A clever strategy to deliver COVID aid—with satellite data

A bird's-eye view of Lome, the capital of Togo, from Google Maps.

Enlarge / A bird’s-eye view of Lome, the capital of Togo, from Google Maps. (credit: Google Maps)

When the novel coronavirus reached Togo in March, its leaders, like those of many countries, responded with stay-at-home orders to suppress contagion and an economic assistance program to replace lost income. But the way Togo targeted and delivered that aid was in some ways more tech-centric than many larger and richer countries. No one got a paper check in the mail.

Instead, Togo’s government quickly assembled a system to support its poorest people with mobile cash payments—a technology more established in Africa than in the rich nations supposedly at the forefront of mobile technology. The most recent payments, funded by nonprofit GiveDirectly, were targeted with help from machine-learning algorithms, which seek signs of poverty in satellite photos and cellphone data.

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