Getting food security data from rugged and remote areas of Papua New Guinea

Map with distribution of phone callsIt’s been a tough past year for Papua New Guinea (PNG). Since April 2015, El Nino has hit the country hard with both frost and drought. With damaged crops and dried up creeks, people are struggling with both water shortages and getting enough to eat. WFP supported the National Disaster Center (NDC) in Papua New Guinea by launching a mobile phone survey to track the deteriorating food security situation and identify hotspots. In January, we started calling households to collect indicators on their food security at both the household and community level.

Why mobile phone surveys in PNG?

PNG is an extremely diverse country.  It is spread out over 600 islands and has more indigenous languages spoken than islands- the current estimate is 800 different languages. Also, the islands are mountainous, with peaks as high as 4,500 meters, and covered in dense, tropical rainforests.  The largest island, New Guinea, houses the third largest remaining block of tropical forest in the world after the Amazon and Congo basins. This makes PNG one of the richest countries in the world in terms of biodiversity, ecosystems, landscapes, and indigenous cultures.

However, these remarkable characteristics also make traditional face-to-face food security assessments challenging to say the least. The rugged nature of the territory, coupled with poor transport networks, makes it difficult for people to move around. Many villages can only be reached by foot, by boat, or if you can afford it, by helicopter. To do a proper face-to-face survey, enumerators would need to travel for days or use helicopters – a time-consuming or very expensive task.

Learning about mobile phone culture in PNG

As we were doing our homework on mobile phone use in PNG, we learned that mobile penetration has increased substantially in the past ten years, expanding from 1.6% in 2006 to 35% in 2015. Yet, this is still a low penetration rate. So we decided to try something new and added community level questions to our household questionnaire. PNG seemed like the right place to test a community-oriented approach as 87% of the population in PNG is rural, mostly living in very small communities of a few hundred residents. Communities are also very tight knit; members are aware of what is going on in each other’s lives. With over 800 languages, we were wondering how we would actually communicate with everyone. We were reassured that even if 800 languages are spoken, the majority of the people are able to speak Tok Pisin.

To learn more about ‘mobile phone culture’ in Papua New Guinea, we contacted Dr. Amanda Watson, an expert in communication technologies in the country who has been working for several years on the Coffey-managed, Australian Government-funded Economic and Public Sector Program (see case study here). She explained that traditional methods of remote communication were public (striking drums, blowing into shells, and singing from mountaintops). Mobile phones introduced private remote communication for the first time in PNG. This new innovation far from society’s eyes raised some concerns in the population about mobile phones being used to foster illicit relationships like extra-marital affairs or organize criminal activities. Yet, the impact of mobile communication has generally been viewed positively, and Amanda herself already advocated for the use of mobile phones in collection of drought-related information.

Partnering with Digicel’s call center

Foto digicel 3Digicel has the best network coverage of the three network carriers in PNG, with coverage in areas where 94% of the population lives. So WFP contacted Digicel who put together a team of very motivated phone operators, coming from all over the country, and with previous experience in conducting phone campaigns for other organizations.

The team participated in a 3 day mVAM workshop which included training in food security issues, focus group discussions, and test calls. Training operators on the objectives and content of the questionnaire was crucial to minimize operator bias and increase the reliability of data, particularly because the questionnaire used in PNG is more complex than the typical mVAM questionnaire.

Foto Digicel 2Guess what- we learned that people in PNG love to talk! Initial interviews lasted up to 25 minutes – which is both a long time to keep people on the phone and quite expensive! So our operators did a great job learning what to say to keep people on point and reduce the call length. By the end of the third week of phone calls, we were able to reach our target: 3,709 completed surveys from 233 Local Level Government (LLG) areas.

Stay tuned to learn about the results!


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