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Estimate poverty rates across borders using social media data

Imagine what we might be able to achieve if we had up-to-date information on poverty.

What might a global solution look like that enables policy makers, businesses,

and NGOs to understand where to direct resources to those in need? 




Welcome to the UNICEF Data Innovation Challenge!


This opportunity has been curated by the UNICEF Innovation. By successfully completing this project, you will be issued with a Certificate of Professional Development, certifying your skills in applying data to solve international development challenges. Students who submit extraordinary solutions may receive publicity in addition to seeing their solutions brought to life by the UNICEF innovation team. 


Innovation is vital to improving the state of the world's children. The speed at which global problems -- from disease outbreaks, to the global refugee crisis, to millions of out-of-school children -- disrupt the lives of children around the world is only getting faster. UNICEF innovates in order to stay agile and find solutions to the evolving challenges affecting all children."

- UNICEF Innovation team



Accurate and timely data can help us to understand and alleviate poverty, yet traditional methods of poverty assessment do not provide us with up-to-date data across borders.


Accurate and timely estimates of population demographics are vital in order to understand social and economic inequalities. Such data shape decisions about which policies are implemented as well as where governments and humanitarian organizations choose to allocate scarce resources, especially with respect to the Sustainable Development Goals. Representative national surveys, the main method of collecting such demographic information, however, are both time-consuming and costly. As such, national surveys of socio-economic indicators are only performed every 5 to 10 years, and in some countries less frequently, up to once every 20 to 30 years.


In middle and high income countries, novel sources of passively collected data-sources have opened up new approaches to quantify and model vulnerabilities, inequalities, and large-scale population demographics. Previous work has used call detail records and data collected from social media to model poverty, dynamically map populations and understand unemployment. Although a majority of work has focused on modeling socio-economic indicators within individual nations using varying types of data, little work has focused on understanding whether its possible to build socio-economic estimators for multiple countries from the same data-source or whether features are generalizable across models and nations.


Before moving forward, read the full description of the challenge as detailed by UNICEF’s Vedran Sekara here: Predicting Socio-Economic Indicators for Multiple Countries from Social Media Data. This research poses a powerful challenge: How might we come up with more current data reporting mechanisms to monitor poverty as it occurs today?


Social media data can be used as a common global data source to assess socioeconomic differences across nations, creating a more timely assessment of varying conditions of poverty across borders. 

Our research indicates that anonymized and aggregated social media data from Twitter can be used to predict the Human Development Index (HDI). Ultimately, this can help us achieve the goal of bridging the gap between years where sub-national surveys are unavailable. The HDI is a composite index created to emphasize other development criteria than just economic growth alone; variables include life expectancy, education, and standard of living.


Our results show that the rich information captured by social media platforms such as Twitter enable us to build mathematical models of sub-national HDI using variables such as the adoption of the social media platform, the communication patterns of individuals, and patterns of travel. We show that this is the case even for countries in which penetration of social media is low and both for developed and under-developed countries. 

This opportunity could allow us to look at the temporal evolution of socio-economic estimates, and to operationalize such models, enabling policy-makers and humanitarian organizations to base their decisions on up-to-date data.​




UNICEF is developing an interface that uses social media data to assess and visualize socioeconomic conditions across countries.


Depending on your course, you will be provided with a customized assignment that can help UNICEF in their efforts to develop an interface for visualizing poverty in real time. For instance, students in a Data Analytics course may be charged with creating data estimates, while Data Visualization students may be challenged to conceptualize and visualize the interface.  


The interface will explore these insights:


  • Poverty, real and estimated

  • Poverty estimated for data from different years

  • Trends and differences (e.g. between real and estimated)

  • Available data (eventually connect to an API)



You will use the following datasets while taking on the challenge: 


  • Real HDI (human development index), which measures the quality of life.

  • Estimated HDI, estimate using social media data (from Twitter).

  • Regional popularity of the social media platform (Twitter)

  • Temporal patterns, i.e. when do people use social media (i.e. tweet).

  • Network data from mobility patterns, i.e. what is the flow of individuals between sub-regions of the country.

  • Predictability data (quantified using entropy), i.e. how predictable are the patterns emanating from each sub-region.”

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Predicting socio-economic indicators for multiple countries from social data

Read a more detailed description of this challenge as researched by UNICEF data scientist Vedran Sekara.

Social network concept

Using data from social networks to understand and improve systems

Learn more about social data and systems change from MIT's Institute for Data, Systems, and Society (IDSS). 

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UNICEF: Principles for Innovation & Digital Development

Learn about the principles that UNICEF takes into account when designing systems for the common good.



By participating in this challenge, you will be taking a direct role in making an impact towards United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 1: No Poverty, which aims to end poverty in all forms everywhere by 2030.  


By contributing to the first visual interface to report poverty, you can contribute to a world where decision makers have the information they need to understand and address poverty in real time. Ultimately, this can contribute to faster rates of poverty alleviation, as well as additional support going to those whose socioeconomic conditions are not being adequately met by the international community.


Learn more about SDG 1: No Poverty 



Once you sign up, you will be verified by the ImpactEd team and provided with access to the online portal where you can browse the full suite of resources, challenge tips, and timelines.


Please insert your name and email, as well as the names of the individuals on your team. Once we receive your entry, our project representative will contact you with instructions on how to get started with the challenge. 

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