The World Bank, which has stated that high-resolution satellite photos could complement existing studies to further understanding of global poverty, is presently using Sri Lanka as a test case, working with Orbital Insight, US-based firm to help gauge the extent of poverty in the island.

According to reports, Orbital has received funding from Bloomberg Beta, a venture-capital unit of Bloomberg LP and developed an algorithm to automatically count the number of houses in an area, an important economic indicator of poverty.

“They have piloted the scheme in Sri Lanka, and found that by obtaining satellite images for different regions, they could obtain proxy data for the state of poverty in that area,” Bloomberg said in a recent media report.

The report noted that using the shadows of building, their height can be determined, and this is also used as a measure of social wealth (as typically higher building show greater development). Agricultural productivity can also be monitored which could be used as an indicator of income, and food availability in a region.

“Therefore, satellite photos are proving an amazing resource to help understand different aspects of poverty, in a much faster way than if this information was gathered manually,” the report outlined.

The World Bank have stated that it is still very much a ‘work in progress’, but its future use will be paramount for global poverty studies. They hope that by comparing this data over time, trends and patterns of poverty can be analysed to identify the areas which need help.

If reliable, the data could influence decisions about where the World Bank allocates its more than $100 billion worth of loans each year.

Sri Lanka is the first test case. Orbital Insight pulled up to five years of images of the country taken by satellite cameras. The Palo Alto startup trained its software to pinpoint signs of economic development by counting cars, studying the height and shapes of buildings, and measuring agricultural activity around villages.

The World Bank is checking the findings from Orbital Insight with census data from Sri Lanka’s government and on-the-ground surveys.

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