Mustafa is a Research Data Analyst at the Center on Food Security and the Environment, where he supports Marshall Burke's work on estimating the impacts of environmental degradation on social and health outcomes. He has previously led a research project investigating the impact of Cleft Lip and Palate and CLP surgeries on the life outcomes of adolescent patients in India. Most recently, he worked as a Data Analyst on projects surrounding Medicare delivery. He holds a BA in International Studies and an MS in International and Development Economics from the University of San Francisco.

Research Data Analyst

Jessica is a Research Data Analyst at the Center on Food Security and the Environment, where she supports Marshall Burke’s work on poverty and environmental issues using satellite imagery. She has previously worked as a Research Assistant at Columbia University and as a Health Equity Fellow at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. She holds a BA in Economics from Sciences Po and a BA in Economics-Philosophy from Columbia University.

Research Data Analyst, Center on Food Security and the Environment
May Wong
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In combating poverty, like any fight, it’s good to know the locations of your targets.

That’s why Stanford scholars Marshall BurkeDavid Lobell and Stefano Ermon have spent the past five years leading a team of researchers to home in on an efficient way to find and track impoverished zones across Africa.

The powerful tool they’ve developed combines free, publicly accessible satellite imagery with artificial intelligence to estimate the level of poverty across African villages and changes in their development over time. By analyzing past and current data, the measurement tool could provide helpful information to organizations, government agencies and businesses that deliver services and necessities to the poor.

Details of their undertaking were unveiled in the May 22 issue of Nature Communications.

“Our big motivation is to better develop tools and technologies that allow us to make progress on really important economic issues. And progress is constrained by a lack of ability to measure outcomes,” said Burke, a faculty fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research (SIEPR) and an assistant professor of earth system science in the School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences (Stanford Earth). “Here’s a tool that we think can help.”

Lobell, a senior fellow at SIEPR and a professor of Earth system science at Stanford Earth, says looking back is critical to identifying trends and factors to help people escape from poverty.

“Amazingly, there hasn’t really been any good way to understand how poverty is changing at a local level in Africa,” said Lobell, who is also the director of the Center on Food Security and the Environment and the William Wrigley Fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. “Censuses aren’t frequent enough, and door-to-door surveys rarely return to the same people. If satellites can help us reconstruct a history of poverty, it could open up a lot of room to better understand and alleviate poverty on the continent.”

The measurement tool uses satellite imagery both from the nighttime and daytime. At night, lights are an indicator of development, and during the day, images of human infrastructure such as roads, agriculture, roofing materials, housing structures and waterways, provide characteristics correlated with development.

Then the tool applies the technology of deep learning – computing algorithms that constantly train themselves to detect patterns – to create a model that analyzes the imagery data and forms an index for asset wealth, an economic component commonly used by surveyors to measure household wealth in developing nations.

The researchers tested the measuring tool’s accuracy for about 20,000 African villages that had existing asset wealth data from surveys, dating back to 2009. They found that it performed well in gauging the poverty levels of villages over different periods of time, according to their study.

Here, Burke – who is also a center fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment and the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies – discusses the making of the tool and its potential to help improve the well-being of the world’s poor.


Why are you excited about this new technological resource?

For the first time, this tool demonstrates that we can measure economic progress and understand poverty interventions at both a local level and a broad scale. It works across Africa, across a lot of different years. It works pretty darn well, and it works in a lot of very different types of countries.


Can you give examples of how this new tool would be used?

If we want to understand the effectiveness of an anti-poverty program, or if an NGO wants to target a specific product to specific types of individuals, or if a business wants to understand where a market’s growing – all of those require data on economic outcomes. In many parts of the world, we just don’t have those data. Now we’re using data from across sub-Saharan Africa and training these models to take in all the data to measure for specific outcomes.


How does this new study build upon your previous work?

Our initial poverty-mapping work, published in 2016, was on five countries using one year of data. It relied on costly, high-resolution imagery at a much smaller, pilot scale. Now this work covers about two dozen countries – about half of the countries in Africa – using many more years of high-dimensional data. This provided underlying training datasets to develop the measurement models and allowed us to validate whether the models are making good poverty estimates.

We’re confident we can apply this technology and this approach to get reliable estimates for all the countries in Africa.

A key difference compared to the earlier work is now we’re using completely publicly available satellite imagery that goes back in time – and it’s free, which I think democratizes this technology. And we’re doing it at a comprehensive, massive spatial scale.


How do you use satellite imagery to get poverty estimates?

We’re building on rapid developments in the field of computer science – of deep learning – that have happened in the last five years and that have really transformed how we extract information from images. We’re not telling the machine what to look for in images; instead, we’re just telling it, “Here’s a rich place. Here is a poor place. Figure it out.”

The computer is clearly picking out urban areas, agricultural areas, roads, waterways – features in the landscape that you might think would have some predictive power in being able to separate rich areas from poor areas. The computer says, ‘I found this pattern’ and we can then assign semantic meaning to it.

These broader characteristics, examined at the village level, turn out to be highly related to the average wealth of the households in that region.


What’s next?

Now that we have these data, we want to use them to try to learn something about economic development. This tool enables us to address questions we were unable to ask a year ago because now we have local-level measurements of key economic outcomes at broad, spatial scale and over time.

We can evaluate why some places are doing better than other places. We can ask: What do patterns of growth in livelihoods look like? Is most of the variation between countries or within countries? If there’s variation within a country, that already tells us something important about the determinants of growth. It’s probably something going on locally.

I’m an economist, so those are the sorts of questions that get me excited. The technological development is not an end in itself. It’s an enabler for the social science that we want to do.

In addition to Burke, Lobell and Ermon, a professor of computer science, the co-authors of the published study are Christopher Yeh and Anthony Perez, both computer science graduate students and research assistants at the Stanford King Center on Global Development; Anne Driscoll, a research data analyst, and George Azzari, an affiliated scholar, both at the Center on Food Security and the Environment at Stanford; and Zhongyi Tang, a former research data analyst at the King Center. This research was supported by the Data for Development initiative at the Stanford King Center on Global Development and the USAID Bureau of Food Security. To read all stories about Stanford science, subscribe to the biweekly Stanford Science Digest.

Media Contacts

Adam Gorlick, Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research: (650) 724-0614, agorlick@stanford.edu

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A new tool combines publicly accessible satellite imagery with AI to track poverty across African villages over time.


Join us for a talk with agricultural and development economist Christopher B. Barrett, this quarter’s visiting scholar with the Center on Food Security and the Environment. Barrett is the Stephen B. and Janice G. Ashley Professor of Applied Economics and Management and an International Professor of Agriculture with Cornell’s Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management.

Professor Barrett will discuss food systems advances over the past 50 years that have promoted unprecedented reduction globally in poverty and hunger, averted considerable deforestation, and broadly improved lives, livelihoods and environments in much of the world. He’ll share perspectives on the reasons why, despite those advances, those systems increasingly fail large communities in environmental, health, and increasingly in economic terms and appear ill-suited to cope with inevitable further changes in climate, incomes, and population over the coming 50 years. Barrett will explore the new generation of innovations underway that must overcome a host of scientific and socioeconomic obstacles.
Also a Professor of Economics in the Department of Economics, Barrett is co-editor in chief of the journal Food Policy, is a faculty fellow with David R. Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future and serves as the director of the Stimulating Agriculture and Rural Transformation (StART) Initiative housed at the Cornell International Institute for Food, Agriculture and Development.


Understanding the causes of economic inequality is critical for achieving equitable economic development. To investigate whether global warming has affected the recent evolution of inequality, we combine counterfactual historical temperature trajectories from a suite of global climate models with extensively replicated empirical evidence of the relationship between historical temperature fluctuations and economic growth. Together, these allow us to generate probabilistic country-level estimates of the influence of anthropogenic climate forcing on historical economic output. We find very high likelihood that anthropogenic climate forcing has increased economic inequality between countries. For example, per capita gross domestic product (GDP) has been reduced 17–31% at the poorest four deciles of the population-weighted country-level per capita GDP distribution, yielding a ratio between the top and bottom deciles that is 25% larger than in a world without global warming. As a result, although between-country inequality has decreased over the past half century, there is ∼90% likelihood that global warming has slowed that decrease. The primary driver is the parabolic relationship between temperature and economic growth, with warming increasing growth in cool countries and decreasing growth in warm countries. Although there is uncertainty in whether historical warming has benefited some temperate, rich countries, for most poor countries there is >90% likelihood that per capita GDP is lower today than if global warming had not occurred. Thus, our results show that, in addition to not sharing equally in the direct benefits of fossil fuel use, many poor countries have been significantly harmed by the warming arising from wealthy countries’ energy consumption.

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Proceedings of the national Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Noah Diffenbaugh
Marshall Burke

16 04 29 solomonhsiang 04 bkm

On April 16, Solomon Hsiang, the Chancellor's Associate Professor of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley, and the Center's Noosheen Hashemi Visiting Scholar, will lead a discussion on data for adaption to climate change, moderated by Marshall Burke. A reception will be held from 4:30 - 5:00 pm. The main event begins at 5:00 pm.

About the speaker:

Solomon Hsiang combines data with mathematical models to understand how society and the environment influence one another. In particular, he focuses on how policy can encourage economic development while managing the global climate. His research has been published in Nature, Science, and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 

Hsiang earned a BS in Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Science and a BS in Urban Studies and Planning from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and he received a PhD in Sustainable Development from Columbia University. He was a Post-Doctoral Fellow in Applied Econometrics at the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) and a Post-Doctoral Fellow in Science, Technology and Environmental Policy at Princeton University. Hsiang is currently the Chancellor's Associate Professor of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley and a Research Associate at the NBER.


I Lin Chen
(650) 724-5482


Event Sponsors: 
Stanford Center on Global Poverty and Development, Stanford Center on Food Security and the Environment
Center on Global Poverty and Development Speaker Series


Koret-Taube Conference Center


Ending world hunger is a universal goal, yet progress and social awareness of the issue waxes and wanes in the course of broader political and economic developments. The massive famine in China under Chairman Mao’s 1958–62 Great Leap Forward, a succession of severe droughts and associated famines in India in 1965–66, and the political violence that accompanied regime change in Indonesia in 1964–67 left tens of millions of people starving and drew global attention to the threat of food insecurity. What emerged from these events was an international commitment to agricultural technology transfers, water resource development, and foreign assistance – partly in the spirit of humanitarian goodwill and partly in pursuit of long-term geopolitical and economic interests revolving around the Cold War. Whatever the motivation, the outcome over the ensuing decades was more than a doubling of staple cereal yields in Asia, and a steady decline in real (inflation-adjusted) cereal prices.

Despite these gains, a second, quite different, rallying cry for food security resounded in 2007–8 as international grain prices spiked, food riots erupted in numerous cities throughout the developing world, and the global economy headed into a deep recession. Several factors sparked this crisis, but unlike the earlier periods of dire food shortages, the root causes included unwieldy financial markets and escalating demands for food, animal feeds, and fuel (including biofuels) in a globalized economy. This episode prompted new analyses of the connection between global commodity markets and food security, the political-economy foundations of agricultural development, and the differential impacts of food prices on net producers and net consumers. In the five-year period from 2007 to 2012, international cereal prices were highly unstable, varying by as much as 300 percent.

Today, international agricultural markets have settled at relatively low prices, but civil conflicts, extreme climate events, and other natural disasters are blocking the path toward ending hunger. In February 2017, the United Nations declared a famine in South Sudan, as war and economic collapse ravaged the newly independent nation. Although the famine officially ended in mid-2017, food emergencies and severe undernourishment still threaten tens of millions of people in South Sudan, Yemen, Nigeria, Somalia, and Syria, due to a combination of civil conflict, prolonged droughts, and occasional floods. On the surface, it seems incomprehensible that there could be such difficulty in addressing these looming famines at a time when global cereal production and stocks are at historical highs. But the problem is not a matter of food supply; the problem is war.

Download full article here.

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Rosamond L. Naylor

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Food security experts identify government support, policy implementation, private sector engagement and investment in smallholder farmers as keys to Africa’s agricultural future.

Food security experts from the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) gathered to discuss transforming food production in Africa at Stanford on Nov. 29. The symposium, hosted by the Center on Food Security and the Environment (FSE) examined the challenges, strategies, and possible solutions for catalyzing and sustaining an inclusive agriculture transformation in Africa. 

Moderator Ertharin Cousin, FSE visiting fellow and previous World Food Programme director with more than 25 years of experience on hunger, food, and resilience strategies, launched the panel by outlining Africa’s plight. “Today some 100 million of the farmers across Sub-Saharan Africa farm less than 2 hectares of land. Some 80 percent of those living in rural areas are poor. More than 30 percent of the rural population is chronically hungry and 35 percent of the under-five-year-olds are stunted. By 2050, the bulk of the world's population growth will take place on the continent. In fact, some project that 1.3 billion will be added to the continent, and Nigeria’s [population] will grow larger than the size of the United States between now and 2050,” Cousin said


While Africa continues to experience the highest occurrence of food insecurity worldwide, the continent also contains over 60 percent of the worlds uncultivated but fertile land. AGRA formed in 2006 to fulfill the vision that Africa can feed itself and the world. Panelists included Agnes Kalibata, AGRA President and former Minister of Agriculture and Animal Resources of Rwanda; Kanayo F. Nwanze, AGRA board member and immediate past president of the International Fund for Agricultural Development; Usha Barwale Zehr, AGRA board member and Director and Chief Technology Officer of Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company Private Limited; and Rajiv Shah, AGRA board member, Rockefeller Foundation President and former Administer of USAID.

Kanayo F. Nwanze stressed the importance of agricultural transformation for Africa’s future. “No country in the world ever transformed itself without going through an agrarian change. No country. Europe, 17th; Japan, 18th century; 19th century was the US, your country; China, 20th century. Why should they be different from Africa? So, first and foremost, we have to have total agricultural transformation,” Nwanze said.

AGRA president, Agnes Kalibata, also spoke to the need for policy implementation and government support in helping drive change. “AGRA as an institution can only do so much. But these governments have the potential and the capacity to reach every corner of their countries. The problem is they are challenged by capacity to do that, by capacity to design proper programs, and by capacity to implement these programs,” Kalibata said.

Expanding on governments' ability to impact and drive change, Usha Barwale Zehr highlighted Asia’s success, specifically with strategic partnerships. “…we've done a lot of talking about public/private partnership. Not so much on the ground on implementing it in a manner, which happened in Asia, for instance, where there was policy, and, most importantly, government will. The government was willing to do whatever it took to make sure that agriculture was transformed at the end of it,” Zehr said.

Beyond government and policy support the panelists also addressed the need for innovation and access to seed technologies. “Why is it that the African farmer and the Indian farmer should not have access to what the American farmer has access to today and reaps benefit from it? …So it's the hybrids, the varieties, the GM technology. Tomorrow it'll be the gene-edited products. And after that we will talk about the satellite-based imaging data that we will use for developing drought-tolerant crops for that very, very small micro environment that existed in the one district in Nigeria,” Zehr said.

"By 2050, who is going to feed Africa? … It's the youth of today. But they're not going to be using the same technologies that exist today. Just think of what IT can do, aggregation, organization of farmer's groups. So, the elements are there. I see the agriculture of tomorrow meeting the challenge – for Africa meeting that challenge is Africa being at the forefront of feeding the world. Africa has to be able to feed itself first. And we have all the opportunities there,” Nwanze said.

This is the first installment of the Global Food Security Symposium series hosted by Stanford University's Center on Food Security and the Environment and generously supported by Zach Nelson and Elizabeth Horn. FSE is a joint initiative of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment and the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.


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