“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:

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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.

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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!)

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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!