Premise gathers data directly from local residents as a basis for making macro-economic analyses.

Crowdsourcing a powerful aid in compiling economic indicators

San Francisco-based startup Premise came up with a novel idea for obtaining data for its macro-economic and development statistics: real-time crowdsourcing using information and communication technology. The way Premise works is to commission photos taken by local people – mainly in developing countries, but in other places too – as they go about their daily lives. The Premise software extracts useful data from the photos and processes it in order to construct macro socio-economic indicators. Explains Sara Blask, Director of PR and Marketing at Premise: ‟Billions of dollars are invested each year on the basis of out-of-date or incomplete data. What we’re trying to do is improve the quality of the data.” The company works with governments, international financial institutions and investment funds. Among its clients are the UN, the World Bank, Standard Chartered Bank and Bloomberg. Originally specialising in compiling food sector prices, Premise has recently extended its field of expertise to resources in general including the availability of food, drinking water and electricity – all economic development indicators likely to be of use to investment professionals.

Economic and social data

Claims Sara Blask: ‟We differentiate ourselves from official statistics institutes by the immediacy of our data. For example, the [US] Bureau of Labor Statistics publishes a consumer price index every month. We do this every day.” Premise also analyses data over the long term and provides graphs and charts which enable users to easily grasp the trend of a particular indicator. The startup is currently focusing on the economic crisis in Venezuela, where a spate of shortages means that inhabitants have to queue for hours in order to buy basic necessities.

Premise uses photos sent in by Venezuelans in order to calculate such phenomena as the rate of inflation and the time it takes people to obtain basic necessities. This data is then incorporated into a map constructed from a satellite image. The company has also been working with the Filipino authorities, who wanted to find out whether merchants were applying newly voted taxes on alcohol and tobacco. When the data gathered on the ground showed that a large number of traders were not in fact applying the taxes, the government decided to take new measures to ensure merchants complied with the law. Most recently, Premise carried out a survey for a large company that was thinking of investing in a power grid in West Africa and needed quantitative and qualitative information on the existing electricity infrastructure. The startup team compiled a map showing houses which had a power supply and those that did not. To do this, they correlated power grid connection with the material used to build the house, on the premise that houses built of brick or cement are far more likely to be connected to a power grid than those built of mud-bricks.

Using crowdsourcing to gather data

Premise usually starts a data-gathering campaign by advertising on Google or the social networks, and in addition sometimes also goes to universities and NGOs, with the aim of recruiting around fifteen people. From there the number of contributors usually expands rapidly by word of mouth. All these people are asked to take photographs and send them in together with any useful information such as the price of the product they have photographed and the whereabouts of the seller. For these contributions they are paid an average of $30 to $200 per week. For some it is their main source of income while for others it simply helps them to buy a few little luxuries. Premise is now becoming well known and very popular. The firm receives a lot of unsolicited applications from people who would like to join in, and has had to refuse many would-be contributors. ‟We don’t think of ourselves as a Big Data company,” stresses Sara Blask, adding: ‟We’re more interested in the quality of our information than the quantity. We gather exactly the amount of data we need.” The company is currently working in around thirty countries and today pays 16,000 people to gather data. Larry Summers, formerly Treasury Secretary in the Clinton administration and Chief Economist of the World Bank, has recently joined Premise’s Board of Directors.  This is a company that looks set to make a name for itself.

Nairobi-based start-up OkHi also uses photographs to help drive economic development in emerging countries. 

By Guillaume Renouard