Crowdsourcing– it’s one of the buzzwords of the moment. It’s been used to raise money, to build tech solutions, for social activism. So, why not crowdsource food price information using the SMS tools we have developed for mVAM? We could text people, lots of people, in communities and ask them about food prices. It sounds better than the alternative of collecting data in person, which can mean traveling for hours to remote or insecure areas on bad roads. After all, food prices are a short and simple piece of information that should be easy to text.
Kenya, a dynamic, tech savvy country, seemed like a great place to test crowdsourcing food prices. We decided to start in August with Kakuma refugee camp in northwestern Kenya. Kakuma camp has been there since 1991, and WFP currently provides food assistance to 148,000 refugees or 33,000 households. 60% of households have a phone number, giving us a large pool of people to contact by SMS.
Crowdsourcing food prices- how it works
We are currently working with GeoPoll, a mobile survey company, to send out around 1600-1700 text messages to random numbers in Kakuma camp each week. Our target is to get 100 fully completed responses back.
Refugees receive an SMS asking them to text back to ‘opt in’ to take the survey. If they send us back ‘1’ for ‘yes,’ we text them questions about 7 food items. They can text us back the prices without being charged.
At the end of the survey, we also ask people to describe
their main concern about living in the refugee camps. We get really rich information through this – see our word cloud above. Often, refugees’ main concern is their family’s food security: “The food is not enough for us.”
We currently have around a 6% response rate. While this might seem low, it’s fair by industry standards for SMS surveys. For us, it’s sufficient for monitoring food prices that do not require an exhaustive sample. We have found that incentives really help participation. The respondents receive an airtime credit of 10 free texts as a thank you for completing the survey. The airtime incentive has been welcomed by the respondents – some are even calling our WFP Operator saying they didn’t get the survey that week!
Basically, practice makes perfect. We’ve found that by tweaking some questions to make them more relevant to the people you are asking, we can increase our data quality. For instance, we were asking refugees about the price of fresh milk, but it’s powdered milk that is usually available on the market. So we switched to powdered milk to get more meaningful data. We also started letting refugees select ‘don’t know’ and skip certain commodities if they don’t know the price. Before, they were having to make a wild guess if they didn’t know just to move onto the next question.
With SMS, we get price data cheaply and quickly, allowing us to understand how prices in Kakuma are changing week to week. It’s helping WFP as we deploy our mobile money program in the camp.
IT-VAM Collaboration: Meet Rosemary.
Behind every great program, there’s a great woman. For us in Kenya anyway, this tweaked maxim is true. Rosemary is our mVAM Project Manager in Nairobi. She’s been working since 2007 with WFP as an IT Specialist. mVAM really is at the nexus of IT technology and data analysis. So, when we rolled out mVAM in Kenya, IT and VAM, our food security data analysis unit, joined forces. Rosemary moved to sit with her colleagues in VAM and has been doing a great job.
Rosemary’s liking running mVAM on the ground:
“Working on mVAM is fantastic because it’s so new. I like the challenge. It has made me really appreciate IT’s role in WFP’s operations and the importance of our work to our beneficiaries. Our work in IT has a direct impact.”
Rosemary and her VAM colleagues’ spirit of cooperation has made mVAM an innovative, successful project thusfar in Kenya.