After the storm: using big data to track displacement in Haiti

Photo: Igor Rugwiza – UN/MINUSTAH


This week’s blog is a guest entry by Gabriela Alvarado, the WFP Regional IT Officer for Latin America and the Caribbean. In the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew, Gaby lead the IT Working Group in Haiti, which provided support to the humanitarian response through the provision of
ETC Connectivity Services. The team from the Regional Bureau worked with mVAM and Flowminder to supply valuable time-bound information to the operation.

 

Supporting Emergencies through Technology & Joint Efforts

It’s now been just over a month since Hurricane Matthew made landfall in Haiti, devastating the western side of the country. The hurricane has affected an estimated 2.1 million people, leaving 1.4 million in need of humanitarian assistance.

In the days following the hurricane, a rapid food security assessment was carried out to determine the impact of the hurricane on the food security of households and communities in the affected areas.  In the most-affected areas, the départements of Grande-Anse and Sud, people reported that crops and livestock, as well as agricultural and fishing equipment, were almost entirely destroyed.

 

Credit: WFP

Credit: WFP


We all know the challenges we face at WFP when looking to collect information, in order to determine what would be the best response under the circumstances on the ground.  In the aftermath of the hurricane, which had destroyed infrastructure, caused flooding, and temporarily knocked out telecommunications, gathering information from affected areas was especially difficult. So, WFP’s Information Technology team in the Regional Bureau for Latin America and the Caribbean reached out to Flowminder, a non-profit organization that uses big data analysis to answer questions that would be operationally relevant for government and aid agencies trying to respond to emergencies. Thanks to an existing agreement between WFP and Flowminder, WFP was able to quickly establish a working group and start data collection one day after the hurricane struck Haiti.

 

An aerial view of Jérémie following the passage of Hurricane Matthew (photo: Logan Abassi - UN/MINUSTAH)

An aerial view of Jérémie following the passage of Hurricane Matthew
(photo: Logan Abassi – UN/MINUSTAH)

Flowminder aggregates, integrates and analyses anonymous mobile operator data (call detail records), satellite and household survey data, which helps to estimate population displacements following a crisis. Displaced people are some of the most vulnerable following a hurricane, and knowing where people have gone helps to provide more effective assistance.

By 24 October 2016, Flowminder estimated that 260,500 people had been displaced within the Grande Anse, Sud, and Nippes départements. In Les Cayes, the major city in Sud, the population grew by an estimated 42% in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew according to Flowminder analysis. In fact, Flowminder analyses suggest that many people moved toward cities, even Jérémie and Les Cayes, which were severely damaged by the hurricane.

 

Flowminder.org

Flowminder.org

So how exactly did Flowminder make these estimates with so many areas barely accessible? By analysing anonymized call detail records from Digicel, one of Haiti’s major cell phone network providers, and comparing where people placed calls before and after the hurricane, Flowminder was able provide an estimate of the number of displaced people. Flowminder uses algorithms that look at where the last “transaction” (phone call or sms) took place each day in order to identify the place where people were living before the hurricane and then subsequently moved afterwards. . It makes sense – the last few calls or texts you make at night are often from your home. While Flowminder does not get exact locations from the call data records, they can identify a general home location using the closest cell phone tower. After identifying the home location, Flowminder needs to determine how many people each phone represents. In poorer areas, not everyone may own a phone, or many people may not be able to charge and use their phones after a natural disaster like a hurricane. Flowminder uses formulas which takes these factors into account, and translates the number of phones into an estimate of the number of people who are displaced.

How will this further help?

With the information provided by Flowminder, WFP is able to estimate:

  • possible gaps in assistance in areas of the country which were not damaged by Hurricane Matthew, but which are experiencing an influx of people in need of food assistance following the hurricane;
  • use and community ‘acceptance’ of the use of mobile money (one aspect is the availability of the service, while the other aspect is if it is being used in that area);
  • the prevalence and spread of diseases (including Cholera, which continues to pose a risk in the aftermath of the hurricane).

It has been a very challenging yet incredible opportunity to see where and how technology can be used to further support an emergency response under difficult conditions and to ensure that WFP can reach the most vulnerable after a disaster.

Going mobile in Afghanistan

mudasair

WFP food security analyst Mudasir Nazar talking to internally displaced people (IDPs) in a camp near Kabul, during an mVAM scoping mission in October 2016. (Photo: WFP/Jean-Martin Bauer)

More than three decades of war, unrest and natural disasters has left Afghanistan with poor infrastructure and millions in severe poverty and facing enormous recovery needs. This insecurity pushed many Afghans to flee to surrounding countries like Iran or further afield to western Europe. It’s estimated there are 2.5 million Afghan refugees currently living in Pakistan many of whom arrived in the country in the late ‘70s during the war with the Soviet Union. In fact, in Pakistan, most Afghan refugees are second or third generation. Because of renewed political tensions, thousands are now starting to return to Afghanistan from Pakistan and it’s expected that there will be 600,000 arrivals by the end of the year. These returnees will require temporary assistance as they reestablish their livelihoods. Along with other humanitarian agencies, WFP is ramping up its work to prepare for this influx of people.

Mobile population, mobile monitoring

For humanitarian agencies like WFP, moving around Afghanistan is often difficult due to security restrictions and remoteness. This means we often have trouble directly contacting the returnees and IDPs we are helping, and getting information on the security or market situation in areas where they are settling.

But this is changing: mobile technologies now allow us to collect information remotely, not only from beneficiaries themselves, but also from members of the community such as tribal elders or shopkeepers. We are now preparing to use mVAM to reach people throughout Afghanistan – an approach that WFP already uses in nearly 30 countries.

Mudasir Nazar is a food security and market analyst with WFP Afghanistan, and is leading the set-up of mVAM here. After completing a Master’s degree in  Humanitarian Assistance at Tufts University (US), Mudasir is now back in Afghanistan with WFP. Like many of the returnees WFP is now helping, Mudasir grew up as an Afghan refugee in Peshawar, Pakistan. He came back to Afghanistan with his family years ago, settling in Kabul, but still relates very personally to what returnee families are going through at the moment: ‘A few years ago, I was in their shoes,’ he says.

Through mVAM, we will be asking questions about market food prices and food availability in areas where people are settling; what humanitarian assistance people need and what they are already receiving; and what livelihoods and coping strategies they are using to survive in their new (often temporary) homes. This data will allow us to understand the context into which people are resettling, and help WFP and others to provide the right type of assistance, to the right people.

Using mobile monitoring makes sense: the Afghan cell phone market has grown tremendously in past years. There are an estimated 20 million cell phone subscriptions in the country, out of a total population of 30 million people.  A recent study by USAID shows that while only 25% of women are literate, 80% have access to a mobile phone – either their own or shared within their household. When we visited an IDP camp recently and asked who owned at least one mobile phone in their household, everyone raised their hands.

kabul-429

Mudasir holds a power bank which is typically used to charge phones. (Photo: WFP/Jean-Martin Bauer)

We have found that most of the people we meet tend to utilize only the basic features of their phones, and rarely use SMS or other messaging services. IDPs and returnees also often have trouble keeping their phones charged, since many are living in informal settlements with no electricity. Though some own small portable ‘power banks’, many have to pay to charge their phones elsewhere. People also often don’t have any airtime balance on their phone. They typically top up once a month with a credit of 50 Afghanis (roughly US$1), which runs out quite fast.

So what does this mean for mVAM in Afghanistan?

Firstly, we will be calling people through live operators – rather than using more sophisticated tools such as SMS or robocalls, as WFP did in other countries. Secondly, we will need to provide a modest airtime credit incentive to encourage people to answer, and to help offset any battery charging costs.

We  will also make sure that our call center is staffed by all-female operators, to make sure we reach women, some of whom might otherwise be reluctant to speak to a male stranger over the phone.

 

 

WFP Yemen M&E: Reaching Beneficiaries During Widespread Conflict

As mVAM has been expanding we’ve started to see the remote technology used in other areas of WFP’s work. This week’s blog is from Katy Huang who works for the Yemen Country Office. She shares how the M&E unit is using remote live calls to get feedback from beneficiaries about WFP’s assistance. 

yemen-blog-pic-1

WFP/-Asmaa Waguih

Before joining WFP Yemen’s Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) unit 8 month ago, I worked as a researcher for the New York City Health Department. As I love the creative process of collecting, analyzing and reporting data, I was excited for the opportunity to manage our unit’s “remote M&E” (rM&E) system. Currently, Yemen’s Emergency Operation assists about 3 million beneficiaries a month. Our rM&E system uses an third country call center to conduct phone surveys with beneficiaries post-distribution to hear about their experiences receiving and using the assistance. The center completes about 2000-2400 surveys per month.

Before establishing the rM&E system in September 2015, we learned in a previous post-distribution monitoring survey that a large majority of our emergency in-kind food beneficiaries owned a mobile phone or had access to a friend or neighbor’s mobile. We also found out that a large majority of mobile owners were able to charge their mobiles on a regular basis. This information meant that conducting mobile surveys proved to be ideal within the context of Yemen’s ongoing and widespread conflict as it allowed us to reach large numbers of beneficiaries without compromising the safety of field monitors. Other benefits of using rM&E include it’s relative low cost and being we can reach beneficiaries in all the governorates where we offer assistance. Also, in the 15-20 minutes it takes to complete a survey, we have been able to collect all the key process and food security outcome indicators that we also collect in our longer bi-annual face-to-face post-distribution monitoring surveys. Ultimately, rM&E complements other M&E systems (i.e., on-site distribution monitoring and beneficiary hotline) to triangulate and confirm findings.

yemen-blog-pic-2

WFP/Asmaa Waguih

Although there are many benefits to using rM&E, challenges do exist. Bias is the main issue as data collected by rM&E tends to be more biased than data collected face-to-face. Some of the biases we face relate to the following:

  • Sampling frame bias: We don’t have the entire list of mobile numbers of beneficiaries for random calling. The amount of mobile numbers we receive depends on what cooperating partners collect from beneficiaries at the time of food distribution. We have had to regularly remind cooperating partners about the importance of sending us these mobile lists. In addition, some beneficiaries don’t own a mobile phone and they may have different characteristics, such as being more poor or vulnerable, than those that do own mobiles.
  • Gender bias: The frequency of female respondents for rM&E (about 5 percent) are lower than that of face-to-face (about 10 percent). This may be due to more males than females owning mobile phones. To try to address this, the call center recently hired more female enumerators to engage female beneficiaries to respond.

Despite these biases, the amount and quality of data we have been able to collect on a monthly basis have been invaluable. The large sample size has allowed us to report nationally representative data and to disaggregate data by activity type (i.e., in-kind, voucher) or demographics (i.e., displacement, gender). With regular monitoring, we are able to see trends and compare results over months and quarters. To see how we used this data for reporting, please see our Yemen M&E Quarter 1 2016 report.


For more information on mVAM’s work in Yemen, please visit the mVAM Yemen site.

When open is not enough: bringing food security data to affected communities

Open Data Institute - Our Guest Blog

5 April 2016 – The ODI – by Jean-Martin Bauer, Wael Attia, and Alice Clough

More food security data than ever is being generated by technologies and agencies. To bring order to the ‘mess’ its data had become, the World Food Programme took an open approach – paving the way to bring information to hard-to-reach communities.

ODI Sierra Leone Photo

When a natural or man-made disaster strikes, humanitarian responders need numbers about its impact in order to advocate and plan for an effective response. Reaching out to communities helps agencies understand how people have been affected, how they are coping and what assistance they need. The food security data landscape is complex: new technologies mean that more data than ever is collected by a mosaic of agencies.

The World Food Programme’s Food Security Analysis Unit is one of many groups engaged in such assessment work and data collection. In this piece we outline how we have approached data management in the information era, and the challenges we see ahead…

Read full article here.

 

Mobile phone surveys can help World Food Programme reach hungry people

Guardian Op-Ed by Our Jean-Martin Bauer:

by Jean-Martin Bauer- The Guardian – 10 March 2016

WFP/Lucia Casarin

WFP/Lucia Casarin

Contacting people in vulnerable areas by telephone or text is enabling the UN’s World Food Programme to determine who needs food and when

One of the biggest challenges for the humanitarian community when disaster strikes is how to colour in blank spaces on maps of the affected country or region. To do our jobs well, we need to know who has been affected, what is happening, and what people need. And we need to know fast.

Information is critical to the design and implementation of life-saving operations. Yet all too often we struggle to collect these facts consistently because we cannot communicate with people on the wrong side of a frontline or in a difficult to reach area. People in no-go areas, including parts of Syria, Iraq, Somalia, South Sudan and the northern Sahel, are not just suffering, they are suffering in silence.

We believe that technological innovation has the power to fill in these blank areas. Thanks to a broad-based boom in mobile phone ownership – up by almost 20% annually in sub-Saharan Africa (pdf) – mobile surveys are poised to transform how we gather information.…

Read Full Op-Ed