Iraq: learning under pressure

The mVAM project has taken on a new challenge:  that of working in Iraq, where 5.2 million people are in need of urgent humanitarian assistance, and where 2.5 million have been displaced due to violent conflict. Iraq is a middle income country with high levels of literacy, and where nearly all households own a mobile phone. High insecurity has made face-to-face surveys very difficult in the country’s central governorates in recent months. It seems a good context to deploy the mVAM remote mobile data collection system, which collects urgently needed data that can be immediately analysed and reported on to inform emergency response.

Since January, we have been placing weekly calls to our partners in insecure locations in the central governorates. People are interviewed using a streamlined market questionnaire that focus on the prices of staple foods and market trends. Our first bulletins show that conflict has had a severe impact on food market prices, especially in Anbar, where the price of a basic food basket costs double that in the nearby city of Baghdad.

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Cost of a basket of food providing 2100 kcal, February 2015. Source: WFP mVAM

In March, we began placing survey calls to randomly selected respondents from a private call center. Our partner is an Iraqi mobile operator, with a large phone subscriber database. We are targeting a sample of over 1,000 phone calls covering all 18 Iraqi governorates. The questionnaire we are using includes questions on food consumption and coping strategies, and results can be disaggregated by sex and age. Operators are placing calls in Arabic, Kurdish and English.  The ongoing March survey will serve as a baseline for future phone survey rounds using the same approach. The information we produce will be used to identify the areas of Iraq that are most in need of food assistance, and how needs are changing over time. We will also be able to understand the food needs of the most vulnerable groups, including people who were displaced as a result of the conflict.

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An mVAM operator placing phone call surveys. Erbil, Iraq.

After the Ebola response in 2014, mVAM’s deployment in Iraq marks the second time the tool is used at scale in an emergency. We have already learned a lot from our experience in Iraq:

  1. In Iraq we opted for calls placed by operators instead of SMS or interactive voice response. We felt it was imperative to have operators in order to build trust in a conflict environment, especially during the first rounds of data collection.
  2. Using operators also provides the flexibility to collect more complex indicators – such as the food consumption score – that we have not been able to implement by SMS, and that require an operator’s presence to properly administer.
  3. We have had to offer larger airtime credit incentives than in other countries, because of higher income levels.

We’re sure to improve the mVAM tool thanks to the experience underway in Iraq. Please check our website for our reports on Iraq.

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mVAM call center in Erbil, Iraq.

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