The other great thing about the tool? The price. It’s “nearly costless to scale across countries,” the researchers write in their paper. All the hi-res imagery used for the project was free, from Google Maps. All the code is open-source so anyone can download and modify it. With more satellite imagery expected to be made publicly available soon, from the European Space Agency and other organizations, modified models can ingest new data and make predictions across time and regions. Right now, says Burke, they can estimate a snapshot of the state of poverty. But to make predictions about the future, they’d need a bunch of snapshots to see how things have changed over time. In the foreseeable future, the team hopes to “make maps that can update all the time,” Burke says, as more hi-res imagery is made available and patterns emerge over the years.

The new way of tracking poverty can replace door-to-door household surveys, which are typically expensive and “institutionally difficult, as some governments see little benefit in having their lackluster performance documented,” the researchers write. Eventually, Burke and his co-authors hope that governments and organizations across the world will no longer bet blindly on their anti-poverty efforts, but really figure out what’s working and what’s not. “They can use [the model] as a tool to evaluate anti-poverty programs that they don’t get to do, mainly for lack of data.”

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