The Last Mile in School Access: Mapping Education Deserts in Developing Countries
With recent advances in high-resolution satellite imagery and machine vision algorithms, fine-grain geospatial data on population are now widely available: kilometer-by-kilometer, worldwide. In this paper, we showcase how researchers and policymakers in developing countries can leverage these novel data to precisely identify “education deserts” – localized areas where families lack physical access to education – at unprecedented scale, detail, and cost-effectiveness. We demonstrate how these analyses could valuably inform educational access initiatives like school construction and transportation investments, and outline a variety of analytic extensions to gain deeper insight into the state of school access across a given country. We conduct a proof-of-concept analysis in the context of Guatemala, which has historically struggled with educational access, as a demonstration of the utility, viability, and flexibility of our proposed approach. We find that the vast majority of Guatemalan population lives within 3 km of a public primary school, indicating a generally low incidence of distance as a barrier to education in that context. However, we still identify concentrated pockets of population for whom the distance to school remains prohibitive, revealing important geographic variation within the strong country-wide average. Finally, we show how even a small number of optimally-placed schools in these areas, using a simple algorithm we develop, could substantially reduce the incidence of education deserts in this context. We make our entire codebase available to the public – fully free, open-source, heavily documented, and designed for broad use – allowing analysts across contexts to easily replicate our proposed analyses for other countries, educational levels, and public goods more generally.