AidData’s Ben Yishay discusses impact of $1.1M award to support their GeoQuery program


Editor’s Note: This article was originally published at William & Mary’s Newsroom and appeared on the Cloudera Foundation websiteIn April 2021, the Cloudera Foundation merged with the Patrick J. McGovern Foundation and we are continuing to work with AidData.

Feb. 27, 2019

Ariel BenYishay, AidData’s ( chief economist and associate professor of economics, shares his thoughts on the Cloudera Foundation’s award. AidData is a research lab located within William & Mary’s Global Research Institute. BenYishay reflects on how this new partnership will help advance the work AidData has been pioneering for over a decade and make big data available to even the smallest organizations.

1. What impact will the award from the Cloudera Foundation have on the program?

The award will support GeoQuery, a public-facing tool that we built at AidData that allows users anywhere in the world to access and integrate data easily and quickly, without needing huge computational power or a high level of expertise. Despite the tremendous growth in data sources such as satellites, deep technological and economic barriers are limiting the uptake and use of subnational data for development. Without better tools to overcome those barriers, data remains inaccessible and too difficult for many to use. GeoQuery addresses these challenges head-on. The partnership with Cloudera Foundation will allow us to move from a pilot phase to scale. Helping GeoQuery realize its potential will mean accessibility for a range of new actors, from large international organizations to small grassroots non-profits in places like Kenya, or Cambodia. It will promote and enable the use of next-generation data, tools and methods by actors in critical need of this information — say, for example, an agricultural cooperative in Sierra Leone. The partnership will catalyze more effective development choices in and for the world’s poorest populations, across sectors from global health and poverty alleviation to climate action and economic growth.

2. How will the combination of this award and artificial intelligene (AI) technology further AidData’s research initiatives?

The partnership with the Cloudera Foundation lies at the intersection of the emerging fields of big data, AI and ML (machine learning). While GeoQuery is critical to our own research at William & Mary, it is ultimately a public good. Our partnership will see us greatly expand the number of users of GeoQuery to organizations large and small throughout the developing world. This will come through building out of GeoQuery’s infrastructure, external outreach and trainings, and the addition of new datasets. Some of these new users, based in poorer countries, will have experience working with data and satellite imagery, but many will not. We envision a world where anyone can access cutting-edge data sources to advance their knowledge of the world.

3. How will Cloudera staff and volunteers interact with the current AidData staff and positively contribute to the research currently being done?

In addition to funding, there are several ways in which support from Cloudera will help us. Cloudera engineers will partner with us on the huge task of building GeoQuery’s infrastructure, capacity and features. Cloudera Foundation expertise is uniquely positioned to help us in a number of technical areas. Cloudera will also conduct trainings for our staff, as we stand up new infrastructure and features. Lastly, Cloudera Foundation leadership will play a critical role in our outreach efforts to reach new users, particularly in developing countries.

4. What do you think the impact of being one of the first two awards Cloudera Foundation has awarded will have on the future of AidData?

We’re thrilled that from several hundred candidates, Cloudera Foundation selected us as one its two first-ever awardees. The partnership provides GeoQuery with the space to grow, to take our pilot to scale, a secure base from which to plan, to think strategically, to recruit and retain talent, and ultimately to reach new audiences with tools and data they desperately need in order to make better decisions and potentially save lives. As important as the funding is the intellectual investment Cloudera is making in our vision, the time and effort its technical staff and volunteers are investing. Lastly, we cannot overstate the value of Cloudera’s willingness to act as our ambassador with audiences and groups worldwide.

5. In the future, would AidData consider collaborating with more outside organizations?

Absolutely. I should emphasize that the pilot of GeoQuery would not have been possible without the foundational support of USAID, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and the university — William & Mary has been integral to the development of the tool, and in practical terms relies today on some incredible power provided by the campus’s high-performance computing (HPC) cluster.

6. Anything else you would like to add?

GeoQuery’s home, AidData, is really an amazing mosaic of gifts and grants that allow us to pilot ground-breaking research, provide undergraduates with amazing opportunities to develop and test new ideas of their own, learn data and GIS skills, and interact with faculty and staff on experiments. GeoQuery itself includes several teams made up of and led by students. A message I would like readers to take away is that the Cloudera Foundation partnership is extraordinarily generous, but alumni should know that every gift they make has an impact, regardless of size. There are many opportunities for alumni to support this initiative and make a difference — a difference for faculty, staff and students in Williamsburg, as well as the future users of GeoQuery based anywhere in the world.