“I experienced how much hunger can affect you”

Venkat Dheeravath, VAM Programme Policy Officer in Papua New Guinea, talks about implementing mVAM in a country where 850 languages are spoken, his journey with WFP, from South Sudan to Southeast Asia via Iraq, and a moment in the field that changed him: being stranded without food rations and with no means of communication

Venkat leading a food distribution in the remote Highlands region of Papua New Guinea, for a community affected by the El Niño-induced drought

Venkat leading a food distribution in the remote Highlands region of Papua New Guinea, for a community affected by the El Niño-induced drought

I grew up on a family farm in Andhra Pradesh, India. We grew vegetables for sale and I experienced the joys and hardships of farming while attending school. Little did I think then that I might one day be leading efforts to assess the food needs of vulnerable communities!

I studied Civil Engineering in Hyderabad City and worked in this field for several years before moving to GIS and Remote sensing, mapping croplands and completing my doctoral degree. Having also fulfilled my dream of working with NASA and the US Geological Survey, I asked myself “What next?”

I’ve long had a desire to serve humanity, and so my humanitarian journey with WFP started in South Sudan. As a GIS officer in Juba, I was meant to stay only for a short while – but in the end it turned out to be a five year stint! During that period, I assessed and mapped the entire South Sudan road network to assist the humanitarian community and the Government of South Sudan. There were countless times when while on mission, I had to sleep in the car on the middle of a remote road because our car got stuck in the mud – sometimes I had to survive only on muddy water!!

From East Africa, I moved to Iraq, where I helped set up and implement the country’s first mobile-based (mVAM) food security and market monitoring system. Then my journey took me, via Indonesia, to Papua New Guinea. Again, I was only supposed to stay for two weeks to support WFP’s response to the El Niño drought – but I’ve now been here for almost two years!

Since coming, I have successfully implemented mVAM in Papua New Guinea – even though many people did not believe it would work in a country where there are over 850 languages spoken. The context for WFP’s work here couldn’t be more challenging: data is scarce, the health, transport, and communication facilities are very basic, and accessibility and security problems make large regions of the country a very expensive place to operate any programmes. With 80% of the population living in very remote areas that are difficult to access, conducting food security monitoring through traditional face-to-face data collection methods would have been close to impossible. mVAM’s remote food security monitoring approach offered an alternative, viable option.

Digicel Call Center in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, from where the mVAM survey interviews are conducted

Digicel Call Center in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, from where the mVAM survey interviews are conducted

But we as the mVAM team also had to make sure that we would be able to effectively reach the people. Because of the large number of languages spoken in the country, we created our survey in two of the most common languages (English and Tok Pisin) and hired operators from different regions who could also speak various dialects. The second problem – no network coverage in some parts of the country – initially seemed hard to overcome, but, upon closer inspection, people in these regions are used to traveling across wards in order to catch a signal and communicate with relatives and traders pass by, so it was in fact possible to reach people who lived in areas not covered by a mobile signal. Our cooperation with the mobile network operator Digicel, which has solid network coverage and close to 100% of the market share, further helped us to reach a decent sample from the most drought-affected areas.

In February 2016 mVAM was first implemented in Papua New Guinea. In cooperation with the country’s National Disaster Centre, WFP launched a telephone-based survey to assess the effects of the El Niño-induced drought on food security and livelihoods. Our survey became the most comprehensive assessment of food security in the country. The findings then formed the basis for the design of WFP’s emergency response, helping us to provide food assistance to 268,107 of the country’s most vulnerable, food-insecure people.

For almost a week during the El Niño crisis, I travelled the ocean on a small dinghy with a life jacket to see the food insecurity situation on the remote islands of Milne Bay and subsequently led the distribution of food assistance with the Provincial Government. I am proud to say that I did not leave even one family behind on the outer islands and atolls, of which there are 110!

However, my dinghy trip was by no means my greatest adventure Papua New Guinea held in store for me. I recently travelled to a very remote area called Kira Station in Oro Province, located on a steep mountain in Waria Valley to validate the findings from our most recent mVAM survey, which classified the area as one of severe food insecurity. The only way to reach Kira Station is to use a private airline, which flies twice a week – provided there are enough passengers.

Our journey there went smoothly, but after two days, when we were supposed to fly back to Lae city, no plane came to pick us up. We were stranded with no means of communication. My satellite phone did not work because of technical issues, and there was no mobile signal in Kira Station. We had to walk through mountains for a day and a half before we were able to catch a very weak signal in one of the wards which borders Morobe Province, which allowed me to send a text message to the WFP regional office during a night of thick clouds and heavy rain. Every day, we looked up at the sky waiting for the plane only to see other planes flying over us.

On the mission to Kira Station to validate the mVAM survey findings

On the mission to Kira Station to validate the mVAM survey findings

We ran out of food rations. Most of the communities around us were consuming only one partial meal a day since the crops had failed. So I also ended up surviving on greens (Choko leaves usually grown in the wild bush), poisonous nuts (which have to be processed carefully before consumption and are only eaten when no other food is available), spring water, and a few coconuts. In the ten days I spent stranded without rations, I truly experienced how much hunger can affect you!

Finally, we decided to walk to reach the nearest airstrip in Garesa in the neighboring Morobe Province, assisted by four local community leaders from Kira Station. We hiked through mountains, rivers, valleys, swamps, and steep cliffs, for another day and a half, during which we survived on greens and river water. The mountain paths were very slippery, but happily the rivers were not flooded so we managed our journey without any incidents except for a few falls on slippery tracks. On arrival at the Garesa airstrip, we were lucky that a plane landed shortly afterwards and the pilot agreed to take us back to Port Moresby although we would only be able to pay for the fare on arrival.

We continue our commitment to ensure that vulnerable communities get the support that they need, currently we’re focusing on establishing a two-year food security surveillance and analysis programme in partnership with the National Disaster Centre, the Department of Agriculture and Livestock, and the National Statistics Office. A lot remains to be done in Papua New Guinea, but I strongly feel that technology can play a major role in connecting and ensuring the food security of remote vulnerable communities.

2017 Highlights

It’s been a busy year for us here at mVAM, but some things stood out among all the rest. Here, we take you through some of our highlights from 2017:

KOICA pic 2

Staff from several countries take part in an mVAM workshop in Kigali, August 2017

1: mVAM for everyone! Our free and open online course

After four years of testing, designing and deploying remote data collection projects, we partnered with Leiden University to develop an online course to share what we’ve learned so far. Our Remote Food Security Monitoring online course was launched in May, and aims to provide a clear understanding of what remote food security monitoring entails, when it is a useful tool, and how to implement a remote food security monitoring project. The course is free and self-paced, and open to anyone who is interested in setting up a remote data collection project.


WFP/Jean-Martin Bauer

2: Expanding across Asia and the Pacific

During 2017, we kept growing, scaling up in the Asia/Pacific region. WFP’s Nepal and Sri Lanka country offices collaborated with their respective national government partners to launch  mobile-based food security monitoring systems. Nepal’s mNekSAP was the first to use an innovative dual-mode approach to collect data from a panel of households previously surveyed during a baseline assessment, combining remote mobile data collection with traditional face-to-face methods so as to not miss out on following up with those households without a phone. This means that the data gathered through mNEKSAP is not only representative (ensuring coverage of non-phone owners), but through re-interviewing the same individuals, it also provides us with a rare panel data set, which is optimum.      

Afghanistan, Myanmar and Papua New Guinea kept busy with ongoing mobile data collection. Afghanistan now uses mVAM to conduct several different types of surveys, from conflict rapid assessments, to market monitoring, to post-distribution monitoring. Most recently, they launched their first round of nutrition data collection for the Minimum Dietary Diversity for Women (MDD-W) indicator – stay tuned for results!

Meanwhile in PNG, their 4th nationwide survey introduced the Food Insecurity Experience Scale – an official SDG 2.1.2 indicator. Our hope is that we can use mVAM to help measure progress in this area.  Also in the region, we’ve been looking at ways to use the PRISM system to better visualize mVAM data and link it to other information sources. More on that in 2018!

WFP/Maria Muraskiewicz

WFP/Maria Muraskiewicz

3: Keeping up with remote nutrition data collection

We’re also expanding in terms of the type of data we use mVAM to collect. Following the success of last year’s remote nutrition data collection pilot in Kenya, we’ve moved on testing whether this is also feasible in Malawi and Niger, and which technologies we can use to collect the data.

From October 2016 to April 2017, we worked with GeoPoll in Malawi to develop a tool and methodology for collecting MDD-W data using SMS surveys. We conducted five rounds of surveys, during which we constantly adapted the indicator to make sure it was suitable for SMS surveys. We learned that the design of the questions was especially important – simple questions, a mix of open-ended and list-based questions, and the option to take the survey in the respondent’s preferred language proved particularly helpful.

In Niger, we tested the feasibility of using CATI to collect MDD-W data in IDP camps in the conflict-affected Diffa region. Through focus groups and in-depth interviews, it became evident that despite low phone ownership rates among women, most women do have access to phones through sharing with household members or neighbours. Men had little hesitation to women in their families being called when they were informed in advance, when female operators were used, and when the operators identified themselves as calling from WFP.. We’re now analysing the data we collected through both F2F and CATI, in order to understand potential mode effects and selection bias.

(For a full overview of our nutrition work, check out Episode 12 of VAM Talks!)


4: Responsible data (collection, storage, sharing and distribution!)

Mobile data projects come with their own particular set of risks and challenges with regards to data privacy and protection. In a time when reports of data breaches seem to occur more and more frequently, what steps should we take to ensure that we aren’t accidentally putting the very people we are trying to assist at risk? Working with the International Data Responsibility Group (IDRG) and Leiden University’s Centre for Innovation, we developed a field book for Conducting Mobile Surveys Responsibly, which outlines the main risks of mobile data collection and provides guidelines for responsible data collection, storage, processing and distribution in complex humanitarian contexts. In December, we brought together experts on three different continents for a webinar on Responsible Mobile Data Collection, in which they discussed the challenges of remote data collection projects and shared best practices, tools, and tips for adhering to privacy and protection guidelines – from the field level to the WFP context and across the broader humanitarian and development sphere.  

Testing the chatbot in Nigeria

WFP/Seokjin Han

5: Communicating both ways: WFP speaks to …

As mobile technology continued to develop, we looked at ways to use new tools to allow the people we serve to start conversations with us about their own food security situations. In addition to getting information that we can use to improve the design of food assistance programmes, we want to ensure that the line is open so that people in the communities we serve can contact us and access information that is useful to them. In 2017, we continued the development of our two 2-way communications tools – a food security chatbot, and Free Basics, a platform which allows people to access certain sites on the internet at no data cost.

The start of the year saw us in New York where one of our partners, Nielsen, organized a hackathon to design a chatbot that could help collect information during a humanitarian response. Over the course of the year, we worked on developing use cases in different contexts – in Haiti , Nigeria and Kenya – and are now developing a chatbot builder with another partner of ours, InSTEDD. We look forward to deploying the bot in the new year.

Simultaneously, we expanded Free Basics after successfully piloting it in Malawi in November 2016; sites will soon go live in Rwanda, DRC and Niger. Back in Malawi, the original site, which started out as a free website to share weekly staple food prices, is now shifting its focus to address the needs of the more than 30,000 refugees and asylum seekers hosted in the country. The majority of the group lives in two camps where WFP provides food assistance in the form of monthly in-kind distributions and cash-based transfers. As their ability to move outside of the camps where they currently live is quite limited, having information not only about food prices in their immediate area but also food stocks is incredibly helpful.

Thank you to our partners and donors, without whose support none of this would be possible, and to you – our readers – for following along! See you in 2018!

Collecting Mobile Data Responsibly: webinar recording & takeaway messages

Thank you to everyone who tuned in to our live webinar on Responsible Mobile Data Collection last week! Five panelists on three continents discussed the challenges of remote data collection projects and shared best practices, tools, and tips for adhering to privacy and protection guidelines – from the field level to the WFP context and across the broader humanitarian and development sphere.

But don’t worry if you missed the event – a recording is available above and here, and we have summarised the key takeaways messages for a quicker read below. We’re also sharing at the end of this page additional resources and answers to the questions that we were not able to answer during the webinar due to time constraints.

Thank you very much to our five great panelists:

  • Asif Niazi and Raul Cumba, Vulnerability Analysis and Mapping Officers, WFP Iraq Country Office
  • Angie Lee, Food Security Analyst, WFP mVAM
  • Jos Berens, Data Policy Officer, UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA)
  • Michela Bonsignorio, Global Advisor on Protection and Accountability to Affected Populations, WFP
  • And moderator Maribeth Black, Food Security Analyst, WFP mVAM

What you should know about Responsible Mobile Data Collection:

Greater risks and challenges: In a pre-digital era, there was more direct control over data. Now, as data collection for humanitarian action relies increasingly on digital tools and automated processes, there is a real need to raise awareness of the risks and harms that can occur at every stage of the humanitarian life cycle as well as  the methods for reducing these risks. Challenges include: data falling into the wrong hands, risks related to the IT infrastructure and outsourcing, bias and discrimination, and risks to the rights of data subjects.The example from Iraq highlights some of the challenges with remote data collection: In ISIL-controlled Mosul, people were afraid to answer calls, as it was illegal for the public to use mobile phones. When people responded, the length of the questionnaire and the short time available to ask the questions affected the data quality and response rate.

Step One: an even better understanding of the potential risks. Despite the recognition of the data protection risks and the development of ways to mitigate these, we, humanitarian actors, need to develop a better understanding of where these dangers lie. Sometimes we just don’t know how sensitive a dataset can be; in these cases, it is better to err on the side of caution. UN OCHA’s Centre for Humanitarian Data works on data policy with the aim of supporting a responsible growth of the use and impact of data in the humanitarian sector.

Step Two: mitigating the risks. Responsible mobile data collection has humanitarian principles at its core, such as “do no harm.” At every stage of the data collection and analysis lifecycle, these principles must be adhered to. In a first instance, understanding the local context and engaging in sensitisation campaigns and digital literacy trainings are important. The survey design should strive to minimise bias and ensure that no information other than the information that is really needed is collected. Just as important is the the transmission and storage of data using state-of-the-art security means. Finally, the publication of results ought to be anonymised and protection-sensitive, and there must be functioning and safe mechanisms for participants and others to report problems.In the Iraq case, the survey questionnaire was shortened, and the food security and market components were put together so as to minimize the time respondents had to use their phones.The WFP Data Responsibility Field Book offers both guidelines for the daily work of staff involved in mobile data collection and forms a basis for WFP’s internal dialogue on data responsibility.WFP’s corporate data privacy and security policies are contained within the Guide to Privacy and Personal Data Protection.

Several international collaborations already exist to address the issue of data privacy in humanitarian response. Examples are the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative; the framework developed by UNHCR and the Danish Refugee Council for data-sharing in practice, introducing a common language among humanitarian actors as well as a set of principles and shared processes; the ICRC’s work in collaboration with a Brussels privacy hub; and the International Data Responsibility Group, constituted of research institutes, think-tanks, and the international public sector.


Q & A

1. How do you ensure the authenticity of the interviewee, do you monitor the location of the mobile phones?

Firstly, the interviewer has the name and phone number of the respondent and will check with the person answering the phone whether they are talking to the same person.

Secondly, the service provider has series of towers and knows where a particular mobile phone is calling/answering from. That way, service providers can programme their computers to only call people from particular areas and we can ensure that interviewees are actually coming from a particular location.

Thirdly, we closely scrutinise the output of our data and analyses and make sure that, where the data does not seem to make sense, we investigate all possible sources of bias and error.

More generally, mVAM identifies respondents in three ways:

  • by asking respondents of traditional face-to-face surveys to agree to a follow-up phone survey;
  • by randomly calling people through mobile phone user rolls who have volunteered to take phone surveys. Telecom companies maintain a list of phone numbers of subscribers who agree to participate in surveys. Randomly selected mobile phone users in the areas of interest to WFP are then contacted, as per our sampling instructions.
  • by calling numbers generated through random digit dialing. Respondents are always given the choice to opt in to the survey or decline. Whether it’s WFP or third party providers that conduct phone surveys, the list of contacts (names, phone numbers, locations) are stored and managed in a safe and secure environment; only processed and aggregate data are shared for monitoring purposes – no individual’s statistics or geographic coordinates are released.

2. How do you ensure accuracy and validity of the information through phone call interviews?

In order to ensure the reliability of data, mVAM phone surveys are designed on the basis of representative sampling and using stratification techniques where possible. Results are reported by drawing inferences from large enough samples, complemented by thorough identification of key informants. The quality of data collected through phone surveys is also evaluated with reference to data from concurrent face-to-face surveys and/or secondary baseline data whenever feasible. For more information on representativity and how to account for bias, please refer to the methodology section of the mVAM blog: http://mvam.org/info/methodology/

3. What mechanisms are put in place to ensure the reliability of crowd-sourced data?

Data is triangulated with existing secondary sources of information including face-to-face assessments, field monitoring and key informant reports.

4. How can we integrate information security considerations during the early phases of a survey (especially during survey design and data collection)?   

The advice given in the Data Responsibility Field Book is to:

Understand and engage with local context – Engage with the community about major risks related to the proposed data collection. This can be done by interviewing members of the community and through a quick literature review on the mobile phone landscape (e.g. mobile phone ownership and usage rate, social and gender norms) in the country. Work with a community-based organization (CBO) or NGO in the community that can sensitize people about the activity. It is vital to engage with the community before collecting data. If there are protection risks, these need to be communicated. Explore opportunities with ‘self-organizing’ groups, whereby respondents set up management committees themselves.

Choose the right provider – When outsourcing phone surveys to commercial centers, ensure providers are scrutinized and vetted. Undertake due diligence on candidate companies and assess their compliance with best practices in terms of data security and privacy.

Conduct a Privacy Impact Assessment – as outlined above. It is important that, prior to any intervention, WFP conducts a Privacy Impact Assessment (PIA). The purpose of a Privacy Impact Assessment is to identify, evaluate and address the risks arising from the processing of personal data within an activity, project, programme or other initiative. It is important to note that such risks are not only related to IT aspects; they necessarily span across social, political, protection and legal considerations. A PIA framework is available to guide country offices in conducting a PIA. Please contact michela.bonsignorio@wfp.org for further assistance.

Data minimization: collect data on a need-to-know basis only – Collected data must be limited to the minimum necessary to achieve the objective in order to avoid unnecessary and potentially harmful intrusion into people’s private lives. In particular, information about people’s ethnicity, political opinions, religious beliefs or health or sexual orientation/choices should be strictly avoided unless absolutely necessary to the purpose of the survey. This information is not usually collected in WFP’s food security surveys.

Ensure your data collection has a specified purpose – Given the sensitivities and risks of collecting, storing and sharing data, personal and demographic data should never be collected indiscriminately. The purpose of data collection and processing must be clear and unambiguous and must be defined prior to data collection.

Review existing domestic legislation – Local legislation may pose challenges when collecting sensitive data. For example, applicable domestic laws may contain provisions that could force your local partners to disclose personal data in their possession to the government. Under such circumstances, you should only collect data if it is comfortable with the data being shared with the government.

Furthermore, it is advisable to conduct an assessment of the data landscape (including a check of whether the desired data is already (being) collected by other organizations, and whether it would be possible to gain access to, or use that data?).

5. With the rapid increase in datasets shared through the HDX platform, is there any mechanism established to check the data quality and authenticity of these datasets?

Organizations joining the HDX platform are vetted by our team. Every dataset uploaded to the platform is subjected to a quality assurance process, including a data-sensitivity check. The HDX team is not in a position to verify the authenticity of all datasets –this is the responsibility of the contributing organizations.

6. What about the level of dropout of respondents in mobile surveys?

Non-response and attrition rates vary across countries and can be attributable to different reasons (e.g. insecurity, displacement, survey fatigue). Since the inception of the project, mVAM has been following the best practice of providing a modest amount of airtime credits to survey respondents as an incentive for continued engagement. However, more than material incentives, we found that altruism is the biggest driver of response. The respondents must, however, feel that their identity will be protected and they have no need to worry about any negative repercussions. Additionally, we are exploring ways to leverage mobile technology to empower vulnerable communities by increasing their access to information on food prices, nutrition and feedback mechanisms.

7. Is the information from the service provider input into your organization’s database?

Yes. Raw data is sent to WFP in a CSV file at the end of each data collection round which is then stored in a dedicated database for cleaning and processing prior to analysis. Phone numbers or any personally identifiable information are anonymized to ensure sensitive data remains confidential.

8. Thanks to all panellists! Michela mentioned the best practices of having mechanisms for research participants or survey respondents to access findings and/or have a say in how their data is used. Do you have any examples of good mechanisms that have been established for that, especially in areas where access is an issue or with hard to reach populations?

Consultations with the affected population prior to designing an intervention is commonly considered a good practice. Where the population is accessible, it is recommended to hold focus groups and interviews with key informants to gather a representative picture of the reality on the ground. This can also be part of a PIA (see above). In the case of mVAM, such consultations are aimed at understanding issues like effective access to mobile phones and technology, digital literacy among the population, possible social and cultural obstacles affecting individuals’ free participation in surveys, perception issues, security threats. The mVAM team is particularly committed to engaging with the local population at all stages of its interventions. Feedback from the people is regularly gathered by field monitors and through ad hoc field missions.

It would be equally important to ensure that people participating in mVAM two-way communications can contact us at any time to request clarifications and/or express concerns about the utilization of their personal data. This might be built as an ad hoc option into the same mVAM communication system or may be achieved through the establishment of dedicated communication channels (e.g. hotline, email, etc.). Existing complaint and feedback mechanisms previously set up for programmatic purposes can also be used to that end. For example, in Lebanon efforts are underway to set up an interagency common call center as a mechanism to address queries specifically related to the assistance channeled through a Common Card. The call center will be also used as a receptor of concerns and requests related to personal data protection.

When the population resides in a hard-to-reach area, WFP should still conduct proxy consultations with humanitarian partners who have access to the population, if possible. A soft preliminary survey could be also launched via mobile phones, aimed at reaching people and understanding any possible risk affecting the roll out of the mVAM initiative. The survey itself may be sensitive and potentially dangerous, so it is recommended to avoid highly sensitive topics and utilize neutral, soft scripts. The assistance of a protection officers/advisors to that end is recommended.

Resources referenced during the webinar:

Postcard from Niamey

WFP/Maria Muraskiewicz

WFP/Marisa Muraskiewicz

What you might have missed since our last report

We are back in Niamey, the capital of Niger, where the Harmattan wind is raging through the desert landscape. Although this is the ‘cooler’ season of the year, temperatures easily reach upwards of 38/39 degrees Celsius (100+ degrees Fahrenheit) at the height of the day.

Quite a few things have changed since we last reported on Niger. Moustapha, the VAM Officer, transferred to Nigeria, leaving the mVAM endeavours in Niger in the capable hands of Marisa, Herizo, and team. And boy have they been keeping busy! Thanks to their diligent efforts, three types of mVAM surveys are being implemented today: (1) a bi-monthly household survey; and (2) a key informant trader survey, both of which collect data in the volatile Diffa Region, which has been affected by the Boko Haram crisis; and (3) a nationwide household food security survey that covers hotspot sentinel sites. In addition, the team recently completed its first trial round to collect data for two nutrition indicators in the Diffa Region – the Minimum Dietary Diversity for Women (MDD-W) and the Minimum Acceptable Diet (MAD) indicators – to examine the feasibility of collecting nutrition data through mobile surveys in the Niger context (more on this will be shared in a separate blog entry in the future).

But perhaps the best way to appreciate the progress the Niger team has made while acknowledging the lingering challenges for mVAM in the country, is to pick up the discussion where we left off last time.

Connectivity, still a major challenge

While there is 3G in Niamey and the surrounding urban areas and calls can be placed in remote rural areas, poor connectivity compounded by frequent power cuts remains a big challenge in Niger. The call center that carries out the CATI (Computer Assisted Telephone Interviewing) surveys often has to call the same number at least ten times before it reaches the respondents. They’ve even installed a generator that can serve as a back-up in the event of sudden electricity outages. Meanwhile, the IT team within the WFP Niger Country Office has been in discussions with major mobile network operators in the country to identify solutions for better coverage, including the use of satellite channels. Whilst this expensive alternative is not available to the poorest and most vulnerable communities, we are hoping that more public and private investments will be made to improve overall connectivity in the future.

Marisa Niger2

WFP/Marisa Muraskiewicz

Connecting to women, no small feat

We also reported last time that very few women own their own mobile phone in Niger, and some don’t even have the right to receive a call without their husband’s permission. Following best practices from other countries that are facing similar challenges, the call center conducted the last round of CATI surveys employing only female operators and witnessed a slight improvement in female response rates. Nonetheless, the average female response rate is still less than ten percent, so we need to continue to step up our sensitization and outreach efforts.

New mVAM tools coming to Niger: Numero verte & IVR AND Free Basics

On the bright side, we have been able to configure the IVR (Interactive Voice Response) software (Verboice) and connect it to a Numero verte – a four digit toll-free phone number – which can handle multiple incoming calls from various local network operators simultaneously. This hotline number will boost WFP Niger’s capacity to receive complaints and feedback from beneficiaries and take action when needed, bringing us closer to the communities we are supporting. Meanwhile, a new Free Basics site is in the making, which will allow us to share up-to-date market price information and tips on good nutrition and health practices with families and communities. So we are happy to admit that we were wrong last time when we said we didn’t think we would be using any of our ‘fancy’ tools in Niger any time soon!

Angie Niger

WFP/Angie Lee

A bright future for mVAM in Niger

As remarkable as the achievements of Niger’s team have been over the past year, there are no plans to stop! They are working on new activities that will make mVAM even more relevant for reaching the goals of WFP in Niger and our partners. In the coming months, the team will focus on working closer with the government, which has a keen interest in deploying mobile technologies for food security monitoring and early warning, as well as scaling up mVAM to expand our market monitoring activities.

VAM Talks: Episode 13

Logo2Alice Clough interviews Sarah Muir, VAM remote sensing analyst, Haidar Baqir, IT engineer, and Ariona Aubrey from WFP’s legal department about WFP’s use of satellites and drones.

“There’s no such thing as free internet”?

Sensitizing refugees in Malawi about Free Basics

malawi 1 20170922_110953

WFP/Khataza Jere

We last reported on ‘Za Pamsika’, our Free Basics initiative in Malawi that shares nationwide food prices, back in April, so we wanted to update you on our progress. Free Basics is one of mVAM’s newest projects and part of our two-way communication systems. Through these methods, we do not only directly ask our beneficiaries and local communities for information, but we also share useful information with them, giving them the opportunity to ask questions and voice concerns in return.

Malawi hosts more than 33,000 registered refugees and asylum seekers. Most of them have fled conflict in the Kasai region of the Democratic Republic of Congo and live in two refugee camps where WFP offers food assistance in the form of monthly in-kind distributions and cash-based transfers. It, therefore, seemed like an essential area of expansion for our existing Free Basics sites. By offering the camp population access to information about food prices and markets in and around the camp, WFP hopes to increase transparency and ensure refugees do not pay unfairly high prices.

In our previous Free Basics feasibility research, we identified several challenges including low levels of internet-enabled phone ownership, digital literacy, and a lack of awareness about Free Basics. To see if we would encounter the same challenges when implementing the tool in refugee settings in Malawi, our country office colleagues recently visited the Dzaleka refugee camp. During this visit, they wanted to find out: Is Free Basics reaching the people in the camp? How do they respond to the idea of using WFP’s Free Basics site? And how could we improve the way we provide information to them?

malawi 2 20171004_173652

WFP/Khataza Jere

Our concerns that most refugees would not have access to internet-enabled mobile phones or would not be sufficiently digitally literate to use Free Basics were mistaken. Communicating with relatives and colleagues back home is very important to refugees, so having an internet-enabled phone that allows them to use internet-based chat apps such as WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger is a priority. We also discovered that Microsoft, in collaboration with UNHCR, had distributed 949 smartphones for ‘AppFactory’, its project designed to enable young people to learn software development skills. In fact, approximately seven out of every ten refugees own phones and are computer literate in Dzaleka – and Microsoft is planning to distribute even more devices. This will make it easier for us to spread the word about Free Basics and means that we could easily train refugees to show each other how to use it.

Overall, the people we met responded enthusiastically to Free Basics. As their ability to move outside of the camp is limited, Free Basics can give them access to the wider picture of market data and food prices. This will allow them to compare these prices with those of the markets where they buy food so that they can make informed decisions about their purchases. A key suggestion from the people in the camp was to add information about the stock levels of different commodities at the markets to the Free Basics site – this would allow users to plan their purchases and meals accordingly.

Initially, many people were skeptical about whether the website is free. WFP, therefore, showed them Free Basics on a phone which had no credit on it or checked the balance before and after using the website to convince them that Free Basics was, indeed, free. While we won’t need to do as much digital literacy training as we had anticipated, we still need to do more sensitization with refugees. Once this hurdle is cleared, the future for Free Basics in Malawi looks bright as refugees can use the site and are eager to do so, particularly if we add extra useful information such as food stock levels.

Qu’est-ce qui se passe au Burundi?


WFP/Silvia Calo

This week, we were in Burundi to improve how we collect, manage, and visualize data. Specifically, we wanted to work on two surveys that we conduct in the country using mVAM: an early warning survey – “Systeme d’Alerte Précoce au Burundi” (SAP) – and price data collection, known as mMarket.

mVAM has been active in Burundi since October 2016 and has collected information on different early warning indicators every month since then. Given the very low mobile phone ownership rates in the country, it is not feasible to conduct household food security surveys using mVAM. However, we have been able to gather useful information by regularly calling 55 Burundi Red Cross volunteers there who make up the SAP. These volunteers are Burundian citizens who work closely with the communities we’re trying to reach. They organize weekly meetings with local community focal points, which gives them a good understanding of the food security situation.

Gathering information about food security in the communities through key informants has its challenges of course. Finding out how households are coping without interviewing them directly can sometimes be difficult.

We visited WFP’s Country Office in Burundi in order to combine the local team’s knowledge of the Burundian context with our experience of conducting phone surveys. The result?  A new questionnaire that is shorter than the previous one, but still contains all the indicators needed for a meaningful early warning survey. Although the additional indicators we collected in the longer survey provided valuable information, very long questionnaires conducted over the phone have their own set of risks – the length may lead to key informants dropping out or not being willing to participate in the survey at all. Even worse, key informants may want to speed up the survey and don’t think carefully about their answers. We need to remember that volunteers who provide information are often very busy providing assistance to the local communities and may not have much time to speak over the phone!

Burundi pic

WFP/Silvia Calo

The second objective of our trip was to improve the mMarket data collection, which uses information from traders in different geolocated markets in the country. We added some commonly consumed food items to the questionnaire, as well as some non-food items, such as the cost of fuel, which serves as an early warning indicator for a rise in food prices.

Both SAP and mMarket yield large amounts of data at a high frequency. Since the added value of mVAM is providing valuable information in as close to real-time as possible, we always try to find new ways of speeding up the data analysis process and the publication of bulletins. As key informant surveys like SAP and mMarket deliver qualitative, rather than quantitative information, there is no magic statistical formula that can be used to make sense of the data. Hence, the only way to build a story around the data is to look at the data itself. We go about doing this by using data visualization tools like the software Tableau. Rather than simply looking at tables, we used dashboards and triangulated the indicators we collected, which enabled us to track how the food security situation is evolving. In the future, we might also use Tableau to produce interactive bulletins, so that users can explore the data we collect in more depth.

Starting in November 2017, our revamped questionnaires will be used and we will publish new bulletins, which will include interactive data visualizations. Stay tuned!

South Sudan: communicating both ways

South Sudan1

WFP/Hagar Ibrahim

We are back in South Sudan, where, in June, we identified two main areas of opportunity for employing a mobile Vulnerability Analysis and Mapping (mVAM) approach: using it to monitor urban food security and applying it to improve early warning systems.

This time, we are pleased to announce that the project is moving forward, we are collecting more and more numbers and are getting closer to piloting an Interactive Voice Response (IVR) system, which will both boost the capacity of our in-house call center and enable beneficiaries to access information and get answers to their questions.

South Sudan2

WFP/Hagar Ibrahim

The food security situation in urban areas in South Sudan has been deteriorating. According to WFP’s latest urban food security assessment in Bor town, 85% of households are food insecure (of which 44% are severely food insecure, and 41% moderately food insecure). As the urban food security situation needs to be monitored frequently and there is better mobile phone coverage in urban than in rural areas, mVAM is stepping in to collect the data.

Through face-to-face assessments and via our partner agencies on the ground, we have collected over 400 phone numbers and used some of them to conduct food security live call interviews with households in urban centers mostly across Greater Equatoria.

South Sudan map

WFP/Map 1: Number of surveyed households by county, September 2017

However, the context for conducting phone surveys in South Sudan continues to be challenging due to the low mobile phone penetration rates and connectivity problems. We had already reported last time that the main mobile network operators downsized their businesses due to recurrent conflicts. In our most recent round of phone surveys, we found that nearly 40% of the numbers were not reachable. Nevertheless, we were able to talk to over 240 households and ask them about their food consumption, negative coping behaviours, and the food security situation in their communities.

The goal of our latest mission was to provide technical support and assist with capacity building at our in-house call centre. We have configured an interactive voice response (IVR) system, a technology which allows users to access relevant information using the phone keypad and speech recognition. Through the pre-recorded voice response option, the system will be used to answer beneficiaries’ questions relating to, for example, the registration process, food distribution dates, and technical issues, such as lost or damaged vouchers. Users will also be able to record their questions, upon which WFP gets back to them. The IVR system can also initiate calls automatically and direct them to an operator only when a respondent picks up the phone, thereby saving the operators time. This will help address a challenge that mVAM operators in South Sudan have had to grapple with all this time.

The next steps for mVAM in South Sudan will involve deploying and improving the IVR system and expanding our contact information database of potential survey respondents with the help of WFP units and our cooperating partners in the field. Until the next time!


Designing a new communication channel – the Food Bot

Kenya blog 2

WFP/Lucia Casarin

After missions to several field locations (including Nigeria, Haiti, and Kenya) aimed at assessing the feasibility of deploying chatbots in WFP’s operational contexts, the mVAM team concluded that they offer great potential for both the sharing and receiving of useful information on food security.  It is now time to take a step forward and actually build a chatbot for WFP – the Food Bot!

In case you haven’t been tracking our work on chatbots (about which you can learn more here and here), here’s a quick refresher. A chatbot is a computer program designed to simulate conversation with human users over the Internet; imagine an invisible robot living inside the Internet asking you questions.

Tailoring the chatbot to its users

The first step needed in designing a new tool is to garner a strong understanding of its users – who will be using the chatbot and for what purposes?

In our case, we are working simultaneously on two levels:

  1. Chatbot builder tool: this is an interface where WFP staff will be able to design, deploy, and manage customized chatbots. The primary users of the chatbot builder tool will be WFP staff in the field, who will use the platform to design contextually-appropriate chatbots for their location. As you can imagine, each WFP Country Office envisions using the chatbot for a specific purpose. In Kenya, for example, colleagues are eager to deploy a chatbot to share updated information about WFP food and cash distributions as well as other programmatic details. In Nigeria, on the other hand, staff want to share details on how to use nutritional supplements provided by WFP.
  2. Contents within the chatbot: this refers to the information the chatbot provides and the dialogues between the chatbot and its users. Targeted users for the chatbot are people living in marginalized and food insecure communities who can use the chatbot to receive information from WFP. They can also ask us questions about WFP’s programmes in their area and provide their feedback and complaints. WFP will develop different chatbots for different locations and target populations.
Kenya blog 3

WFP/Lucia Casarin

To get to know our users better and start defining the design of the Food Bot, WFP and our technical partner InSTEDD (who has extensive experience designing innovative mobile tools) travelled once again to the Kakuma Refugee Camp, located in Western Kenya, where we spent a few days collaborating with WFP staff and refugees to understand how to create a user-friendly chatbot to meet their needs.

We first worked with a small group of refugees to better understand how they use the chatbot technology. To do so, we employed a popular prototype technique called ‘Wizard of Oz’. Under our supervision and guidance, refugees were asked to visit a Facebook page and start a conversation with what they believed was a WFP chatbot. Instead, they were actually chatting with our colleague. Through this type of human-centered approach, we were able to quickly learn what types of information the Kakuma refugees were interested in receiving as well as how they were asking questions. During the field test, we also confirmed our hypothesis that chatbot conversations need to be as light as possible (not using many pictures, menus, or emoticons) in order to minimize data charges and make conversations possible when network coverage is weak or the user is employing Messenger Lite.

We then spent some time with our WFP colleagues in the Kakuma and Nairobi Offices brainstorming the ways in which the chatbot could complement existing activities and provide useful information for our work.

Kenya blog 1 edited

WFP/Lucia Casarin

An iterative design approach

We are now dedicating the next few months to developing the chatbot builder and refining the chatbot contents for a larger pilot project in Kenya. Building a new platform will require a lot of trial and error, and we know that we’ll not get everything right on the first try. For this reason, we have now begun an interactive, iterative design approach, meaning that we will carry out multiple field tests along the way to further refine our product. This will allow us to collect valuable feedback from users at each stage of development so that we can mitigate potential issues early on.

Stay tuned during the coming months as we share additional information on the development of our very first Food Bot!

Hearing from people in the ‘other Congo’

WFP/Jeanbaptiste Pasquier

WFP/Jean-Baptiste Pasquier

Last week, our team went to the Republic of Congo for the first time. What? How is this our first time in Congo? You’re probably thinking: “I have read loads of blog posts about mVAM in Congo”. True, but they were referring to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the country where mVAM first started 4 years ago. This time we went to its neighbour, the ‘Other Congo’. The Republic of Congo (RoC) is rarely in the headlines but WFP is actually very active in this country of only 4.2 million inhabitants. We have our head office in the capital, Brazzaville, and five offices in the field.

Map RoC PNG2 (002)

In July, the UN declared a humanitarian emergency in the Pool region of RoC. This region, south of Brazzaville, is the scene of violent confrontations between rebel forces and the army. WFP is assisting thousands of families who have escaped the fighting and are seeking refuge with host families in neighbouring regions. Due to security constraints, it is difficult for WFP to conduct traditional food security assessments in Pool and get information about the situation on the ground. How many families have remained in the region? Are there still supplies in the local markets? Are prices too high? This is where mVAM comes in. RoC has one of the highest mobile phone penetration rates in Africa – 113 cellular subscriptions per 100 people (source: World Bank) – but the WFP Country Office wanted to know if they could find reliable key informants in Pool whom they could call regularly to get fresh updates on the situation.

The answer is yes, thanks to our partners. The Ministry of Social Affairs and Humanitarian Action (MASAHS) has a dense network of local civil servants that follow the humanitarian situation on the ground very closely. MASAHS is a key partner in the crisis response and the Minister herself offered her help to leverage this network! Unfortunately, even tapping into this network did not provide us with enough respondents, as in some of the most affected districts, MASAHS workers have also had to flee to safe cities. We therefore reached out to the international NGO CARITAS who were able to fill the gaps and provide contacts in almost all the affected localities.

RoC pic 1

WFP/Jean-Baptiste Pasquier

To ensure that the questionnaire we are going use to call our key informants provides a full picture of what is going on, we travelled to Bouenza, a region bordering Pool, to meet with displaced families. Talking to them, we learnt that food is often available in Pool at reasonable prices. However, because farmers had to flee their lands and settle in urban areas they lost their source of income and are struggling to buy the basic commodities they need to feed their families. To get a clearer picture of the situation, we decided to add questions about earning sources in addition to food availability and prices in our mVAM questionnaire.

The Country Office is now piloting voice calls to adjust the questions and evaluate the reliability of the information gathered. Data will come in the next weeks and OCHA’s Humanitarian Data Exchange (HDX) – a data sharing platform with an office in Dakar – offered their help to visualize and disseminate the findings. Understanding more specifically what people’s needs are will help us to improve our response to the crisis.