Eyes on Guatemala

The Economist has published an article on malnutrition in Guatemala. Hunger is not new in the country, with half of the children population not eating enough Guatemala is the six-worst country in the world, but in some Maya communities children chronic malnutrition can reach 75% (the Economist says 80%). These figures are astonishing, especially because the problem is not food scarcity.

But this as well is hardly new. It was 1981 when Amartya Sen published his Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation demonstrating that hunger is mostly caused by inequality rather than scarcity. There is no lack of food in Guatemala if you have the money to buy it. In Guatemala City is taking place, as we speak, the 14th Festival Gastronómico Internacional so it seems difficult to talk about a famine or about an emergency (according to the Longman Dictionary an emergency is “an unexpected and dangerous situation that must be dealt with immediately”). The problem is the lack of a functioning state. Because a state cannot function with tax revenues estimated at just 10% of GDP.

Democracy is highly unrepresentative in Guatemala. Who should push for a better redistribution of resources has no voice. National newspapers point constantly the finger at the government (presidency, parliament, judiciary) in a impressive campaign of delegitimation. The Rosenberg tape was just part of it. I’m not defending the government, but saying that criticising it and attempting to systematically destroy its credibility are not quite the same thing. While the headlines cover crime, corruption and hunger the real battle within the country is on the tax reform. A battle that so far every government has badly lost.

Friday, 28 August 2009

Back into Poverty

Increase in food prices has pushed back into poverty at least 100 million people in 2008 and, according to the United Nations Standing Committee on Nutrition (here, p. 60),

erase at least four years of progress towards the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) 1 target for the reduction of poverty. The household level consequences of this crisis are most acutely felt in LIFDCs [Low-Income Food-Deficit Countries] where a 50% rise in staple food prices causes a 21% increase in total food expenditure, increasing these from 50 to 60% of income. In a high income country this rise in prices causes a 6% rise in retail food expenditure with income expenditure on food rising from 10 to 11%. FAO estimates that food price rises have resulted in at least 50 million more people becoming hungry in 2008, going back to the 1970 figures.

According to the World Bank (here) this means that between 200,000 and 400,000 more children will died every year for malnutrition until 2015.

Thursday, 18 June 2009

Selva Amazónica, More Valuable Standing Than Felled

An article published on Science this week analyzes the development of the region across the Amazon deforestation frontier. In three words: boom and bust. It means that comparing the Human Development Index of different classes of Brazilian municipalities, from prefrontier municipalities to heavily post frontier deforested municipalities, you can see how the HDI relatively grows in the first phase of the deforestation (on the frontier line) and relatively declines when deforestation is completed.  In other words,

when the median HDI of each class is plotted against deforestation extent, a boom-and-bust pattern becomes apparent, which suggests that relative development levels increase rapidly in the early stages of deforestation and then decline as the frontier advances. Hence, although municipalities with active deforestation had development levels that approached the overall Brazilian median, pre- and postfrontier HDI values were substantially lower and statistically indistinguishable from each other (P > 0.9). These results are robust to the particular thresholds used to define the frontier classes. A boom-and-bust pattern is also found for each of the HDI subindices: standard of living, literacy, and life expectancy.

This strongly suggests that the poor have no choice but to exploit every resource available. It is difficult to think that farmers or loggers do not see that they are compromising their very own future. They simply have no choice. The challenge is giving them a choice.

Friday, 12 June 2009

On the Evolution of Thinking

What if we are becoming the very same Artificial Intelligence that we are trying to design? The doubt has has been raised by Nicholas Carr in an article published one year ago on The Atlantic and now published on Le Monde. The theory is intriguing and the discourse goes, in the words of developmental psychologist Maryanne Wolf, more or less in this direction:

We are not only what we read, We are how we read.

So, learning directly from the voice of Socrates is not the same as learning from the Internet. The way we approach new ideas and knowledge influences how we assimilate them and how we develop our thinking. The risk is that our mind might find so attractive the effectivness of the Google’s algorithm to try to replicate it forgetting all the ambiguity that has made us what we are. What we are so far.

Update: Have a look at this article on Le Monde about the influence of the new information technologies on culture.

Friday, 5 June 2009

If the Asian Growth Model is not Working Anymore

In 1981 poverty rate in China was 64% of the population, in 2004 the rate was 10%: it means that 500 million people stepped out of poverty (look here and here). China and South-East Asia economies were propelled by export demand and by someone else’s debt. What now? In the words of FT columnist Michael Pettis

The assumption that implicitly underlay the Asian development model – that US households had an infinite ability to borrow and spend – has been shown to be false. This spells the end of this model as an engine of growth.

It seams like bad news for economists pointing at free trade and export-led growth as a practical receipt for development.  It seams like bad news for everybody. People in developing countries need to increase their income, and it is difficult to think how they could find the money in their neighborhoods.

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Economic Gains Do Not Mean Political Gains

In this post Dani Rodrik explains why trade theories suggest that the U.S. should liberalize trade for agricultural products (especially cotton and sugar) and abolish visa restrictions on on highly-skilled foreign workers. This will produce gains for the U.S. society as a whole and probably for the poorest part of the world population, that happens to be made up of farmers. (Of course India will probably see some of its engineers flee the country, but that is not exactly a win-win game).

But countries are not ruled by trade theories. Usually they are ruled by people seeking to keep power as long as possible. And sometimes people rely on minority groups within their society to keep themselves in power.  Have a look at this paper, “The Diminishing Effect of Democracy in Diverse Societies” by Gilat Levy and Oriana Bandiera (London School of Economics and Political Science). Indeed, this can explain why western Europe heavily defends its farmers (4-5% of the population) sacrificing the common good.

An interesting theory should consider not how much a single group benefit or not from trade liberalization but how much influence the group affected by the new policy has on the decision making process. A reduction of trade barriers can help to tackle chronic poverty (have a look at the “Industrial Development Report” by the United Nations Industrial Development Organization). But barriers are not where they are because governments think they are irrational from a political (not economic) point of view.

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

The Dirt Floats

The Kosovo Liberation Army (Albanian acronym UÇK) supposedly run, during the conflict of 1999, torture camps in northern Albania. According to an investigation conducted by Altin Raxhimi, Michael Montgomery and Vladimir Karaj and published (here) by the Balkan Investigative Journalism Network at least 18 people were killed in one of those, a factory compound in Kukës, Albania. Eyewitnesses say prisoner were mainly alleged Kosovo Albanian collaborationist. But as well Serbs and Roma were held in the camp.  And women.

Kosovo’s Prime Minister, Hashim Thaçi, who was then the political director of the KLA, and Agim Çeku, former Prime Minister and former chief of the KLA headquarters, told the BBC they were not aware of any KLA prisons where captives were abused or where civilians were held.

The same sources that witnessed the base in Kukës, told us that the interrogators in Kukës were KLA officers who had been involved in the capture of suspected collaborators.
Both our sources concerning the base, identified several KLA officers involved in the abuses at
Kukës.
One of them is currently in a top position in the judicial system in Kosovo.

After ten years, the history of the ex-Yugoslavia conflicts (so far mainly written by journalists) is still incomplete. Because the people who fought those wars are now ruling that very same land (nationalism is still an effective language to speak). And because the Balkans are the very same mirror and unconscious of Europe (Rada Iveković, 1999). The 1990s wars tell Europe where its own states are coming from: murders and  deportations. And Dorian does not like portraits.

Monday, 11 May 2009

WikiPrices

Erik Hersman, has recently created a site called Africa Signals. And it is not just a site: it is a wiki site. The site aims to collect and share mobile phone and Internet rates across Africa. (I have found about this site here)

Now. In my experience, one of the many reasons that makes poor a poor farmer is coping with a non-functioning market (I said it two posts ago). So I can just imagine how helpful would be to have a tool to make market work better.

Creating a wiki page to collect and share the price of one particular agricultural product in one particular time in one particular place would be great. But succeeding in integrating such a site with the mobile phone network would be even better.  How to do this? The government of Rwanda is moving in the very same direction without creating a wiki site. (It is difficult to imagine a government managing wikis). But bureaucracy is not something we usually associate with the words efficiency and effectiveness, especially in poor countries. And in any case we do not really need a government to make a site like this work.

Just think about a wiki site collecting and sharing data through sms. Actually Twitter, without the wiki interface, is doing it right now. So, think about a farmer receiving a message with updated price information the night before market day and, on this information, taking his/her decisions. And think about a farmer sending via sms the price information to the wiki site after leaving the market.

We can imagine the farmer to pay for the sms he or she receives and, on the contrary, we can imagine sending sms back to the site to be completely free.  And we can imagine some volunteers to be the administrators of the site (just like Wikipedia).

Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Hard Numbers, Hard Times

In a report published today, Oxfam predicts that by 2015 the average number of people affected by climate-related disasters every year will increase by 54%. The projection is based on a forecasting model that uses data, collected by the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters, going back to 1900. Oxfam’s researchers have noticed that climate-related disasters have been increasing in frequency and severity during the last years so they expect that by 2015 375 million people (or 132 million more than in 2007) will be affected. Jeremy Hobbs, Oxfam International’s Executive Director, said that

The humanitarian system works as if it’s a global card game dealing out aid randomly, not based on people’s needs. The response is often fickle – too little, too late and not good enough. The world barely copes with the current level of disasters. A big increase in the numbers of people affected will overwhelm it unless there is fundamental reform of the system that puts those in need at its centre.

And this supposedly happens while NGOs are downsizing their budgets because of the crisis. According to Le Monde, many organizations have seen a significant decrease in private donation during 2009. More deadly predictions on the way?

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Information Flows on Mobiles

The idea to use mobile phones (here and here) to help economic development in the most remote corners of the world is fascinating and definitely smart. For one thing, mobile phones have already reached the Bottom Billion. In 2007 there were 45 subscribers per 100 inhabitants in the developing countries. That means that we can now expect to have one mobile in every family. Everywhere. As well in communities where services like water, electricity, hospitals, schools or transportation are still far away.

What poor people mostly need are functioning institutions. And market is one of these. If market is not working, farmers will pay higher prices for what they buy and got less money for what they sell.  Moreover they could buy or sell at the wrong time and possibly in the wrong place. In the words of the government of Rwanda,

the success of these farmers has been greatly affected by lack of access to pricing information. Many times, farmers speculate what crops to grow and what prices to charge at harvest. Some farmers depend on middlemen to dictate the prices and in most cases the latter exploit the former. For any farmer to earn a decent living from agriculture, easy access to information on market prices is of paramount importance.

Making information flows on mobile phones could

empower farmers to enable them make more informed market pricing decisions and ultimately more successful farming.

The idea of mobile banking goes in the same direction: making a  service so critical for development accessible to almost everyone. That will not end poverty, but  will probably make the task easier.

Thursday, 16 April 2009

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  • November 8th & 9th in Munich: Workshop on Deep Learning with Keras and TensorFlow in R
    Registration is now open for my 1.5-day workshop on deep learning with Keras and TensorFlow using R. It will take place on November 8th & 9th in Munich, Germany. You can read about one participant’s experience in my workshop: Big Data – ...
  • I’ll be talking about ‘Decoding The Black Box’ at the Frankfurt Data Science Meetup
    I have yet another Meetup talk to announce: On Wednesday, October 26th, I’ll be talking about ‘Decoding The Black Box’ at the Frankfurt Data Science Meetup. Particularly cool with this meetup is that they will livestream the event at www.youtube....
  • Le Monde puzzle [#1066]
    The second Le Monde mathematical puzzle in the new competition is sheer trigonometry: When in the above figures both triangles ABC are isosceles and the brown segments are all of length 25cm, find the angle in A and the value of DC², respectively. This could have been solved by R coding the various possible angles […]
  • «smooth» package for R. Intermittent state-space model. Part I. Introducing the model
    Intro One of the features of functions of smooth package is the ability to work with intermittent data and the data with periodically occurring zeroes. Intermittent time series is a series that has non-zero values occurring at irregular frequency (Svetuknov and Boylan, 2017). Imagine retailer who sells green leap sticks. The demand on such a […]
  • Not Hotdog: A Shiny app using the Custom Vision API
    I had a great time at the EARL Conference in London last week, and as always came away invigorated by all of the applications of R that were presented there. I'll do a full writeup of the conference later this week, but in the meantime I wanted to share the materials from my own presentation […]

RSS Simply Statistics

  • Divergent and Convergent Phases of Data Analysis
    There are often discussions within the data science community about which tools are best for doing data science. The most recent iteration of this discussion is the so-called “First Notebook War”, which is well-summarized by Yihui Xie in his blog post (it is a great read). One thing that I have found missing from many […]
  • Being at the Center
    Hilary Parker and I just released part 2 of our book club discussion of Nigel Cross’s book Design Thinking and it centers around a profile of designer Gordan Murray, who spent his career designing Formula One race cars. One of the aspects of his job as a designer is taking a “systems approach” to solving […]
  • Constructing a Data Analysis
    This week Hilary Parker and I have started our “Book Club” on Not So Standard Deviations where we will be discussing Nigel Cross’s book Design Thinking: Understanding How Designers Think and Work. We will be talking about how the work of designers parallels the work of data scientists and how many of the principles developed […]

RSS Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science