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Bridges to Prosperity connects isolated communities with help from AI

Engineers work on a suspended bridge in rural Rwanda.
Engineers work on a trail bridge in Rwanda. Courtesy of Bridges to Prosperity.
  • Isolated rural areas worldwide lack access to basic services like work, schools, and health care—which can perpetuate economic inequality.
  • Nonprofit Bridges to Prosperity designs and installs trail bridges to connect rural communities with safer, faster access to services and cities.
  • Using three preset designs created in Autodesk AutoCAD, installations take just eight to 12 weeks.
  • To scale their impact and reach more places, Bridges to Prosperity created a geospatial tool that uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to analyze site data.

If you look at a map of the world, you’ll see countries and continents, oceans and rivers, towns and cities. Not represented in any cartographic data are the rural villages that are home to hundreds of millions of people. Many of these communities are isolated by geographic features such as ravines and rivers. Most government infrastructure spending goes toward urban areas and main thoroughfares, leaving rural residents to forge their own paths to critical resources and economic opportunities. Travel is long and arduous.

Eighty percent of the world’s poorest communities are in rural areas, disconnected from the main arteries that run to urban areas. Without safe or easy ways to navigate to health care, work, or school, the cycle of global poverty and inequality continues. But one organization is addressing the issue by building bridges and accelerating the pace of its impact using artificial intelligence (AI).

A trail bridge takes shape in rural Uganda.
A trail bridge under construction in Uganda. Courtesy of Bridges to Prosperity.

Connecting communities and empowering people

“Our mission is to create safe access through transportation infrastructure,” says Abbie Noriega, chief impact officer for Bridges to Prosperity. “The World Bank estimates a billion people around the world don’t have adequate transportation infrastructure to meet their most basic needs and aren’t able to get to schools, health facilities, markets, any peri-urban center where they might access any kind of resources. Our organization exists to work with governments to help fill that gap.”

Bridges to Prosperity, an Autodesk Foundation grantee, designs and installs trail bridges to connect rural communities with safer, faster access to the places they need to reach to work, get an education, or see a doctor. With the support of the governments that will own the final assets, the Bridges to Prosperity team conducts site surveys and works with communities to determine where bridges are needed most around the world. 

Since 2001, the nonprofit organization has built more than 500 trail bridges in 21 countries, constructed with input from the people who will use the bridges. Having access to more educational, medical, and economic opportunities has increased household incomes by 30% in some communities, farm profits by 75%, women entering the labor force by 59%, and on average delivered economic activity equivalent to six times the cost of the bridge. The Marenge suspended trail bridge in the Nduba sector of Rwanda has connected 3,000 residents to closer access to the capital of Kigali, reducing travel time to markets and schools by 50%.

Bridges to Prosperity is in a three-year partnership with the Ethiopian government and Helvetas to build 150 trail bridges in six regions across the country, giving 1.35 million rural residents new navigation routes. TRAIL Ethiopia is contributing to the country’s mobilization to improve the lives of rural residents, an effort projected to bring 16 million people out of poverty by 2030

People walk across a trail bridge in rural Rwanda.
Locals travel across the Gahira trail bridge in Rwanda. Courtesy of Robb Hoffman/Bridges to Prosperity.

Scaling impact with AI

With three preset trail bridge designs created in Autodesk AutoCAD (and two more in development) and installations that take just eight to 12 weeks, Bridges to Prosperity has a fine-tuned operation. But the team wanted to scale its impact and reach more places faster. “We’d built these bridges in the most remote places,” Noriega says. “We had a pretty good sense of what we were doing with respect to the design and construction. It was the scaling that we were really struggling with. We didn’t want to be building 20 bridges a year when there are a billion people facing this issue.” 

The organization began to digitize its data, but there was no existing tool that could turn that data into insights to help Bridges to Prosperity reach the scale needed. So the team developed its own solution: Fika Map, a geospatial data tool powered by AI and machine learning that enables remote analysis to help expand their reach faster without having to conduct time-intensive site visits. 

With Fika Map, the team at Bridges to Prosperity can speed up site identification around the world and determine which bridge type works in each locale, depending on the topography. Using machine learning, Fika Map will be able to estimate costs for each project and show the quantifiable return on investment through post-build impact analysis, which will help it have productive conversations with governments. Using existing data and AI, it can demonstrate impact by showing where bridges are needed, how many people they would serve, what they would connect people to, and the economic and social benefits. First up for Fika Map: addressing the transportation gaps in Rwanda, where it has located 1,500 potential bridge sites. Then, it’ll use Fika Map for Ethiopia, Uganda, Zambia, and Kenya. 

In this Fika Map computer rendering, travel times are shown as icons overlaid on terrain.
A Fika Map shows estimated travel times to essential services, with and without trail bridges. Courtesy of Bridges to Prosperity.

The team developed Fika Map as an open-source tool to ensure the effort to end poverty is a collective one. “That’s a key foundational piece: We want it to be free for the end users that we think will be able to leverage it best to create safe rural access for people,” Noriega says. Having used other publicly available and crowd-sourced data, such as Open Street Maps, for its own work, the team at Bridges to Prosperity wanted to pay it forward. “We don’t want to take the important work that they’ve done and squirrel it away,” she says. “We want to give something to the world that others can hopefully build on and leverage.”

A future powered by AI, data, and community

An important part of this AI-powered work is the ability to democratize data. With Fika Map, community members can contribute to the information and have a voice, and local decision-makers are empowered with actionable insights to determine where resources are best allocated. 

“I think data equity is going to continue to be the most important piece for how it helps us grow and scale and improve our work,” Noriega says. “Everything we’re building that relies on AI also has a validation component for communities. One of the most important pieces in our product roadmap is making sure that if we say a bridge is needed at a particular location, there’s a way for people who live there, who probably have low access to technology to validate that or not, to say, ‘Hey, you missed a spot.’” This data-driven, AI-powered, community-led approach will finally put these places on the map.

But just like AI’s presence in other realms, Bridges to Prosperity is harnessing technology to augment what it already does so well: connecting with people face to face. “There will never be a replacement for the on-the-ground community work,” Noriega says. “This isn’t AI going in and replacing community development. It’s hopefully providing a much better platform and amplifying what communities actually need.”

About the Author

Jen Ciraldo is a media producer and writer. She creates content for magazines, film, companies, and museums. From building fireproof homes in California to technology that improves workplace culture, her work explores topics that impact how we live.

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