The mVAM team sent a team member, Jen, to Triplex, the largest humanitarian emergency simulation in the world. mVAM was thrilled to join over 400 military, UN, government and NGO participants who travelled to Lista, Norway, for training in how to respond to a humanitarian emergency. In the pre-exercise stage, we presented our work on mVAM, and we hope that our participation will help to increase our engagement with such a diverse group of partners. There were also interesting presentations on shelter, supply chain, data analysis, and new tools.
Our favorite session was on smart assessments. Lars Peter Nissen, Director of ACAPS, offered important wisdom that we should always strive to follow with mVAM. He warned against getting trapped in your own small study and losing what he termed “situational awareness,” or the bigger picture.
His three rules for humanitarian analysts to live by:
- “Know what you need to know.”
- “Make sense, not data.”
- “Don’t be precisely wrong, be approximately right.”
In thinking about how we can apply these three gems to our work on remote data collection, we need to make a constant effort to collect data that will really help improve humanitarian responses. Like all data nerds, we can sometimes get bogged down in calculating exact bias estimates or making sample size calculations, risking losing sight of the bigger picture from down in the weeds of our small mVAM survey in one country. But we need to remember to look at the wider situation to ensure we are collecting useful information.
Then we need to make sense of our data by triangulating with what others are doing and what we already know. In our mVAM bulletins, we need to communicate clearly in a way that makes data quickly understandable to decision-makers. We need to pay attention to what the trends from our mVAM data are telling us, while not forgetting the limitations of the remote mobile data collection methodology.
After a couple days of introspection, or as we would find out later, the calm before the storm, the two-day pre-exercise ended and we embarked on the natural disaster simulation phase. We boarded buses or “flights” and travelled to Base Camp in “Sorland”, a fictional developing country that had just been hit by a hurricane and where the simulation would take place. For the next 72 hours we would do our best to respond, learning along the way.
The organizers made a herculean effort to have the 72 hours be as realistic as possible. We were sleeping in (admittedly high tech) tents and crossing a road jammed with huge supply trucks and lines of land rovers. The scale was impressive. Prince Harry even flew a helicopter in to observe the exercise and play the role of a Minister from the Sorland government. The organizers couldn’t have planned it, but at one point, the winds became dangerously high, almost making it necessary to really evacuate us.
In these conditions as in any real life emergency, it was inevitable that we would run into problems. We had planned to deploy mVAM quickly. The organizers had provided us with a list of phone numbers of IDPs in “Sorland,” actually students from the United Nations University in Bonn who did a great job role playing throughout the simulation. We wanted to contact them via SMS, using Pollit, the in-house SMS survey tool developed by InStedd. We have used Pollit successfully in Goma to collect food prices, but for Pollit to work, you need a WiFi connection. (For more on Pollit, see our blog entries Pollit Customized and Ready to Go and Working with DRC Youth to Text Back Market Prices). At Triplex, WiFi was supposed to be up and running the first evening, but conditions on the ground made it difficult to establish a connection. We didn’t get WiFi until the last night of the exercise, which was too late for us to use Pollit.
So instead, we participated in OCHA-led face-to-face surveys and in focus group discussions. Sometimes we get so caught up in remote data collection that these other data collection exercises can fall off our radar screen, but there is so much we learn from talking to local communities face-to-face and from coordinating with other partner agencies as they plan their own data collection. So perhaps because WiFi was such a problem, Triplex turned into a great experience to keep our coordination and face-to-face data collection skills sharp.
In addition to collaborating with different organizations, working within a diverse team of WFP colleagues from different units pushed us to consult closely and understand what information they needed most. At WFP headquarters, we don’t generally have the same opportunity to work this closely on a daily basis with colleagues from other branches like logistics, procurement, and cash-based transfers. As WFP considered a potential cash-based transfer response for the fictional Sorland, it became clear that operationally, information on market functioning and food availability was very important. This meant that while we were not able to use existing mVAM tools per se, we recognized clear demand within WFP to address this critical information gap. For next time, we will keep these information needs, i.e. “knowing what we need to know,” clearly in mind. And we’ll also make sure to prepare for all types of scenarios, think about the limitations of our technology, and do our best to have a Plan B.
Even without WiFi and Pollit, the Triplex simulation ended up being very relevant and provided a great brainstorming session for what came later. During the 72 hour simulation, colleagues from Haiti and Cuba were receiving increasingly grim alerts about the approach of Hurricane Matthew. Through Triplex, we’d already identified some of the information that could be most relevant in responding to a hurricane. So our practice in Sorland turned out to be very useful in quickly deciding what questions to ask in Haiti where we are rolling out a remote market assessment. Stay tuned for more!