Rutgers School of Social Work Assistant Professor Dr. Woojin Jung has been selected as the recipient of Microsoft’s Azure grant worth $25,000. This award is given through Microsoft’s artificial intelligence (AI) for Humanitarian Action Project Initiatives and will be distributed in credits for its cloud computing services. As a partner, Microsoft is committed to empowering researchers and organizations searching for solutions to society’s greatest challenges through the use of technology. The grant will support Dr. Jung’s latest project in the Republic of Congo to estimate its population’s food security vulnerability using satellite and social media data.
“We believe this generous grant from Microsoft can help us leverage AI techniques to identify vulnerable communities in the Congo and assist them with transfer programs," says Dr. Jung. "Our goal is to mitigate the country’s loss of livelihood and surging food insecurity that have been exacerbated by COVID-19. I am very thrilled about this cross-institutional partnership, representing a research institute (Rutgers), the private sector (Microsoft), and an international organization (the World Food Programme)."
Dr. Jung has been recognized for her innovative research initiative that applies AI and machine learning techniques to the field of international development. This utilizes an innovative method for generating unbiased geographic data and identifying areas of extreme poverty, which policymakers can adopt to prioritize development aid allocations.
Her current focus is on developing scalable algorithms to inform humanitarian responses to Africa’s food crisis. In the Republic of the Congo (RoC), one out of two people live below poverty and the pre-COVID level of food insecurity of 10% has surged to 30% during the pandemic. Thus far, governments have responded to this crisis by expanding social protection programs. However, the current targeting methods do not provide enough information on eligible communities and are too slow to mitigate transitory shocks. This issue highlights the need for a systematic, fine-grained, and rapid geographic targeting technique.
The Microsoft grant will support Dr. Jung’s latest research project to develop a multimodal approach that combines daytime satellite imagery and social media to estimate the wealth and livelihood of regions and shape aid distribution. Dr. Jung and her research team, composed of computer/data scientists and social scientists, work in partnership with the World Food Programme (WFP) in the RoC. The team is developing this method to expand the coverage of food assistance programs in the RoC. The novel model has three stages:
- Assess the current machine learning model
- Develop new algorithms with a wider application
- Share this new field-tested and evaluated approach with policymakers
Dr. Jung’s research is expected to have high global impact by offering enhanced data for key development actors to reach people and regions with extreme poverty. This project's outputs, such as high-resolution poverty maps, will be shared with the WFP and the Ministry of Social Affairs to scale up social protection programs. These maps can be updated as new data becomes available to decision-makers in near real time. This work could potentially address misinformation and current criticisms of AI that miss out on the bottom billion, thereby addressing diversity, equity, and inclusion.