Going mobile in Afghanistan


WFP food security analyst Mudasir Nazar talking to internally displaced people (IDPs) in a camp near Kabul, during an mVAM scoping mission in October 2016. (Photo: WFP/Jean-Martin Bauer)

More than three decades of war, unrest and natural disasters has left Afghanistan with poor infrastructure and millions in severe poverty and facing enormous recovery needs. This insecurity pushed many Afghans to flee to surrounding countries like Iran or further afield to western Europe. It’s estimated there are 2.5 million Afghan refugees currently living in Pakistan many of whom arrived in the country in the late ‘70s during the war with the Soviet Union. In fact, in Pakistan, most Afghan refugees are second or third generation. Because of renewed political tensions, thousands are now starting to return to Afghanistan from Pakistan and it’s expected that there will be 600,000 arrivals by the end of the year. These returnees will require temporary assistance as they reestablish their livelihoods. Along with other humanitarian agencies, WFP is ramping up its work to prepare for this influx of people.

Mobile population, mobile monitoring

For humanitarian agencies like WFP, moving around Afghanistan is often difficult due to security restrictions and remoteness. This means we often have trouble directly contacting the returnees and IDPs we are helping, and getting information on the security or market situation in areas where they are settling.

But this is changing: mobile technologies now allow us to collect information remotely, not only from beneficiaries themselves, but also from members of the community such as tribal elders or shopkeepers. We are now preparing to use mVAM to reach people throughout Afghanistan – an approach that WFP already uses in nearly 30 countries.

Mudasir Nazar is a food security and market analyst with WFP Afghanistan, and is leading the set-up of mVAM here. After completing a Master’s degree in  Humanitarian Assistance at Tufts University (US), Mudasir is now back in Afghanistan with WFP. Like many of the returnees WFP is now helping, Mudasir grew up as an Afghan refugee in Peshawar, Pakistan. He came back to Afghanistan with his family years ago, settling in Kabul, but still relates very personally to what returnee families are going through at the moment: ‘A few years ago, I was in their shoes,’ he says.

Through mVAM, we will be asking questions about market food prices and food availability in areas where people are settling; what humanitarian assistance people need and what they are already receiving; and what livelihoods and coping strategies they are using to survive in their new (often temporary) homes. This data will allow us to understand the context into which people are resettling, and help WFP and others to provide the right type of assistance, to the right people.

Using mobile monitoring makes sense: the Afghan cell phone market has grown tremendously in past years. There are an estimated 20 million cell phone subscriptions in the country, out of a total population of 30 million people.  A recent study by USAID shows that while only 25% of women are literate, 80% have access to a mobile phone – either their own or shared within their household. When we visited an IDP camp recently and asked who owned at least one mobile phone in their household, everyone raised their hands.


Mudasir holds a power bank which is typically used to charge phones. (Photo: WFP/Jean-Martin Bauer)

We have found that most of the people we meet tend to utilize only the basic features of their phones, and rarely use SMS or other messaging services. IDPs and returnees also often have trouble keeping their phones charged, since many are living in informal settlements with no electricity. Though some own small portable ‘power banks’, many have to pay to charge their phones elsewhere. People also often don’t have any airtime balance on their phone. They typically top up once a month with a credit of 50 Afghanis (roughly US$1), which runs out quite fast.

So what does this mean for mVAM in Afghanistan?

Firstly, we will be calling people through live operators – rather than using more sophisticated tools such as SMS or robocalls, as WFP did in other countries. Secondly, we will need to provide a modest airtime credit incentive to encourage people to answer, and to help offset any battery charging costs.

We  will also make sure that our call center is staffed by all-female operators, to make sure we reach women, some of whom might otherwise be reluctant to speak to a male stranger over the phone.



WFP Yemen M&E: Reaching Beneficiaries During Widespread Conflict

As mVAM has been expanding we’ve started to see the remote technology used in other areas of WFP’s work. This week’s blog is from Katy Huang who works for the Yemen Country Office. She shares how the M&E unit is using remote live calls to get feedback from beneficiaries about WFP’s assistance. 


WFP/-Asmaa Waguih

Before joining WFP Yemen’s Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) unit 8 month ago, I worked as a researcher for the New York City Health Department. As I love the creative process of collecting, analyzing and reporting data, I was excited for the opportunity to manage our unit’s “remote M&E” (rM&E) system. Currently, Yemen’s Emergency Operation assists about 3 million beneficiaries a month. Our rM&E system uses an third country call center to conduct phone surveys with beneficiaries post-distribution to hear about their experiences receiving and using the assistance. The center completes about 2000-2400 surveys per month.

Before establishing the rM&E system in September 2015, we learned in a previous post-distribution monitoring survey that a large majority of our emergency in-kind food beneficiaries owned a mobile phone or had access to a friend or neighbor’s mobile. We also found out that a large majority of mobile owners were able to charge their mobiles on a regular basis. This information meant that conducting mobile surveys proved to be ideal within the context of Yemen’s ongoing and widespread conflict as it allowed us to reach large numbers of beneficiaries without compromising the safety of field monitors. Other benefits of using rM&E include it’s relative low cost and being we can reach beneficiaries in all the governorates where we offer assistance. Also, in the 15-20 minutes it takes to complete a survey, we have been able to collect all the key process and food security outcome indicators that we also collect in our longer bi-annual face-to-face post-distribution monitoring surveys. Ultimately, rM&E complements other M&E systems (i.e., on-site distribution monitoring and beneficiary hotline) to triangulate and confirm findings.


WFP/Asmaa Waguih

Although there are many benefits to using rM&E, challenges do exist. Bias is the main issue as data collected by rM&E tends to be more biased than data collected face-to-face. Some of the biases we face relate to the following:

  • Sampling frame bias: We don’t have the entire list of mobile numbers of beneficiaries for random calling. The amount of mobile numbers we receive depends on what cooperating partners collect from beneficiaries at the time of food distribution. We have had to regularly remind cooperating partners about the importance of sending us these mobile lists. In addition, some beneficiaries don’t own a mobile phone and they may have different characteristics, such as being more poor or vulnerable, than those that do own mobiles.
  • Gender bias: The frequency of female respondents for rM&E (about 5 percent) are lower than that of face-to-face (about 10 percent). This may be due to more males than females owning mobile phones. To try to address this, the call center recently hired more female enumerators to engage female beneficiaries to respond.

Despite these biases, the amount and quality of data we have been able to collect on a monthly basis have been invaluable. The large sample size has allowed us to report nationally representative data and to disaggregate data by activity type (i.e., in-kind, voucher) or demographics (i.e., displacement, gender). With regular monitoring, we are able to see trends and compare results over months and quarters. To see how we used this data for reporting, please see our Yemen M&E Quarter 1 2016 report.

For more information on mVAM’s work in Yemen, please visit the mVAM Yemen site.

6,000 degrees of mVAM


For the last six years Northern Nigeria and the surrounding countries of Niger, Chad and Cameroon have been suffering under Boko Haram insurgency. Across the four countries affected, security and humanitarian conditions are still deteriorating as populations continue to flee the systemic violence and conflict. We’ve previously written about how WFP is using mVAM in Niger to get dynamic data to complement their face-to-face surveys but we also wanted to blog about what we are doing in Nigeria itself.

Recent offensives by the Nigerian government have meant that many areas of northeastern Nigeria have recently become accessible – ‘showing’ the depth of the humanitarian crisis. In the worst affected areas of Borno and Yobe states famine-like conditions may be occurring. It’s now estimated that 2.1 million people are displaced, 81% of whom are living in local communities. This influx of people, coupled with successive poor harvests and a worsening economy has also put a strain on the host communities, there are now 4.4 million people who are food insecure.


Security constraints in northeastern Nigeria continue to limit the ability to conduct traditional face-to-face surveys, especially in Borno state. As mVAM has proven itself a useful tool in conflict settings and gathering information in difficult to access areas, the Nigerian National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) and WFP have opted to use remote data collection to collect basic food security and market data.

The scale of the crisis and affected population meant that we wanted to try and reach even more people than our normal sample sizes of 1500. In our June/July round, we managed to reach slightly over 6,000 households in Adamawa, Borno and Yobe States, greatly increasing the reach and precision of our estimates.

Our findings showed that household purchasing power has deteriorated and more families are food insecure.  In the Local Government Areas (LGA) of Potiskum in Yobe State and Maiduguri/Jere in Borno State, the percentage of severely food insecure households effectively doubled since February-March. In the same time period, prices for local rice and local maize have risen but manual labour wage rates did not increase, severely reducing household purchasing power.  We also found that, despite this, only 11% of the surveyed population report that they received food assistance in the last 30 days.

Alongside collecting traditional food security indicators, this large sample size means that we had the chance to ask 6,000 households to express in their own words what the food security situation in their community.  They told us:

“There is no food in the community.  Because of the insurgency people have stopped farming” – Male Resident from Shelling, Adamawa

“The food situation over here is so critical…not only the IDPs, even the residents are suffering themselves“-Male IDP in Gujba, Yobe

“Food are scarce, even the middle spend all their income on food because of how difficult the situation is here” Male Resident in Nguru, Yobe  

As we prepare to call back these same households in November, we’d like help.  If you had the chance to reach  6,000 households in Northern Nigeria – what would you ask?
Here’s the questionnaire we used last round. Please tell us what you would like to ask – just fill in the contact form below.

VAM Talks: Episode 8

Logo2Alice Clough interviews Gideon Shimshon from Leiden University’s Centre of Innovation about collaborating with WFP and how using Big Data analysis can help promote food security.

From the Rift Valley to Silicon Valley


Private sector sponsors have played a large part in helping us use mobile technology to reach out to people in the world’s most vulnerable communities. Since mVAM began in 2012, we have received support from The Nielsen Corporation, Cisco CSR, and Google.org. We’re also collaborating with Tableau Foundation and Praekelt Foundation/Facebook. These types of partnerships are pretty new at WFP so we think it’s important to explain how working with the private sector differs from the usual way of doing things.

Some of our sponsors have helped us by writing a check, providing us with the vital financial resources we needed to achieve our goals. This was the case of Google.org when the Ebola epidemic occurred in 2014-2015.  Their support helped us scale up SMS data collection at the height of a major emergency, an essential proof-of-concept  that allowed us to scale up the approach in other complex settings such as Iraq, Yemen and Syria. Cisco CSR financed the development of the open-source SMS and IVR tools that we use to communicate with communities in Somalia, DRC and other places.

Other partners have provided us with their skills rather than cash. For instance, Nielsen allowed us to spend some time with their data science staff, and we greatly benefited from their expertise in survey methodology.  It turned out that lessons and insights from media monitoring in the US are entirely relevant to food security monitoring in humanitarian contexts. Nielsen’s knowledge of incentives, retention and engagements helped us keep our respondents engaged. Importantly, the collaboration was win-win, and both WFP and Nielsen’s staff were able to learn about the new techniques that are revolutionising data collection.

Similarly, Tableau’s specialists have worked with us to to design data viz tools that help people better interact with our data. This is a very different level of engagement than the relationships we have with ‘traditional’ donors to the UN – usually governments – who tend not to get involved hands-on with our data.


We can hear you sigh – are these not examples we hear about in the media of ill-intentioned private companies using UN data for their own ends?  Our experience has been that they genuinely want to help us better assist people in need. In some cases, private partners have approached us first when a disaster occurs to offer their help. Though, of course, it seems that it’s much easier for companies to offer assistance for a natural disaster (Ebola in 2014, Nepal earthquakes in 2015) rather than in conflict and complex emergency settings.

So, how do they compare to government donors?

As you can imagine, working with private companies is different than with traditional donors. Private partners tend to require less paperwork than government donors commonly require. Proposals are shorter, to the point, and decisions are made rapidly. What private donors look for is a compelling use case and a good match with the skills they offer, such as analytics or connectivity.

But what’s great about these private sector partnerships is that they have allowed us to grow from ‘startup’ to a fully fledged mainstream project. Since last year traditional government donors, including Belgium and the Netherlands, have come on board for substantial multi-year support for mVAM. This suggests private and public funding are complementary — with the private sector helping an idea emerge before it is taken to scale with more traditional resources.


Our latest private sector collaboration is with Praekelt Foundation to use Facebook’s Free Basics internet service. This is going to be a great addition to our two-way communication system as we’re going to be able to share the price data we collect via mobile phones through their free internet.The partnership is currently in its early stages, so watch out for dedicated entries once we have our test version!

Hacking Hunger Episode 11: pinpointing hunger with mobile phones

In the latest of their ‘hacking hunger’ podcast series, WFP USA’s M.J. Altman talks to Jean-Martin Bauer about  how mobile phones in the hardest-to-reach corners of our world are changing how we understand and fight hunger.

In the podcast Bauer discusses how his 12 years as a humanitarian worker stationed in West Africa inspired him to think about using mobile phones to gather food security data. He touches on using mVAM methods in emergencies like Iraq and tackling gender disparities in mobile phone use, and also discusses how mVAM shares the data it collects with the communities it serves as well as wider humanitarian community.

Check out the podcast below, or subscribe to “Hacking Hunger” on iTunes, Stitcher, Soundcloud, and TuneIn Radio.




From open data to #ZeroHunger


At WFP’s Vulnerability Analysis and Mapping (VAM) unit we constantly strive to make our data as open as possible. We’ve previously guest blogged for the Open Data Institute on when open data isn’t enough’ about why it’s so important to us. We are therefore excited to participate in the Global Open Data for Agriculture and Nutrition (GODAN) summit taking place this week in New York. GODAN supports the proactive sharing of open data to make information about agriculture and nutrition available, accessible and usable.

During the summit world leaders, researchers, students and organizations will come together to illustrate the importance of agriculture and nutrition open data to get to Zero Hunger. We are excited to meet other like-minded people and share the technology and open processes that we’ve been experimenting with to contribute to Zero Hunger.

What are we showing at the GODAN summit?

If you have time to pass by our exhibit you can explore, alone or guided by a data analyst, our databank and our interactive data visualizations on our food security analysis websites including the mVAM monitoring website.

godan-demo-ivrOur exhibit also shows some of the technology we are using to gather data from the world’s most vulnerable communities. You can test our chatbot prototype or participate in an IVR demo of the food security surveys we use to get information from poor communities. If you complete the survey, we’ll tell you Food Consumption Score, one of the core indicators that WFP uses to measure food security, and match you with an mVAM respondent based on your age and gender.

GODAN runs from September 15-16, and we’ll be sharing our experiences of the conference on social media, so make sure to follow along on Twitter at @mobileVAM!

Chatbot: back to the drawing board


We’ve recently developed a prototype of a chatbot to communicate with people via the Telegram messaging app, but it will eventually work on any messaging app. The purpose of a prototype is to test our approach thus far in the real world and then go back to the drawing board to improve it. Before this month, our testing had been limited to our colleagues here in Rome and our partners at InSTEDD.  However, we really needed feedback from people in the communities we are actually trying to reach.

Eventually we’ll test a later version of the chatbot in the countries where we work. But for some initial feedback, we were able to get in contact with people right on our doorstep, who had completed a difficult journey to Rome. UNHCR recently estimated that there are roughly 65.3 million people currently forcibly displaced worldwide. Instability and conflict in the Middle East and Africa has led many to flee to Europe in the hope of a safer, better life. One of the most used and most dangerous routes is via Libya and then across the Mediterranean Sea to southern Italy. To give you an idea of the scale, between 29 August and 4 September this year, Italy averaged over 2000 arrivals every day. Of those who reach the mainland, many make their way north to Rome. There are now many centres across the city that provide refuge, often in the form of meals, language learning and legal support.  

UN photo/UNHCR/Phil Behan

We went to one of these migrant centres to speak with people and get their feedback on whether the chatbot would be useful in their home communities. We can hear migration statistics but listening to people’s stories really made these statistics come alive. One person we talked to described being saved by the Italian Coast Guard as the ship transporting him sunk in the Mediterranean. He said he will always be grateful to the Italian government for his rescue.

So needless to say, we were very grateful that people would take time and test the bot. Its is currently in English so we were only able to test it with English speakers right now. The goal is to get it running well in English and then translate and adapt it to other languages.

First we asked people a couple of questions about smartphone ownership in their country of origin. They told us that while the poorest people in rural areas don’t have smartphones around 70% of the population does – meaning that we can still communicate with a lot of people via smartphone. They then had a go at using our chatbot, first answering the food security survey and then trying out the price database. Here are a few things that speaking with them helped us realize:

Simplify our questions and build up to them more. We know we spend a lot of our time working with food security surveys and we know our food security questions by heart. We can forget how weird they can sound to everyone else, especially over a chat. For our participants, it was the first time they’d seen something like this so they were at times confused about how to respond to the questions about their diet or their coping strategies. They were especially confused because the questions seemed to come out of nowhere, with no build up or putting them in context. By the second time around, they went through the survey much quicker, but we need to make sure to get the best first time responses. We need to speak normal language, not make everyone else try to speak our specialized jargon.

No one wants to interact with a robot: make the chatbot as chatty and friendly as possible. Our participants also advised us that it would be good to add some slang and colloquial language. But it is important to have it to feel like as natural an interaction as possible: As one of them said: “ If I want to say something or someone to talk to, I can write, and the chatbot can help and I can relax.’

Make it as intuitive as possible. The chabot users will have different backgrounds and tech literacy. Right now, as one of our participants put it, it’s accessible for “any educated person’, but we don’t want to limit our target audience. Our users might not even have secondary education so we want anyone who can use facebook to find it straightforward.img_2350

Make sure the bot recognises typos! Everyone knows how easy it is to make a typo on your smartphone so it’s essential that our chatbot recognises a few of the easy ones. When we ask people how many days in the past week that they ate vegetables for example, it’s pretty easy to give ‘3 days’ ‘three days’ ‘three’ and ‘3days’ and all mean the same thing! Even potentially typos like “theee days” or ‘three dyas”. We need to integrate these differences in text and typos as acceptable responses, asking for confirmation when needed, so we get the best results.

Put the bot on different messaging apps. One of the reasons why they were a bit hesitant with the bot at the beginning was the fact that they were not used to the Telegram app. It’s important for the bot to run on the app people use most. This can vary depending on the country, so when we do our pilot, we need to put the chatbot on the most commonly used messaging app.

Give people food price information for their areas. At the moment, our bot automatically reads the general WFP food price database. Whilst this is a cool way of looking at food prices all over the world, it’s not actually that useful on a day-to-day basis. Our participants said that knowing up-to-date regional prices would be great – as it would allow them to go to different parts of the country to buy food if the price was particularly low there. As we are already collecting high frequency price data, we want to be able to integrate this into the chatbot. This would be a great way to use the real-time data that we collect to give directly back to the people we collect from.

Overall the participants were positive to the bot as it stands, even saying that they think it’s ‘really cool’. However, there’s a lot of work to be done to make it more user friendly. Using this feedback we are going back to the drawing board. We hope to have an even better version for our official pilot in sub Saharan Africa later this year. We are very grateful to the people who helped us test this last week. They have much more pressing things to worry about so we thank them again for generously giving us a bit of time.

Our Harvard Humanitarian Initiative Guest Blog

Food Security and the Data Revolution: Mobile Monitoring on the Humanitarian Front line

26 August 2016 – Harvard’s Advanced Training Program on Humanitarian Action (ATHA) blog by Jean-Martin Bauer, Brittany Card & Alice Clough


Obtaining real-time and actionable information on the needs of affected populations has long been a priority for humanitarians; so keeping up with new technologies that could improve existing data collection systems is also a necessity. Innovations such as mobile phones and the Internet have already profoundly changed the nature of humanitarian work. They are proving to be faster and cheaper than legacy information systems, increasing the amount of information that decision makers have, and ultimately enabling them to save more lives.

However, what is truly transformative is their potential to reach previously ‘invisible’ populations. An estimated 3.2 billion people now have access to the Internet, and in developing countries more households have access to a mobile phone than clean water and electricity. New digital tools such as online messaging and social media are offering a participatory approach to data collection, energizing legacy monitoring systems. Rather than the traditional top down, institutional form of early warning that focuses on only collecting beneficiary information, they offer a more ‘democratic’ and citizen-led model (Mock Morrow and Papendieck). More vulnerable people are now able to make their voices heard, giving them the agency to make humanitarian systems more effective and suitable for their needs…

Read the full article here.

Can mobiles be used to monitor nutrition?

WFP/Trust Mlambo

We told you in a recent blog post that we will be adding nutrition indicators to the existing data that we collect using our mobile modalities. We are thrilled to announce that this is finally happening!

Monitoring nutrition: why it’s important

Undernutrition is a huge global problem. Worldwide, 800 million people are calorie deficient and about two billion suffer from micronutrient malnutrition – not having the essential vitamins and minerals. Women and young children are at the greatest risk – nearly half of all deaths in children under five, or 3.1 million child deaths annually, are linked to undernutrition. Malnutrition in the first 1,000 days (from conception to child’s 2nd birthday) can cause irreversible damage to children’s brains and growth.

We have recently seen a lot of high-level political commitments to address undernutrition. However, one of the biggest challenges to turn the commitments into action has been the lack of timely data for effective programming. This is where our mVAM modalities could help: voice calls, SMS or IVR could be used to collect data for nutrition surveillance (especially in hard-to-reach areas). Potentially, mVAM tools could help provide real-time information to help manage nutrition programs. Over the coming months, we’ll try testing this approach.

Mobile data has worked for food security indicators. Will it work for children’s nutrition?

WFP/Nancy Aburto

In the past, we have tested various mobile methodologies to demonstrate that it can be used to gather credible data on food security. In the last few years whilst expanding to 26 countries we’ve learnt that remote data collection is fast, cost-effective and the most efficient way to collect information, especially in hard-to-reach areas. The results of our experiments show that live voice calls and SMS are complementary and can be useful in different contexts. We are testing both how both mobile methodologies could collect data on nutrition indicators. In Southern Africa, we are going to be trying a nutrition survey using SMS and in Eastern Africa, we will be comparing the results on nutrition indicators from face-to-face and live phone call interviews.

The challenge of monitoring nutrition by mobile

3-Mica Jenkins

WFP/Mica Jenkins

To date, mVAM has collected information about household food consumption and coping strategies. This usually involves calling randomly selected people. We also call trusted key informants that tell us about food security in their community. Nutrition is different because we’re looking for information about women of reproductive age and children under five. Mothers of children of that age are also a relatively small group, and the challenge will be reaching such a small demographic and ensuring  their participation.  

How do you actually monitor nutrition?

You might be wondering how we go about monitoring nutritional status. Undernutrition results from a combination of immediate, underlying and basic determinants – diseases and inadequate dietary intake are the two immediate determinants of undernutrition, and food security is one the three underlying determinants of undernutrition. While there are many underlying causes of undernutrition, dietary quality is a very important determinant of nutritional adequacy; therefore our efforts will be focused on monitoring dietary quality of women and young children.

2-Mica Jenkins

WFP/Mica Jenkins

In the first phase, in line with the 1000 days initiative,  we will be testing two internationally validated indicators. The first indicator we have decided to collect data on is Minimum Acceptable Diet (MAD) (MAD).  This is one of the globally validated indicators to assess Infant and Young Child Feeding (IYCF). It collects information on both the minimum feeding frequency and the appropriate minimum dietary diversity for various age groups. The other indicator we are going to collect is the Minimum Dietary Diversity-Women (MDD-W) that collects information about whether or not women 15-49 years of age have consumed at least five out of ten defined food groups the previous day or night. This will allow us to assess the diversity of women’s diets, an important dimension of their diet quality. This information is crucial, not just because inadequate dietary intake is an immediate cause of undernutrition, but also because dietary diversity is correlated with many other aspects of food insecurity. Eventually, we will also explore using other indicators of maternal and child undernutrition, as well as other mobile methodologies.

We’re aware that others have tested mobile to collect nutrition data (see an interesting paper in the mHealth series about testing SMS for IYCF indicators in China, published in 2013). We look forward to building on these lessons. We are very excited to collaborate with our internal and external partners to test the indicators. Stay tuned to know more about how we are bringing an innovation in nutrition and food security monitoring!