VAM Talks: Episode 13

Logo2Alice Clough interviews Sarah Muir, VAM remote sensing analyst, Haidar Baqir, IT engineer, and Ariona Aubrey from WFP’s legal department about WFP’s use of satellites and drones.

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.


mVAM recognized for innovation in the 2016 ‘Nominet 100’


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.

#data4food: Join us for the first mVAM Webinar!


Join us on Monday for the first of our webinar series! We’ll be hosting a discussion with experts in the fields of mobile data collection, gender, and data analysis:

Addressing Gender-related Challenges in Remote Mobile Data Collection

12 December 2016
9am EST/2pm Dakar/3pm Rome/5pm Nairobi 


The discussion will explore some key issues that arise in remote mobile data collection, such as:

  1. Women’s Participation: How can we engage more women when conducting surveys via mobile phone? How can qualitative research help improve female participation rates?
  1. Analyzing Data for Zero Hunger: How do low female participation rates bias our data and thus our ability to design effective, evidence-based programmes? Given the barriers to women’s participation, what can we do right now to analyze our data in a way that better represents women’s experiences? Are we even asking the right questions?
  1. Mobile’s Potential: What are the untapped possibilities for using remote mobile data collection to collect information on both men’s and women’s experiences (e.g. protection issues like anonymous reporting of gender-based violence)? What are the limitations?


  • Joyce Luma, Country Director, WFP South Sudan (former head of WFP Trends and Analysis Service): Gender, mobile phone surveys, and data analysis for Zero Hunger
  • Sangita Vyas, Managing Director, r.i.c.e. (Research Institute for Compassionate Economics): Methodologies for capturing women’s experiences in mobile phone surveys in India
  • Micah Boyer, University of South Florida: Women, markets, and mobile phones in the Sahel
  • Kusum Hachhethu, WFP mVAM Team and Nutritionist, Qualitative research for using mVAM to reach rural Kenyan women


To join the webinar, connect via this link:


Are you on Twitter? Participate in the discussion on Monday with the hashtag #data4food


Welcome to Vamistan



Since we started in 2012, mVAM has worked to share our knowledge with others — this was encouraged by the Humanitarian Innovation Fund, our first donor, and this blog is part of that commitment to sharing and documenting what we do. In the last few years, we have set up a learning lab to scale up capacities in data collection and analysis but also to share data and learning with the broader community. In this regard, we’ve seen others inside WFP and other organizations reuse the methodologies and lessons learned we have been sharing on our resource center.  But we wanted to go even further in our information sharing. In this spirit, we’re now working to set up a fully fledged online course how to implement a remote mobile data collection system. We want to allow anyone anywhere to learn about using remote mobile data collection for food security monitoring and then use it in their own work.

So, what can you or your colleague, or a friend who has never heard of mVAM before, learn by taking the course? The course walks you through the overall life cycle of remote food security data collection and covers specific issues such as designing a questionnaire or an appropriate sample frame. By the end of the course you’ll be familiar with remote data collection approaches and tools. As well as understanding where and when it is appropriate to use these tools you’ll be able to design and implement short remote mobile-based surveys using SMS, voice and IVR technologies. You’ll even get your own certificate once you’ve completed the course. Pretty exciting stuff, we know.


Our fictional country Vamistan

The course is completely free. We’ve done our best to mix it up, using videos and presentations and online resources to share our knowledge and make the course as interactive as possible. We’ve even invented a fictional case study country ‘Vamistan’ that participants can follow to really reflect on how they can harness mobile technology.

We’ve partnered before with Leiden University and we have been lucky enough to have the support of their Online Learning Lab when designing the course. In August we had a visit from one of their online learning experts, an Instructional Designer who gave us tips on course design and didactics. This week one of Leiden’s ‘video experts’ came to Rome to film those members of the team who appeared in the videos.


WFP/Alice Clough

The lab has a lot of experience in this field, their courses are reaching over 480,000 participants in 196 countries. So we’ve been working with leaders in the field to deliver a high quality online course. We’ve been having fun making it and we’re looking forward to sharing the finished product. It should be up and running in the near future so stay tuned!  We’ll tell you exactly how to sign up and share the news. We hope you’ll check it out!

Tech for Humanity

humtech2016Ever since mVAM started out in 2014, our partners have encouraged us to engage with others in the technology and humanitarian fields to learn from them and to share our own experiences. One example of this is our work with Nancy Mock and Nathan Morrow, who teach at Tulane University and have written extensively on information technology’s potential to transform humanitarian information systems. They even implemented a review of mVAM in 2015 that helped us develop our theory of change. Of course, we also have this blog and an online resource center, where people can find the tools we use.

In the spirit of information-sharing, we pitched two papers with Nathan and  Nancy to the Humanitarian Technology conference last week. JM talking at HumanTechHumTech is a Boston-based event that brings together people working on emerging technologies to further enable global humanitarian assistance.  Our first paper ‘Knowing Just in Time’ assesses mVAM’s contribution to decision-making by looking at use cases for mVAM in camps, conflict settings and vulnerable geographies. It explores the question of data use in the organization and the gaps that need to be filled. The second paper: ‘mVAM: a New Contribution to the Information Ecology of Humanitarian Work’ gets more technical, documenting data quality and reliability issues that we have identified with SMS and voice surveys. Having submitted these two research papers we were excited to go along to the event and see what everyone else was up to.

At HumanTech we heard inspiring talks from leading names in the field like Gisli Olaffson, Patrick Meier and Nathaniel Raymond. In fact, our mobile surveys seemed almost quaint after hearing about the uses of artificial intelligence, computer vision and bioprinting!

HumanTech winners picSo when the organizers announced that our use case paper had won ‘best paper for outstanding impact’ we were thrilled that we are still recognized as innovative! A huge thanks goes to Nancy and Nathan for their collaboration on these papers. We came back from the conference more excited than ever to keep exchanging ideas!

Fifty Shades of Data

Thanks to new technologies, we’re collecting increasing volumes of data. Our fast-growing online databank now includes more than 100,000 records, it’s actually increased sevenfold in only the past year! We’re aware that our data might seem complex from the outside and so we’ve been working on making it more user friendly to ensure that managers and executives in our organization and the general public can easily understand it. We’ve particularly been focusing on creating visualisations so we’ve worked on dataviz with OCHA’s Humanitarian Data Exchange and recently launched our own VAM DataViz Platform. Check out years of agro-climatic data from around the world! Our mVAM data is coming soon! With all this DataViz work going on, we were therefore interested in Tableau – a widely used data analytics and visualization package – to improve and share visuals of our household data.

We decided to do a 3-day prototyping session on Tableau giving us a few days dedicated to understanding the software and applying it to our use cases. Our partners at the Center for Innovation at Leiden University facilitated the event and provided us with a venue and Tableau sent two of its specialists to show us the ropes. It was great to come together as a group to hone our skills.  The WFP participants were organized into teams that worked on different products like dashboards and storyboards.  The best product ended up being a dashboard that displayed food security and market indicators in Yemen:


One lesson that came out of the workshop was that deciding what to show on a dataviz is probably the most difficult thing to do. Understanding who the audience is and defining a message turned out to be much more of a challenge than the technical implementation. The teams that sketched out their products on paper first ended up producing the best results in the end. As in much of our experience with tech tools, the objective and the process matter much more than the shiny new toy.

winners picture for mvam blog post on Tableau

On the last day of the session we worked together with the guys from Tableau and successfully managed to embed the prototypes, incorporating them into our DataViz portal, confirming our ‘Proof of Concept’. We’re now working with open source dataviz tools, including D3, that have complementary functionalities so that we can create our hybrid portal and start putting the vision we have for our data into practice.

We’re now hoping to blow you away with outstanding data viz products, making mVAM information more tailored to the needs of readers. So keep an eye on our website!

Data Mission: #hackhunger

Event Poster2Ever wanted to help WFP hack hunger? Data Mission does and organized a one day hackathon for mVAM in Amsterdam on May 14th. But what’s a hackathon and what do we mean by hack hunger? Hackathons are fun events. Participants form teams, tackle or “hack” a problem (here enhancing data analysis and visualization to support efforts to reduce hunger), present their solutions and winners are announced at the end.

We met Data Mission at a hackathon at Leiden University’s Center for Innovation back in September (see our blog). They are a volunteer organization dedicated to bringing together expert data scientists and tech professionals in the Netherlands who want to use their skills for a good cause.

With Data Mission’s network, we knew we were getting the best in the Netherlands, so we threw three #hackhunger challenges at them:

  1. Use advanced data science techniques to more precisely identify food insecurity hotspots in a country.
  2. Design a dashboard for managers that visualizes mVAM data
  3. Wildcard- Design your own challenge!

The teams blew us away. In only one day, they came up with innovative solutions ranging from producing cutting edge visuals for a dashboard with the open source software D3 to experimenting with event data to track food insecurity. The winner, and believe us, it was hard to choose, had an idea for using machine learning to create neural networks to offer more granular estimations of food security in a country. By the end of the day, they had already published their code on github so anyone can now continue to refine their model.


For more on the hackathon, check out Data Mission’s blog and and blogs by particpants Pieter Veefkind, Marijn van Zelst (Trifork)  and Ice Mobile.

A huge thanks to the team at Data Mission, event sponsors Go Data DrivenConeyi3, and the participants for volunteering their Saturday. For us, it’s just the beginning of a promising collaboration with Data Mission- so stay tuned!


Data Mission and mVAM Team organizers.

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.


Back to Basics

DSC_0099-2_2_2- working groups jm-jb

Discussions at the mVAM Retreat Photo: WFP/Lucia Casarin

mVAM has expanded a lot over the past year, and we have big plans ahead. So it made sense for the entire team to take a couple of days to reflect and look to the challenges ahead. We found a secluded cobblestone town in the hills north of Rome, a place with poor wifi, and laid it all out. We brought in our regional advisors from East Africa, West Africa and the Middle East, as well as Professor Nathan Morrow, who led the external review of the project.

We began by listening to our colleagues from the field about their impressions of mVAM and checking out our Theory of Change. We got into groups and chewed over where we stand and how to move ahead.

What was the outcome?

1. A revamped theory of change.  

Professor Nathan Morrow Photo: WFP/Lucia Casarin

Professor Nathan Morrow discusses the Theory of Change.

When we started with mVAM, we were focused on household food security monitoring- calling up or texting households to collect important food security indicators at regular intervals. Now, we realize that the tools we have built can be used more widely. Our mobile tools are increasingly linked to broader assessment processes, including market monitoring and emergency assessments (read our post on Papua New Guinea). We also are starting to collect data for our nutrition, school feeding and P4P, WFP’s smallholder procurement activity programmes, thus beefing up our monitoring and evaluation. This is all great news. The power of going mobile is growing, and we’re updating our theory of change to capture this evolution.

2. We need to get the basics right. 

It’s easy to get carried away with the novelty of the tools we use. But we need to remember that doing food security analysis right requires a lot of down to earth toil. That involves reaching out to information users when we design a system and communicating on a continuing basis thereafter. The basics are also the foundation of data quality, such as properly contextualizing our questionnaires, piloting them, and being more strategic on when to use SMS. Getting the basics right will help us produce more relevant, reliable information.

3. Data visualization and open exchange are key. 

Flowchart_croppedWe’re excited about the progress we’ve achieved in information management, with the release of our Application Programme Interface (API). This allows for the automated exchange of data across websites, databases and systems, meaning that everyone can access and analyse our information in real-time. We’re now on the cusp of building cutting edge visualizations. To do that well, we’ll have to emphasize standardized, centralized, and open data. Upgrading our data management and data sharing will allow us to build the interactive data visuals and applications that can best help decision-makers.

Hoping all of this leads to better processes, better data as we take mVAM to new horizons.

mVAM Retreat Photo

mVAM Group Photo