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.

New places, new tools: what’s up next for mVAM?

KOICA pic 2

We’ve just got back from Rwanda where we were holding a workshop on using mVAM to expand real-time food security and nutrition monitoring with Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) and refugee populations. The project, which is made possible by the support of the Korean International Cooperation Agency (KOICA), will be implemented in ten countries in sub-Saharan Africa where WFP works.

What’s the project?

The KOICA project has two aims. First, it aims to empower information exchange with marginalized populations, specifically IDPs and Refugees. Secondly, it supports the collection of food security and nutrition data using the latest mobile and satellite technologies. This will happen in ten countries in Sub-Saharan Africa: the Central African Republic (CAR),The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Kenya, Malawi, Niger, Nigeria, Rwanda, Somalia, South Sudan and Uganda.

How are we going to do this?

As you know, two-way communication systems are an important part of our work. As well as getting information that we can use to inform WFP 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. We’ve already been using Interactive Voice Response and live calls to share information with affected populations, and are now expanding our toolbox to include new technologies: Free Basics and a chatbot.

Remote data collection isn’t just done by mobile phones – VAM already uses other sources, such as  satellite imagery analysis – to understand the food security situation on the ground.  Under this project, we’ll also help countries incorporate similar analysis which will complement two-way communication systems to provide a fuller picture of the food security situation.

Finally, we’re going to harness our knowledge of Call Detail Records analysis: de-identified metadata collected via cell phone towers about the number of calls or messages people are sending and which towers they are using. We have already used this technique in Haiti to track displacement after Hurricane Matthew, and we’re really excited to transfer these ideas to another context to ensure we get up-to-date information on where affected communities are so we can better target food assistance in the right locations.

What happened at the workshop?

Representatives from all 10 country offices, three regional bureaus and staff from HQ came together to discuss the three main project components. During the workshop, the different country offices had the chance to learn more from members of the mVAM team about the specific tools they can harness and ensure their collected data is high quality, standardised and communicated effectively. However, the best part about bringing everyone together was that country teams could share their experiences about how they are already using mVAM tools. We heard from the Malawi country office about their Free Basics pilot, and Niger and Nigeria explained how they’re implementing IVR so affected communities can easily contact WFP, even after work hours. Sharing their different experiences and learning about how different tools have worked in each context not only gave everyone an overview of what mVAM is doing so far, it also helped everyone understand the implementation challenges and how to overcome them.

What’s next for the KOICA project?

We’re really excited for the next stage of the project. Each country office has now planned what tools they’re going to use to increase their communications with affected communities and how they will improve their existing data collection systems. It’s going to be great to see the impact these tools will have not only on WFP’s response, but also how they will empower the communities we’re serving. 

What we found at the market: using Free Basics in Malawi

FreeBasicsAd_Chichewa

We wrote to you back in November about one of our new innovations – our Free Basics website ‘Za Pamsika’ where we’re posting commodity prices using the weekly price data we’re collecting through our mVAM operators on a free website. We said that the project had the potential to reach millions of Malawians – well, a lot has happened since then.

Rather than continuing to willfully upload prices while watching our user statistics go up and down, we went to Malawi to carry out a short ground truth study and get some first hand user feedback.  The aim of the mission was to investigate the best way of using the website and interrogate the assumptions we’d made when designing it.

With this in mind, we tried to answer two big questions:

  1. Who can access our website – what are the potential barriers and how can we work around them?
  2. Do Malawians really want a website where they can find out maize and beans prices?

So we went to rural and urban markets in the Central and Southern regions to speak to the mVAM traders and the consumers in their markets about their mobile phone usage and market activity and to get their feedback on the website.

What kind of answers did we get?

First – access issues. While you don’t need a smartphone to access the website we knew that mobile penetration in Malawi is low. So we were most worried about the prevalence of internet-enabled phones and network coverage. From our study we found out that while we aren’t going to be able to reach everyone in Malawi via a website, we can still communicate with people. Network coverage was a problem in some areas. However, overall we found that most of the traders had internet enabled phones or wanted to buy one. We also found that Malawi’s MNOs have been recently trying to push out better network coverage. All good news for future reach of the website.

Actually the biggest barrier was language and literacy. While English is the national language of Malawi, most of the literate people we spoke to were much more comfortable reading and writing in Chichewa because that’s what they were taught in. While they were very enthusiastic about the website content when it was explained to them, they found the initial design (all in English and text heavy) confusing and difficult to use. Luckily this is an easy change to make so we did a quick redesign of the website and translated it into Chichewa:

malawiblog1

With our new design we headed back into the markets and got much better feedback. Rather than just saying that they liked the website content they could really interact with it and were making comments on the different maize and beans prices.

The second barrier we found was digital literacy. Many of the people we spoke to had internet-enabled phones but either didn’t know how to use them or didn’t even realise that they had the internet on them! Unlike the language change this is not a quick fix. This was particularly prominent amongst the women we spoke to, none of whom were comfortable with mobile internet. We’re therefore going to partner with civil society organisations promoting digital literacy. WFP has a network of partners and farmers on the ground who they reach out to with climate information so we’re going to try and use these focal points to communicate our prices with vulnerable populations and communities who have limited access to information.

IMG_1205

But do Malawians really want a ‘Za Pamsika’ website?

It turned out that maize and beans prices really are something that people want to see on the website. The recent drought was on everyone’s minds and they were really emphasising how much of a difference getting a good price could make. People were also already using their phones to get prices – by calling their friends or other traders in different areas and were quite enthusiastic about the possibility of getting this information for free.

With these learnings in mind and feeling confident with our website redesign and excited to be working closely with the country office, we embarked on our next steps. We now have a new focal point in the Lilongwe office who’s looking after the project and in a much better placed position than us in Rome to reach out to millions of Malawians. By this point over 25,000 people had already visited the Za Pamsika website but we knew our reach could be much further. We therefore started experimenting with ways of advertising the website.

malawiblog2

First – we decided to take out a Facebook ad to try and raise the site profile so we created our own ‘Za Pamsika’ page on Facebook and put out some ads in English and Chichewa. We were pretty excited when they started showing up on Malawian colleagues’ Facebook newsfeeds and within 10 days we’d reached more than 130,000 people and got 650 likes to our Facebook page.

What we didn’t expect was the organic reaction we’d get to our page. Within 3 days we’d not only reached more than 80,000 people with our post, we’d also seen that people started having conversations about maize prices on our advert.  People have also started messaging us about whether we can add their market to our website. We’re also getting comments about what other commodities we should add, for instance more seasonal foods such as groundnuts or soya. Most excitingly we even had someone knock on the door of the sub-office to inquire about the website after seeing our advert!

On a second mission in April we went out to the markets in Lilongwe again armed with our new ‘Za Pamsika’ posters. We were putting them up in the trader’s shops and were pretty quickly swamped with people excited about the website and how it could save them money. But again – everyone was asking us to add more food prices to the site – it seems like Malawians just keep wanting to know more about ‘things you find in the market’!

IMG_1201

So what’s next for Za Pamsika?

We’ve got our new focal point Khataza on board who’s taking charge of the website. First up, taking requests into account, we will be adding other seasonal commodities to the website. We’re going to continue experimenting with our Facebook ads and start using our Facebook page to reach out and engage with people about what they’d like on the page. We’ve also got some new partnerships coming up with civil society organisations who are keen to spread the word about ‘Za Pamsika’ and who we can work with to break down access barriers to this information.

Are millions in Malawi being reached? Not yet – but we’re getting there.

Our 5 mVAM Highs from 2016

collage

1. Awards for Remote Mobile Data Collection Work

At the Humanitarian Technology 2016 conference, our paper Knowing Just in Time Knowing Just in Time’ won Best Paper for Outstanding Impact. In the paper, we assessed mVAM’s contribution to decision-making by looking at use cases for mVAM in camps, conflict settings and vulnerable geographies. Check out our blog Tech for Humanity for more on it and our other conference paper  mVAM: a New Contribution to the Information Ecology of Humanitarian Work

To close the year, we had a nice surprise from Nominet Trust, the UK’s leading tech for good funder. We made their 100 most inspiring social innovations using digital technology to drive social change around the world.  

2. New Tech

In this day and age there’s a lot of buzz around data visualization. We’ve been honing our skills with Tableau. Check out the data visualizations we did for Yemen and Haiti.

We’re also in the era of Big Data. We partnered with Flowminder, experts in analyzing call detail records, to track displacement in Haiti after Hurricane Matthew.  Find out more in ‘After the storm: using big data to track displacement in Haiti

We’re also super excited about the chatbot we started developing for messaging apps and our roll out of Free Basics in Malawi which is allowing us to share the food prices we collect in mVAM surveys with people in Malawi With mVAM, our main focus has been reaching people on their simple feature phones. But we know that smartphone ownership is only going to increase. Contacting people through internet-enabled phones opens up loads of new forms of communication and data collection. is still reaching people on their -free basics

3. Expansion!

mVAM expanded to 16 new countries facing a wide set of challenges: conflict, El Nino drought, hurricanes, extremely remote geographies. We’ve been tracking and learning about what remote mobile data collection can add to food security monitoring systems and what its limits are in different contexts. For some of the highlights, check out our blogs on Afghanistan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Haiti, Nigeria, Papua New Guinea, and  El Nino in Southern Africa,

4. Dynamic Partnerships

To have a lasting impact, we need to work with governments. We are really proud of our partnership with CAID, the Cellule d’Analyses des Indicateurs du Développement  under the Prime Minister’s Office in the Democratic Republic of Congo. We collaborated on setting up a national market monitoring system- mKengela that they are now running. We’ve had intensive technical sessions with the CAID team in Rome and Kinshasa to work on solutions that will fit their data management and analysis needs. The CAID team even traveled to Johannesburg to share their remote mobile data experience with other African countries and help other governments use this technology.

We’re also working with Leiden University. Bouncing ideas off of their team at the Centre for Innovation helps us move forward on tricky challenges. We’re also collaborating with them to develop an online course where we’re going to share our methodologies and how to use remote technology to monitor food security. Check out Welcome to Vamistan for more.

We are in the field of tech. So we can’t do our job well without partnering with the private sector. It’s definitely a dynamic area, and also one where we at mVAM are learning what works best in melding our humanitarian goals with the exciting private tech potential out there. Check out our blog From the Rift Valley to Silicon Valley and our hackathon with Data Mission for more.

5. Learning- the neverending process

In addition to trying out new technology, we’ve been trying to answer some important questions about the live calls, SMS, and IVR surveys which make up the bulk of mVAM data collection.  We’re also doing mode experiments to understand how people answer differently based on which mode we use to contact them. Check out our first Mind the Mode article with more coming in 2017. In Kenya, we are looking into whether we can ask nutrition indicators through mVAM methods. A major challenge is reaching women through phone surveys so we organized a gender webinar with partners to learn from what they are doing- check out our key gender takeaways. These are key questions and they can’t be resolved overnight. But we’re making steady progress in understanding them, and we’re excited for what more we’ll find out in 2017.

Thanks to everyone who has supported our work this year and kept up with our blog!