UNDP launches groundbreaking report to harness the potential of big data to measure poverty in China

Oct 17, 2016

Participants at the 'The Living Standards Dimension for the Human Development Index: Measuring Poverty with Big Data' report launch

Beijing, 17 OctUsing dynamic information provided by big data to measure poverty across China has the opportunity to play an increasing role to review and track of poverty according to a new report launched today by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) China, marking the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty and China’s 3rd National Poverty Day.

At today’s launch of the report, The Living Standards Dimension of the Human Development Index: Measuring Poverty with Big Data in China, UNDP shared its perspectives on the potential of Big Data to be a powerful complementary tool to measure poverty in China. The event was joined by Li Hongyan, Executive Chairman of Huasheng Green Industry Foundation under the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT), and Zuo Changsheng, General Director, International Poverty Reduction Centre in China (IPRCC).

To achieve the 17 SDGs we should take quick and decisive action to leave no one behind, but at the same we need to constantly measure progress to adjust where needed and learn from our achievements and mistakes. This is where big data can help,” said Patrick Haverman, Deputy Country Director of UNDP China. “It can complement the already existing data and together inform policy makers and the public about the progress. We call for inputs from all sectors to explore promising ways to strengthen big data’s application and together we can use the data to contribute to making the world a better place,” he added.

Partnering with Baidu to provide big data, the report brings a measure called the Living Standard Dimension of the Human Development Index that addresses the multi-faceted and complex nature of poverty by combining eight indicators to evaluate the provision of services of the 2,284 counties across the country. The eight indicators include: access to piped water, access to sanitary toilets, access to indoor kitchens, access to living services, access to financial services, access to roads, mobile internet coverage, and nighttime light density.

The Living Standards Index serves to support income-based measures of poverty and hopefully become a supplementary tool to assist policy makers and development practitioners. The Index ranks Zhejiang and Jiangsu in first and second place respectively, followed by Beijing and Shanghai. In addition, Ningxia ranks 11th and is the only autonomous region to have an index value that exceeds the country average.

Overall, 19 provinces, municipalities and autonomous regions rank above the average score, including 11 provinces and municipalities from eastern coast and eight from the centre of China. Provinces and autonomous regions in the west of China all rank below the country average.

These findings are in line with the existing data in terms of regional development gap, as western and rural counties have significantly lower living standards than eastern and coastal areas. The 100 counties with least access to living services are quite concentrated in nine provinces in western China. The report shows, for example, that Qinghai exhibits poorly across all indicators, but that one of its biggest development challenges, in the scope of this report, are access to indoor kitchen, followed by access to sanitary toilets.

In the center of China, deficiencies in living conditions are more varied. For example, in Hubei and Jiangxi mobile coverage is a notable issue. However, nearby Henan and Shaanxi provinces face challenges in access to water. Even in the provinces with the highest levels of living standards, there remains a need to understand potential sources of poverty, making sure to take into account poor counties in otherwise developed provinces. 

“Baidu Big Data Lab, in collaboration with UNDP, conducted the first multi-dimensional analysis of poverty through Big Data in the hope that it will assist governments with decision-making,” remarked Dr. Wu Haishan, Senior Data Scientist for the Baidu Big Data Lab.

The data collected from this report will soon be available in an interactive visualization map by the end of the month. The visualization map will allow users to zoom in on particular provinces to see how it is doing across all eight indicators, as well to be able to pick one indicator and see its strengths and weaknesses across the country. 

Turning insights collected from big data, the report hopes to support official statistics, survey data, adding depth and nuances and doing so with more recent data, thereby narrowing both information and time gaps and contribute to the goal of eradicating extreme poverty in China by 2020.

“This new method could help us to analyze poverty in an innovative way. We look forward to teaming up with UNDP to explore effective ways to measuring poverty via big data”, said Li Hongyan, Executive Chairman of the China Huasheng Green Industry Foundation.

“Big data provides an alternative tool for tackling development challenges, which however, does not go without constraints. The real time and dynamic nature of data inevitably leads to potential margin of error. This report touches on some of the weaknesses of using big data but hopes to illustrate that despite its limitations it serves to complement the traditional household surveys that feed the national database,” added Haverman.

It is the first time UNDP has applied big data to its work in development, and there are many possibilities to learn and improve how to harness its potential in the future. Further research is already in the works to consider other dimensions such as health, education, public services and transportation with the potential for in depth looks at specific provinces or counties.

Contact information

Ms. ZHANG Wei, Chief Communications Officer, UNDP China

Tel: +8610 8532 0715, Email: wei.zhang@undp.org

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Patrick Haverman, Deputy Country Director, welcomes everyone to the launch of the Living Standards Dimension of the Human Development Index
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Dr. Wu Haishan, Senior data scientist, Baidu Big Data Lab, Baidu Research, answers some questions from the audience
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Panel Discussion on "What is targeted poverty reduction and how can we innovate to eradicate poverty?"

Map based on the Living Standard Index