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.

Qu’est-ce qui se passe au Burundi?

IMG_0093

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!