Lacuna Fund: Supporting Local Experts to Harness the Power of AI

14 June 2022
Frances Burton Jennifer Pratt Miles

Healthcare providers can use machine learning to diagnose disease, decrease patient healthcare costs, and ultimately save lives – but often, these tools are built on datasets that lack representation across demographic and socioeconomic groups.

Machine translation tools open up access to the digital world – but they require training and evaluation data that do not exist for many languages, including languages spoken by millions of people.

Artificial intelligence (AI)-enabled tools hold great promise to increase agricultural production and food system resilience – but frequently, crucial training data are not available in the public square.

Lacuna Fund – the world’s first collaborative effort to fund the labeling, creation, expansion, and maintenance of open datasets for social impact – is working to address these gaps.

Along with funders and partners, Meridian launched Lacuna Fund nearly two years ago to create and mobilize datasets that both solve urgent local problems and lead to a step change in machine learning’s potential worldwide. Since its inception, Meridian has served as the organizational home of the Fund. To date, Lacuna Fund has supported work in agriculture, language, and health, disbursing funding to over 20 project teams across 5 continents, from the rangelands of Namibia to the neighborhoods of Chicago, Illinois (USA).

In recent months, project teams supported by Lacuna Fund have started to fill the gaps they set out to address: 10 datasets have been published and are poised for impact in agriculture and language in Sub-Saharan Africa. From enabling machine learning researchers to predict fish yield, to developing the first large-scale human-annotated Twitter sentiment dataset for the most widely spoken languages in Nigeria, the completed datasets are publicly available resources for use by data scientists, researchers, social entrepreneurs, and decision makers around the world. Learn more about the datasets that have been released to date and the teams that created them here.

In addition to the publication of these resources, Lacuna Fund has also made strides in a new domain. In a first-of-its-kind partnership, four funders – The Rockefeller Foundation, the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), Wellcome Trust, and Google.org – came together with a bold commitment to massively scale engagement and funding for open data related to climate change. With a pooled $8.3 million investment into Lacuna Fund, this effort will support dataset creation, aggregation, and maintenance by and for local communities most affected by climate change. Datasets will be funded in two tracks:

  1. Understanding climate harms to health and livelihoods
  2. Improving energy systems and infrastructure for climate change mitigation and adaptation

As the climate crisis accelerates, machine learning offers new tools to increase understanding and accelerate development of strategies to tackle climate change. With a geographic focus on low- and middle-income countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, these funds will put resources directly into the hands of leaders in affected areas and ensure solutions are developed locally and centered on community needs and priorities. Learn more about this funding opportunity here.

We are inspired by the community-led movements towards locally developed and owned datasets. Lacuna-funded project teams, and the ecosystem of collaboration that supports their work, are unlocking AI to deliver tangible solutions around the globe.