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Data points of light

MIT’s undergraduates fight poverty one statistic at a time, thanks to coordination between the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program and the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab.
Indian women and children wait at a clinic where J-PAL researchers investigate a better way to bring medical treatment to developing areas.
Indian women and children wait at a clinic where J-PAL researchers investigate a better way to bring medical treatment to developing areas.
Photo courtesy of J-PAL

MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) has gained wide notice for its disarmingly simple suggestions about improving global welfare. In Kenya several years ago, J-PAL researchers noticed that the most inexpensive way to improve the school attendance of children is medical treatment that rids them of intestinal worms. Now, based on that finding, the Clinton Global Initiative is attempting to deworm 20 million schoolchildren in 26 countries in 2009.

In order to keep churning out its many studies — 181 since its inception in 2003 — J-PAL needs student help. For that, it has relied upon MIT’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP).

Founded in 1969, UROP is one of the oldest programs in the United States that invites undergraduates to participate in research as the junior colleagues of Institute faculty. UROP gets undergraduates into campus labs; J-PAL makes the world a lab, by running randomized experiments testing the usefulness of anti-poverty programs. And labs require workers, which is where UROP and J-PAL join forces. Out of 105 current economics majors at MIT, according to J-PAL’s senior project manager, Tricia Gonwa, 17 participate in UROP, and nine specifically work with J-PAL.

“UROP gets undergraduates excited about economics research, and the undergraduates work with the data collected in the field, contributing to our research,” Gonwa told a panel discussion during UROP’s 40th-anniversary symposium on Oct. 29.

Specifically, UROP students make sure J-PAL’s survey data, collected by field workers around the globe, is accurate. And by poring over the numbers, the undergraduates learn development economics from the inside out.

Consider one J-PAL research project on health in India, which involved giving 25,000 residents 100 questions each. The resulting 2.5 million data points had to be confirmed multiple times before being analyzed, noted Richard McDowell, a J-PAL researcher who spoke on the panel. Yet as survey data is transferred from paper to computers — and often from one language to another — mistakes occur. UROP students must catch those errors to make sure J-PAL’s studies are valid.

“Let’s say you have a 25-year-old man who works as a farmer, owns a radio, uses a bike to get around, and the last time he was pregnant, he had three pre-natal tests,” McDowell said wryly. “That’s a definite red flag.”

One panelist who has spent hours double-checking such entries, senior Niveditha Subramanian, shows what UROP has brought to J-PAL. Subramanian wants to become an economist, has served as an intern as J-PAL’s Paris office, and recently used her language skills to translate survey data from French to English, as part of a J-PAL project aiming to bring clean water to residents of Tangier, Morocco.

“My family is from India, and every time we go back, it’s easy to see poverty,” said Subramanian. “At J-PAL you have a chance to change that reality in the world.”

One data-entry form at a time, anyway.

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