Data may be one of the world's most valuable modern currencies, but the information that you need can sometimes be surprisingly hard to come by.
One major problem that groups like the World Bank face is collecting timely, accurate information on prices in regions across the world, said Nada Hamadeh, senior statistician and international Comparison Program Global lead at The World Bank Group. While national statistics offices in many countries collect their own statistics about pricing to look at purchasing power, inflation and other economic metrics, these offices often don't have the resources to deploy the people needed to look at the situation in smaller regions or neighborhoods.
"At the moment, we're trying to dig deeper or to understand trends at the sub-national level," Hamadeh said. But, by-and-large, that sort of information isn't available to economists right now -- meaning they don't have good tools to access information on localized prices and poverty. A country as a whole may show one trend, for example, while a particular city or important region in the country may show another. Without more granular data, however, it's hard to find and address problems that may be significant but more localized.
That's where Premise, a San Francisco-based data firm, comes in. The company, which counts former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers among its board members, works with a global network of everyday people who use their smartphones to collect a variety of information such as how accessible mobile cashpoints are for certain neighborhoods -- or simply recording the price of food where they live.
On Wednesday, Premise announced that it has been working with the World Bank for nearly a year to collect price information in Brazil, Indonesia and Nigeria as part of a pilot program that has since also extended to Argentina, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Colombia, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Peru, Philippines, South Africa, Venezuela, and Vietnam. The basic idea behind Premise is this: a woman snaps a picture of a price tag on her cellphone, then sends it to Premise. Aggregated with other photos from other people around the area, the company gets a better handle on how much prices are actually changing in a certain area, which they then pass on to their clients. The woman who snapped the picture gets paid and takes on other assignments from Premise to collect more information. Depending on what the company is tracking, users may be asked to submit information weekly, monthly or on some other time scale.
Premise has also worked with private companies to look at supply lines indexes to monitor agricultural markets. But Premise co-founder David Soloff looks at the World Bank program as a perfect example of a public-private partnership that can supplement and inform the reports already being gathered. "It's an important complement for filling time gaps, geographical gaps or product gaps," he said.
The company has applied this in all sorts of scenarios. For example, Premise created a real-time dashboard -- funded by the World Bank -- to help the government of the Philippines keep track of how well brands are complying with a so-called "sin tax" its has levied on cigarettes and alcohol. It's also been tracking inflation in food prices in Argentina, offering more recent data than has been officially released by the government. This allows them to show the immediate, short-term effects of policy changes.
Will Premise or other companies like it replace the need for countries themselves to collect this information for the World Bank and other organizations? Of course not, Hamadeh said. "It can complement and fill gaps, but there's no way this work can be augmented to such a scale to supplant what [national statistical offices] are doing -- no way."
But that doesn't mean that the data aren't important. "What we're trying to do is fill gaps, and try to get some early warning signals of inflation in some cases," she said.
And that is incredibly valuable to economists, who are always looking for more data to better inform their projections and their policy recommendations.
Collecting new data, or data on a faster pace better equips them to solve the problems in front of them.
Or, as Summers said at Wednesday's World Bank event: "Nothing counts more than what you count."