World Humanitarian Day 2017

Photo: WFP

Photo: WFP/ Regional Bureau of Cairo

To celebrate World Humanitarian Day 2017, this week we interviewed one of the humanitarians who makes mVAM possible. Hatem works as a data scientist in the Cairo Regional Bureau so we asked him more about his work – remotely monitoring food security in conflict zones in the Middle East.

1. Duty station: Regional Bureau of Cairo (RBC)

2. Job title: Data Scientist (VAM)

3. What does your job entail? My job is mainly focused on the data analysis, aggregation and visualization of the monthly mVAM food security surveys in L3 Countries (Yemen, Syria & Iraq). The process starts with the monthly data collection done by call centres or operators. I follow up with the call centres to make sure that the data they’ve collected is in good format and has minimal or no errors. I also make sure that they are following the sampling guidelines and methodologies designed by our team in headquarters. After that, I perform some data cleaning and validation before storing the data in our database. Then, I run some statistical tests on different variables so that I can understand what significant changes there are in the data compared to previous months. According to the analysis results, trends and statistical tests, as well as secondary data/news, me and my team start to gather the most important/significant data and create a brief story that summarizes the food security situation in the country. The bulletin is usually 4-5 pages containing text narratives, charts, images and sometimes maps.  There is also usually a qualitative analysis part based on the open text comments of the respondents. It is usually an interesting yet challenging process to find new ways of visualizing open-ended comments from respondents (usually around 1,000-2,000 comments).

4. How does your work help WFP’s response in conflict zones? The mVAM bulletins provide up-to-date and almost real-time data about people that live in conflict zones who you can’t reach by any other means other than mobile phones. These bulletins inform the programme teams about their needs, the most vulnerable areas and the most vulnerable population groups such as displaced people. This ensures WFP is in a better and more informed position to take any programmatic decision on who is affected by conflict, where they are and how they can assist these people most effectively.

5. What’s the most challenging part of your job? Creating a full story from raw data. As a data scientist I usually face technical difficulties – whether it’s in the data cleaning, storage, or analysis code. However, the most challenging part is usually correlating all the data from mVAM and other sources to represent them in a meaningful and complete story that briefly describes the situation in a specific country.

6. What’s the most rewarding part of your job? Working in the humanitarian sector is very rewarding, even if it is not directly with beneficiaries. Not to mention working with data related to conflict zones where there are rapid changes and up-to-date data is in high demand. The fact that I’m a part of a process that makes other people’s lives better, especially those who are in serious need is, in itself, a huge drive to make me do what I do.

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.