facts can reveal people’s social networks and their travel patterns. Calls mostly made during work hours imply that you have a 9 to 5 job. Made from different locations, they reflect motorcycle ownership. We can even form conclusions about affluence by differentiating between the caller (who pays) and the recipient, .
I’ve copied below a map from Science Magazine that shows how phone data was used to form wealth assumptions that focused on groups of just 5 to 15 subscribers.
Our Bottom Line: Correcting Misleading Statistics
In the developing world where data is harder to collect, technology can generate a new flow of numbers that verifies, specifies or disproves what we think we already know. For countries like Rwanda, the data flow from nighttime satellite pictures and cell phones help policy makers know what really is happening.