The Rockefeller Foundation partners with Stanford University to launch Atlas AI, a new startup to generate actionable intelligence on global development challenges
In its clearest move yet to understand and help people living in the poorer parts of the world, the Rockefeller Foundation, the New York City-based foundation founded in 1913 by the Rockefeller family, today announced the public launch of Atlas AI, a new startup established by the Foundation and a team of Stanford University professors to develop data products to support global development. Its mission is to advance progress toward the sustainable development goals.
Founded in 2018 as a B-Corporation, Atlas AI uses machine learning algorithms to combine terabytes of satellite imagery and other geospatial assets with a rich array of ground-truth data. The result is a high resolution view of economic trends, across the developing world, for a fraction of the cost of surveys. Atlas AI validates its models against gold standard datasets collected by multilateral partners in the field, and their methods are backed by rigorously peer reviewed scientific research.
According to a blog post by Stanford University Professor David Lobell, Co-Dounder of Atlas AI, in the world of sustainable development, decisions are often made without data. Gaps in data undermine decision makers’ ability to target resources, develop policies and track accountability. Without good data, we’re flying blind. If you can’t see it, you can’t solve it.”
“Atlas AI is an innovative model for translating the best research thinking into products and services that accelerate sustainable development. Part of The Rockefeller Foundation’s vision is to unlock AI’s tremendous potential to improve people’s well-being while mitigating downside risks,” said Zia Khan, Vice President of Innovation at The Rockefeller Foundation. “We’re tremendously excited to welcome Victoria as Atlas AI’s new CEO. We conducted an extensive search and she brings a unique combination of skills and experiences to complement a world-class team.”
The reality is that it’s difficult to reach people living at or near the poverty line with critical information and services, especially if they are not online. Fielding a census or survey is time consuming and remarkably expensive—particularly for low-income, fragile, and conflict-affected countries. Atlas AI was founded to solve these challenges, delivering information more quickly and cost-effectively, and with greater accuracy and detail.
Based on years of cutting-edge research, Atlas AI was launched by professors David Lobell, Stefano Ermon, and Marshall Burke of Stanford University to give decision-makers in developing countries access to low-cost, cutting-edge data. Experts in artificial intelligence, data science, and development economics, Lobell, Ermon and Burke had already shown that satellite imagery can be used to map poverty and crop yields in Africa with a combination of economic data, space technology, and machine learning algorithms. Over the last seven months they began building Atlas AI with support from The Rockefeller Foundation, working with partner organizations in Africa to test and operationalize new products, including high-resolution datasets on wealth, consumption, and agricultural yields.
Atlas AI has assembled a team of the best scientists and engineers in the world with the passion and creativity to make a positive difference. Today, Atlas AI announced Victoria Coleman as the organization’s first CEO. As CTO at the Wikimedia Foundation – the non-profit organization behind Wikipedia, one of the world’s largest and most popular web properties – Ms. Coleman set the vision and strategy for technology and operations for Wikimedia projects in collaboration with the Wiki community. Previously, as Vice President Engineering at Yahoo! Inc., she led the company’s web services at scale. Before joining Yahoo!, Ms. Coleman served as Vice President, Emerging Technologies at Nokia. Throughout her career, she has demonstrated a commitment to open data, a crucial part of Atlas AI’s mission. As a public benefit corporation, the company will support an open analytics platform allowing the public to browse economic datasets for the developing world, at sub-national resolution.
While private-sector businesses have been building and deploying artificial intelligence for years, most organizations in the non-profit, civic, and public sectors have yet to robustly apply these techniques towards the complex challenges they address. They have a strong appetite to use applied data to make their work go farther, faster, and ultimately help more people – but they may lack access to the skill sets and resources to do so in their context.
In an expanding effort to build the field of data science for social impact, in January 2019 The Rockefeller Foundation announced the creation of the Data Science for Social Impact collaborative in partnership with the Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth. The first activity by the collaborative was $20-million in funding to DataKind, a global non-profit that connects data science talent with social organizations – harnessing the power of data science and AI in the service of humanity.
As a science-driven philanthropy focused on partnering for the greatest impact, The Rockefeller Foundation supports the growth and success of Atlas AI so that its cutting-edge data products and services get to those who need them most. The Foundation maintains a seat on Atlas AI’s Board of Directors and will continue to be an active partner focused on long-term stewardship of results-oriented, global human development outcomes.