“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!

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

Going mobile in Afghanistan

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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.

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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.