Togo is using satellite imagery, algorithms, and mobile money to distribute Covid aid / Humans + Tech - #59

+ Satellite uses SAR imagery to capture world's sharpest images + People are hiring productivity nannies to watch them work + Activists sound alarm over African biometric ID projects


🎄Wishing all of you a lovely Christmas and holiday season with your loved ones :)

Togo is using satellite imagery, algorithms, and mobile money to distribute Covid aid

Novissi is the name of the aid system in Togo that was developed over 10 days of intense work in March of this year. As the nation went into lockdown, Cina Lawson, Togo’s minister of digital economy, like many politicians around the world, worried about the economic side effects of lockdowns to their people [Tom Simonite, WIRED].

Novissi launched on April 8. Radio ads prompted people to send a text message to a special number. They filled out a brief survey via SMS. The system compared their information with Togo’s voter ID database and instantly sent money to people in informal occupations via mobile money. Men received roughly $20 in two instalments a month, while Women received $23. These payments were targeted to be a third of Togo’s minimum wage.

But Lawson worried that the program was not able to target those most in need of help. So Togolese government officials approached Joshua Blumenstock, co-director of University of Berkeley’s Center for Effective Global Action. Blumenstock’s lab had successfully used big data in similar ways before.

His lab had shown that phone records could predict individual wealth in Rwanda about as well as in-person surveys, and that satellite images could track areas of poverty in sub-Saharan Africa.

Blumenstock also introduced Lawson to GiveDirectly, an organisation that distributes cash payments in developing countries.

Blumenstock and his team trained image analysis algorithms to create a fine-grained map of Togo from satellite images, calibrated using a 2018 household survey that had reached only part of the country. The algorithms picked up indicators of wealth and poverty such as different roofing materials and road surfaces. The researchers built a second system that estimates the wealth of users of Togo’s two primary cell networks, using calling patterns and other account details, like credit top-ups. That part of the system was based on a phone survey in September of about 10,000 people in the poorest regions flagged by the satellite analysis. GiveDirectly also sent a small team to Togo to gather additional information on communities in need.

A new, more automated system launched in November, using GiveDirectly’s money. In the areas identified as least wealthy, people the algorithms flagged as likely to live on less than $1.25 a day received text messages inviting them to apply for help, a process that takes less than 3 minutes. Men receive five monthly payments of roughly $13 each, and women roughly $15 each. Applicants are verified against Togo’s voter ID database and GiveDirectly’s requirements.

Within two weeks, Chia says, the program had paid 30,000 of Togo’s poorest people, many in rural areas. “To cover that geographical span would have taken huge field teams upwards of 200 people months,” he says, adding that the approach may be applicable elsewhere.

This is an impressive use of a variety of technologies that saves both time and money as well as providing prompt aid to the people who need it the most. It also highlights how many Western countries that are supposedly more advanced have totally mismanaged their stimulus payments when a country like Togo can mobilise and send payments to their citizens instantaneously upon verification.

Satellite uses SAR imagery to capture world's sharpest images

Capella Space has developed a satellite called the Capella-2 that is currently orbiting the earth and carrying a camera so powerful that it can identify objects as small as 50cm x 50cm (~ 20 inches x 20 inches). Using synthetic aperture radar (SAR) technology, it’s currently the highest resolution satellite in the world. Its other advantage over its competition is that it can capture images both at daytime and at night, irrespective of weather conditions [Peter Grad, TechXplore].

CEO Payam Banazadeh’s motivation behind developing this technology was the loss of 239 people aboard Malaysian Air Flight 370 in 2014.

Banazadeh said his goal for the past four years of research was to create "a new tool for humanitarian work and human progress." Capella 2, he said, "allows us to monitor our planet in all-weather and in all-light conditions and to do so reliably and transparently."


"Governments around the world sent ships and vessels to look for this plane, and the tragedy took forever to play out," Banazadeh said. "I remember watching TV and thinking, 'We've failed as Homo sapiens if a massive plane has gone missing with 280 fellow human beings on it and we have no idea where it went missing, what happened, and what's going on.'"

He said three is a need "to do better at tracking things" and to "be better at understanding the planet we live on."

Capella Space plans to put two more satellites in orbit in the near future.

There were reports in some publications that Capella’s cameras could even look into people’s houses. Banazadeh quickly put those rumours to rest on Twitter.

Among other purposes, Capella Space’s technology will make use cases like the one in Togo to identify low-income areas for Covid aid much more accurate.

People are hiring productivity nannies to watch them work

You can now hire someone to ensure that you’re productive while you work from home [Elle Hunt, WIRED].

Tomalin, a freelance marketer, is a member of Caveday – a startup that claims to help you achieve meaningful work through facilitated “deep focus” sessions on Zoom. You sign up for a one- or three-hour session, share what you intend to achieve in the time with the group of strangers, then get stuck in: cameras on, mics muted.

After a “sprint” of 50-odd minutes (suggested to be optimum for maintaining focus in a 2014 analysis by the productivity tracker DeskTime), your “Cave guide” calls you back to the Zoom for a progress check and some stretches. Otherwise, you might not even keep the window visible – just the knowledge of others’ presence helps to hold you accountable. Some people report being two or three times more productive. For this, they pay $20 a session, or $40 per month for membership to the “world’s most focused community”.

I find it fascinating that there are so many unusual businesses that have blossomed due to the pandemic. Caveday launched in 2017, but interest skyrocketed after the pandemic.

Like Caveday, there are other similar businesses such as Focusmate, Ultraworking’s Work Gym, and The Order In Club. They all aim to bring structure and social accountability to working from home.

Activists sound alarm over African biometric ID projects

In 2019, when Kenya’s Information and Communication Technology Principal Secretary, Jerome Ochieng, was asked why the government was pursuing the Huduma Namba project, a government biometric ID, he replied, “Data is the new oil.” [Madeleine Speed, Al Jazeera]

According to the World Bank, Africa is home to roughly half of the estimated one billion people in the world who are unable to prove their identities. To help remedy that, the World Bank has mobilised more than $1.2bn to support ID projects in 45 countries.

Nearly every African country with a stable government now has active biometric ID programmes in place or under way, according to ID4Africa, with South Africa and Nigeria’s biometric IDs among the most developed.

Activists are raising alarms saying that there are not enough privacy protections in place. There is also worry about how governments will use the data.

“Biometric ID doesn’t expire,” says Teki Akuetteh, a Ghana-based lawyer specialising in IT and telecoms, and the founder of the Africa Digital Rights’ Hub. “So where is that information sitting? How will it be processed? How will it be securitised?” she asks.

Akuetteh developed legislation for Ghana’s 2012 Data Protection Act and established the country’s data protection commission. Despite her achievements, she says that Ghana and its continental neighbours still lack comprehensive policies to protect individual privacy.

“The focus has unfortunately been more on the ID than the impact on the people,” she tells Al Jazeera.

Privacy International reported that ID projects in Senegal and Ivory Coast were funded by the European Union Emergency Trust Fund for Africa (EUTF). They warned that these systems could facilitate the deportation of migrants and refugees from Europe.

Achieng Akena, Kampala-based executive director of the International Refugee Rights Initiative, emphasises that there is an issue of consent here:

“If you’re making a biometric register in my country, I’m giving consent to access services here. So, under which mechanism can that data be transferred to a European government and used against me?” she asks.

Even the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) launched a biometric registry in 2017 to help fairly distribute aid to refugees. But Akena rightly points out that vulnerable migrants and refugees are not in a position to refuse food and medicine if they do not want their fingerprints or irises scanned.

There is also concern about LGBTQ communities being targeted through biometric IDs.

Quote of the week

“Biometric ID doesn’t expire, so where is that information sitting? How will it be processed? How will it be securitised?”

—Teki Akuetteh, a Ghana-based lawyer, from the article, “Activists sound alarm over African biometric ID projects” [Al Jazeera]

I wish you a brilliant day ahead :)