“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.

Hearing from those who are #FacingFamine

Photo: WFP/Amadou Baraze

Photo: WFP/Amadou Baraze

 

In early March, Stephen O’Brien, the United Nations’ Emergency Relief Coordinator, reported that 20 million people across four countries face starvation and famine.  The famines looming in Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia and Nigeria represent the largest humanitarian crisis since the UN’s creation. “Without collective and coordinated global efforts,” O’Brien said, “People will simply starve to death, and many more will suffer and die from disease.”

One of the components that complicates these particular emergencies is access to the areas in crisis. Without safe and unimpeded access for humanitarian aid workers, it’s difficult to get a picture of what’s going on in the affected areas, which adds another dimension to an already challenging response. In Northeast Nigeria, the threat of violence made it difficult for WFP’s food security analysts to visit vendors in local markets or speak with people in their homes – all part of their usual food security monitoring routine.

In order to continue gathering information needed to understand the situation in the affected areas, WFP used remote mobile data collection to get a picture of what was happening in the communities they could no longer speak to in person. With an overwhelming amount of responses, we turned to Tableau , who had already helped us create data visualizations for other countries which use mVAM, to help us visualize the results in a way that could be easily understood by everyone.

mVAM hears directly from people in affected communities in the northeast of Nigeria

mVAM hears directly from people in affected communities in the northeast of Nigeria

 

Our latest interactive data visualization of the food security situation in Northeast Nigeria is now online, and the story of how it came to be can be found on Tableau’s blog. Make sure to check out the free response section, where you can hear from 5,500 households on what should be done to improve the food security in their community.

 

Myanmar: assessing emergency needs without access

Photo: WFP/Myanmar

Photo: WFP/Myanmar

 

Late last year, an attack by an armed group on border police posts in Myanmar led to a government security sweep in Rakhine State and recurrent clashes and violence in many villages. As a result, access to a large part of the north of the state was closed off to humanitarian organizations, leaving the already highly vulnerable inhabitants of the townships to fend for themselves.

Unable to access the area since 9 October, WFP decided to use mobile surveys to conduct remote emergency assessments. While not as thorough as face-to-face assessments, mobile surveys could still provide a good snapshot of how people were coping in the areas that were closed off. Furthermore, mobile surveys serve as a means to address a critical information gap where there is little to no information about the needs of the most vulnerable and food insecure, as we have seen in complex emergency settings elsewhere such as during the Ebola crisis and Yemen. But let’s come back to Myanmar and rewind just a few years: hearing from people in these areas would have been impossible – essentially no one had mobile phones.

Myanmar’s mobile transformation

Myanmar’s telecommunication market has come a long way. Not so long ago, Myanmar was one of the “leastconnected countries in the world” – just seven years ago, SIM cards cost up to $1,500, and few people had them. In 2013, after the government awarded contracts to two foreign mobile operators, the price of a SIM card fell to $1.50 and network coverage began to roll out across the country. Once the mobile revolution began, things moved fast. Soon, mobile penetration exceeded even that of much better-off neighboring countries, such as Thailand[1]. By 2015, 96 percent of wards and 87 percent of villages in Myanmar had a mobile signal, and nearly 60 percent of households owned a mobile phone[2].

A case for mobile surveys in Myanmar

WFPs first mobile assessment in Myanmar took place in November 2016, with 32 key informants from 12 villages in Maungdaw and Buthidaung north, complementing face-to-face interviews of 48 WFP beneficiaries at 8 food distribution points in Buthidaung south. This was at the end of the lean season (the period between harvests when households’ food stocks tend to be the lowest), and respondents told us that due to the deteriorated security situation, people faced serious difficulties in reaching markets, were not able to go to work, nor access agricultural land and fishing areas and. Resulting crop losses could result in mid to long-term impact on food security while households’ terms of trade had decreased and posed a serious concern regarding their ability to purchase sufficient food.

Though low mobile penetration in rural areas of the country posed a challenge for phone surveys, people were nonetheless eager to participate in the survey and share their stories. In order to participate, some people even arranged to borrow phones from neighbors if they did not own one themselves.

A second phone survey in December allowed for a greater sample size and therefore a better understanding of the living conditions in the surveyed areas. WFP spoke to 116 respondents in 70 villages in Maungdaw Township. By this time, the people we spoke with mentioned that there was widespread food insecurity throughout the township. The situation was particularly problematic in the north, where markets were not functioning and access to agricultural land or fishing grounds was restricted. Livelihood opportunities were scarce and the lower demand for daily labour had had an immediate impact on the most vulnerable.

Photo: WFP/Myanmar

Photo: WFP/Myanmar

What’s next?

The data collected through the phone surveys helped WFP to get some understanding of the needs in the no-access areas, and to use this information for advocacy with the Government and humanitarian stakeholders. On 9 January 2017, after three months, WFP was finally granted access to all areas where it had operations prior to 9 October, and was able to distribute food to 35,000 people in the villages of Maungdaw north. With the area open again, WFP and its partners are now preparing for thorough assessments on the ground, which will give a fuller picture of the food security situation and also allow us to validate the findings of the phone surveys.


[1]http://lirneasia.net/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/LIRNEasia_MyanmarBaselineSurvey_DescriptiveStats_V1.pdf

[2]http://www.gsma.com/mobilefordevelopment/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/Mobile-phones-internet-and-gender-in-Myanmar.pdf

How many pizzas does it take to build a chatbot?

Hackers are hungry Photo: WFP/Pia Facultad

Hackers are hungry
Photo: WFP/Pia Facultad

This week, government, business, academia and civil society leaders will gather at Davos to discuss solutions to the world’s biggest challenges – including how new technologies can be leveraged to solve some of the most serious problems we face. At mVAM, we continue to explore how some of these technologies could be used to help eliminate chronic hunger, malnutrition and food insecurity – most recently looking at how chatbots could help collect important information during a humanitarian response.

Last week, our collaborators at Nielsen – one of the early supporters of mVAM – organized a 24-hour hackathon at the Nielsen Tech Hub in New York City. As part of ongoing efforts through Nielsen Cares, the hackathon aimed to develop an open-source humanitarian chatbot that can collect real-time information about food security. This came at the right time for WFP – we’d developed and tested a prototype of the chatbot with InSTEDD, and Nielsen’s technology and development input helped bring in important new capabilities. Ultimately, our goal is to field-test a chatbot in Haiti in the next few months to help us track food security conditions as people recover from the impacts of Hurricane Matthew.

The event was open to the public. A diverse group of students, volunteer hackers, and Nielsen staff showed up to take on the challenge, despite the wintry weather. InSTEDD’s Director of Platform Engineering, Nicolás di Tada also participated.

Much more than a chatbot

What the hackers built is much more that a chatbot: it is a bona-fide chat-based data collection and reporting system. Rather than attempt to outdo each other (as is the case in most hackathons), the teams split up to build the different components of the system. The different teams, made up of perfect strangers, communicated during the hackathon through Slack. After 24 hours, most components were fully coded up, but there were still bugs with the orchestrator and the gateway that additional post-hackathon work will resolve.

The architecture of the system, as defined by Nielsen, includes:

  • a management interface that allows an analyst to set up a questionnaire, including and skip logic, and validation rules that prompt the user when they enter a wrong answer. The interface was built using the Angular 2 JavaScript framework;
  • a gateway that is able to interact with respondents through Facebook Messenger and potentially other chat applications. The Facebook gateway was built on top of the AWS Lambda service;
  • a natural language processing engine that analyzes text on the fly. It allows the chatbot to ‘interpret’ a user’s answers. For now, the NLP engine processes English language text, although the engine includes a translation service and, by default, translates all languages to English for more advanced NLP tasks. The engine was built using the AWS Lambda service and leverages IBM Watson’s AlchemyLanguage service for text processing.;
  • a set of ‘backend APIs’ that manage respondent and survey data, route respondents from each response to the next question, and provide data to user interfaces .  The APIs were built using the Django framework for python and deploys on the AWS Elastic Beanstalk service;
  • an ‘orchestration layer’ that maintains survey status and routes messages between the end user and the various backend services. The orchestration service is built on top of the AWS Lambda service; and
  • a “reporting and data visualization engine”. Data vizzes were built using Highcharts, a JavaScript-based application. This allows an analyst to instantly see the results of the chatbot surveys.

 

chatbot

 

Leveraging cloud services from the Amazon Web Services product catalog, the teams were able to build a scalable, cost effective platform that can be deployed quickly to multiple locations globally.

Remember the humans

We also received tips from a chatbot specialist, Alec Lazarescu from Chatbots Magazine. He encouraged us to ‘onboard’ users with an initial message that gives people a clear idea of what the chatbot is for. He told us to avoid ‘dead ends’ and allow users to speak to a human being in case they get stuck.

We’re very grateful to Nielsen for their support and to all the participants for their energy and creativity. The next steps involve WFP and InSTEDD accessing the code and work on ironing out the kinks. We expect challenges with the natural language processing in Haitian Creole, a language that is probably under-researched. Making the different parts of the chatbot work together seamlessly also appears to be an area we will still have to work on.  And, of course, the final test will be to see whether our target group – people living in Haiti – find the chatbot engaging.

mVAM recognized for innovation in the 2016 ‘Nominet 100’

nominet1

We’re pleased to announce that mVAM has been recognised as one of 2016’s 100 most inspiring social innovations using digital technology to drive social change around the world. The competition, the NT100, is run by the Nominet Trust, the UK’s leading tech for good funder.

The 2016 NT100 was selected from 700 projects reviewed by Nominet Trust and a panel of partner organisations including: Big Lottery Fund, Cancer Research UK, Comic Relief, Nominet, Oxfam, Telefonica O2 and Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship.

mVAM has been recognised for its contribution to humanitarian interventions by leveraging mobile technology to provide frequent, lower cost food security data.

If you want to find out more about other NT100 projects check out their Social Tech Guide, a comprehensive collection of inspiring ways tech pioneers are changing lives, communities and our world for the better.

Prince Charming: A Triplex Tale

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Welcome to “Sorland”! (Photo: WFP/Jennifer Browning)

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:

  1. “Know what you need to know.”
  2. “Make sense, not data.”
  3. “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.

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Presenting mVAM (Photo: WFP/Lucy Styles)

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.

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The Minister of “Sorland” played by Prince Harry (Photo: WFP/Jennifer Browning)

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.

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The Logistics Cluster explains access constraints (Photo: WFP/Ricardo Gonzalez)

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!