Using Data to Catalyze Energy Investments


Energy Access




Access to energy is critical for expanding economic opportunity, ensuring food security and achieving other key measures of human development. This project aims to increase access to energy in target regions of Uganda, unlocking economic opportunity across the region. The project will achieve this by collecting and analyzing data – making useful information widely accessible to assist in predicting where energy investments can lead to potential income generation. The data will be used to help the United Nations Capital Development Fund (UNCDF) and other partners invest in entrepreneurs, innovators and other entities in the value chain to expand energy access in a sustainable way. The data will also be made available to private and public investors, to assist them in determining potential strategies for funding clean energy to populations in need of reliable access. As part of the project, Columbia researchers will develop and deploy new methods for mapping energy demand, using the latest data gathering methods. The analysis will support a productive, sustainable and growing energy market.

In partnership with:


  • Approximately 1 billion: Number of people globally who live without energy access


  • Dr. Vijay Modi (Columbia Engineering; The Earth Institute - Columbia University)
  • Dr. Suresh Sundaresan (Columbia Business School)
  • Dr. Markus Walsh (The Earth Institute - Columbia University)
  • John MacWilliams (SIPA Center on Global Energy Policy, School for International and Public Affairs)
  • Philippe Benoit (SIPA Center on Global Energy Policy, School for International and Public Affairs)
  • Dr. Carl Vondrik (Columbia University, Department of Computer Science)
  • Dr. Shih-Fu Chang (Department of Electrical Engineering and Department of Computer Science)
  • Edwin Adkins (Columbia Engineering; The Earth Institute - Columbia University)


Consistent and affordable access to electricity plays a critical role in enabling economic opportunity, health, gender equality, food security and environmental sustainability. Ensuring access to affordable, reliable and modern energy remains a critical challenge that needs to be addressed. 

Closing the energy gap requires looking beyond publicly funded utility expansions and attracting private investment in businesses that can help expand energy access to populations in need. But attracting and effectively targeting such investment is challenging because data on energy demand among populations without access remains limited.  In addition, there is currently a lack of information on how investments could improve the economic circumstances in these communities. Moreover, current models tend to treat energy demand as static and focus on household-level needs and first access, rather than income-generating and livelihood opportunities.

This project emerged from the Columbia World Projects Forum on energy access. Learn more about our work on this topic.


This project will pilot an open source database and derived information products to store, measure and assess livelihoods-related energy demand.  The data will be used to assist the United Nations Capital Development Fund (UNCDF) – which, through its CleanStart initiative, has prioritized support in the form of financing and technical assistance for businesses providing sustainable, reliable energy access. UNCDF will also support efforts to unlock private sector financing for qualifying micro, small and medium-sized enterprises that have viable business models for breakthroughs and scale. The work will utilize existing Columbia University data and build on recent technological innovations. It will also harness Columbia University’s expertise in developing methods and procedures for acquiring and analyzing data on energy access.

Technical design, strategy and implementation for the project will be led by a team of expert faculty and practitioners based in the U.S. and Africa. This team includes: Vijay Modi (School of Engineering and Earth Institute), Suresh Sundaresan (Columbia Business School), Markus Walsh (Earth Institute) and John MacWilliams and Philippe Benoit (SIPA Center on Global Energy Policy, School for International Affairs). Operational assistance will be provided by Edwin Adkins (School of Engineering and Earth Institute). Computer Science and Data Science faculty Carl Vondrik and Shih-Fu Chang will lend expertise in vision and machine learning.

In addition to gathering foundational data on energy usage, the project will assemble metrics for financial inclusion, availability of credit, FinScope Survey data and data from existing payment systems. The idea is to reduce the logistical challenges and transactional costs associated with new businesses, promote blended public-private finance products, and work with government systems to fill in gaps in other areas such as access to inputs, transport and market access. As part of the project, Columbia will house the data that it generates on an open-source platform designed to provide public insight into energy demand well beyond the project’s lifespan.