News Archive

posted 04/30/03

Global Poverty Mapping Contributes to Anti-Poverty Initiative
Workshop addresses challenges of organizing poverty data

The map above, generated at the Earth Institute's Center for International Earth Science Information Network, and using data from the National Population Council in Mexico, shows literacy rates for Mexican people over 15 years of age. The darkest color corresponds to counties with the highest literacy rates. Mapping literacy in adults is one way of looking at poverty. Click here for key and larger image. Image Credit: M. Levy, CIESIN

Why don’t poverty experts know precisely where the world’s poor live? How would such knowledge help them diagnose the causes of poverty more accurately and formulate responses more effectively? The renowned global mapping experts of the Earth Institute at Columbia University’s Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN) recently convened a workshop to answer this and other questions about mapping poverty around the world.

Earth Institute Director Jeffrey Sachs opened the workshop with remarks emphasizing that the United Nations’ Millennium Project, the anti-poverty initiative which Sachs leads (see for more info), needs good measures of poverty so that progress can be judged.

The poverty mapping workshop was sponsored by the World Bank and the Earth Institute at Columbia University, and attended by both producers and consumers of poverty data from such organizations as the World Resources Institute, UNICEF, the UNDP, the International Food Policy Research Institute, and the US Agency for International Development. Participants from several countries discussed how poverty should be defined for mapping purposes.

“Regional differences make it difficult to find one absolute indicator—such as low income, education, infrastructure, or child malnutrition—that constitutes poverty throughout the world,” noted Marc Levy of CIESIN, a member of the workshop organizing committee. Moreover, poverty measures are often needed for different purposes – establishing benchmarks, tracking vulnerability, targeting interventions, evaluating policy effectiveness – and the appropriateness of alternative definitions will vary across such tasks. Therefore, Levy suggested, it is especially important to create a global poverty mapping infrastructure that can support a range of competing definitions.

Inequality within small geographic areas, such as the great disparities between rich and poor people living right next to each other in Brazil, makes poverty mapping a challenge, workshop speakers noted. The picture painted by a poverty map always involves judgments and interpolation on the part of the mappers to overcome this and other challenges.

Workshop participants discussed what data are available around the world at household, regional, and national levels, and what level of data is most useful for addressing goals such as the anti-poverty MDGs. For local program implementation purposes, the workshop participants seemed to agree, country or regional level maps are most useful.

Mapping poverty on a global level may not require as much detail as, say, planning for emergency food relief at the site of a drought. “This issue is obviously very important to major organizations around the world,” said CIESIN Director Roberta Miller.

Led by CIESIN’s Associate Director Marc Levy, CIESIN has already prepared several poverty maps for publication in the United Nations Human Development Report to be published in August, 2003. CIESIN has been involved in other global, complex mapping projects, including the Gridded Population of the World and the Last of the Wild. “Finding the best possible data from multiple sources, determining how to make measurements comparable, and integrating data in a meaningful way are challenges in any global mapping project,” says Levy.

The Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN) is a unit of the Earth Institute at Columbia University that builds information systems and conducts research aimed at bridging gaps between natural and social sciences in order to better understand human-environment actions. For more information, including maps generated in the Gridded Population of the World and Last of the Wild projects, please see

The Earth Institute at Columbia University is among the world’s leading academic centers for the integrated study of Earth, its environment, and society. The Earth Institute builds upon excellence in the core disciplines—earth sciences, biological sciences, engineering sciences, social sciences and health sciences—and stresses cross-disciplinary approaches to complex problems. Through its research, training and global partnerships, it mobilizes science and technology to advance sustainable development, while placing special emphasis on the needs of the world’s poor.