Using Data to Improve How We Serve the World's Poor

04/28/2015 09:00 am ET | Updated Jun 28, 2015
Grameen Foundation

We already know that technology can be used to alleviate poverty. We've all read about the explosion of mobile banking and mHealth products. Organizations focused on social impact now realize that technology can be a vital way of delivering services and products.

But this can go a step further.

Technology, and the collection and analysis of real-time data that it enables, can be leveraged by organizations working at the bottom of the pyramid to improve their service to the poor. Using real-time data to track the number of mosquito nets distributed in communities, to monitor the adoption of best agriculture practices, and collect attendance at training sessions, organizations can harness data to better understand their work on the ground and the needs of their customers. With real-time data coming in from mobile devices, organizations can test and validate new strategies, can iterate and improve current processes and make better decisions sooner.

Power-houses in the U.S. have been using data for years to delight customers and maximize their revenue. Netflix uses data to predict the movies you will like, Target uses data to figure out when women are pregnant (sometimes even before their family knows), and President Obama's 2008 election campaign owes $75 million to collecting and analysing user data. I spent several years working at and I often joke that we wouldn't sneeze before conducting an A/B test.

Organizations serving those in the last mile should have the same level of insight into their work and understanding of their customers. We are not going to make meaningful change and lasting impact by managing our work with pencil and paper. We can no longer afford to let data-driven decision making pass us by. But sometimes, infrastructure can make it extremely difficult.

Many organizations that focus on those in the last mile are trying to target people whose access to basic technological infrastructure is minimal to non-existent. Luckily, there are ways to collect data without ongoing access to mains electricity or even internet coverage. Mobile phones are vital because they're both extremely portable and incredibly efficient communication devices. You can carry your mobile with you wherever you go, no matter how remote or rural. Smartphones, with their ability to take photos, collect GPS coordinates and play videos, are quickly being adopted by social impact organizations as prices plummet. These tools give organizations the ability to take their work anywhere, giving them access to the people who are thought to be out of reach for major infrastructure projects or data-heavy operations.

Spreading solar power with mobiles

Iluméxico is a social enterprise working to bring solar products to Mexico's rural poor. In a country where over 3 million people do not have electricity in their homes, they produce and distribute sustainable solar alternatives to the inefficient national grid and expensive diesel generators.

The scheme works through structured repayments to make their products accessible to the poor. The risk factors of this model require time and attention to ensure sustainability.

When they started out, they had to make several lengthy trips to collect information in target areas before returning to their headquarters to analyze it. From the time a field agent collected the initial information, it took over 30 days to collate and analyze this data and produce reports. After all that, they would make another trip to their chosen area to perform installations -- typically between 100 and 150 per municipality.

The data had to be collated and analyzed more quickly. They also needed to be able to manage operations remotely so they could cut out those time consuming trips to and from target areas.

Now, they collect all this information using mobile surveys and analyze it near instantaneously using our app, TaroWorks. They also track - in real time - product maintenance, the expenses and performance of their field staff, and the rates of repayment.

Iluméxico's total savings from streamlining their business with mobile technology works out at $40,634 in the last 12 months. In that time, they have doubled their reach in terms of customers. Cutting out inefficiencies and building remote management systems means that they can continue to grow: they are on track to double their customers again in the coming year.

For customers like Luis Alberto and his wife, Elisa, it means more income and a better quality of life. They support themselves by selling some of the maize and beans that Luis plants and Elisa's handicraft. Because they had no electricity at home, she could only make them during the day with natural light. With the new solar-powered lighting system from Iluméxico, they can now make handicraft at night and are more comfortable in their home.

Organizations like Iluméxico don't have to rely on slow or incomplete data any more simply because of where they work.

Mobiles can collect vital data about poverty or monitor business operations. They can manage staff spread out over massive geographical areas, even in the most remote settings. If you want to take your idea and spread it to the next town or county, there is no better way to do this than with mobile technology. Collecting, analysing and acting on data is no longer the preserve of major Western corporations. Since early 2013, TaroWorks has served customers in 28 countries all over the world, mostly operating in hard-to-reach locations. With mobile technology supporting their work, they have begun to realise they have the opportunity to reach scale in an unprecedented way.

Grameen Foundation is a partner of Cisco CSR. Cisco sponsors The Huffington Post's ImpactX section.