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.

South Sudan: communicating both ways

South Sudan1

WFP/Hagar Ibrahim

We are back in South Sudan, where, in June, we identified two main areas of opportunity for employing a mobile Vulnerability Analysis and Mapping (mVAM) approach: using it to monitor urban food security and applying it to improve early warning systems.

This time, we are pleased to announce that the project is moving forward, we are collecting more and more numbers and are getting closer to piloting an Interactive Voice Response (IVR) system, which will both boost the capacity of our in-house call center and enable beneficiaries to access information and get answers to their questions.

South Sudan2

WFP/Hagar Ibrahim

The food security situation in urban areas in South Sudan has been deteriorating. According to WFP’s latest urban food security assessment in Bor town, 85% of households are food insecure (of which 44% are severely food insecure, and 41% moderately food insecure). As the urban food security situation needs to be monitored frequently and there is better mobile phone coverage in urban than in rural areas, mVAM is stepping in to collect the data.

Through face-to-face assessments and via our partner agencies on the ground, we have collected over 400 phone numbers and used some of them to conduct food security live call interviews with households in urban centers mostly across Greater Equatoria.

South Sudan map

WFP/Map 1: Number of surveyed households by county, September 2017

However, the context for conducting phone surveys in South Sudan continues to be challenging due to the low mobile phone penetration rates and connectivity problems. We had already reported last time that the main mobile network operators downsized their businesses due to recurrent conflicts. In our most recent round of phone surveys, we found that nearly 40% of the numbers were not reachable. Nevertheless, we were able to talk to over 240 households and ask them about their food consumption, negative coping behaviours, and the food security situation in their communities.

The goal of our latest mission was to provide technical support and assist with capacity building at our in-house call centre. We have configured an interactive voice response (IVR) system, a technology which allows users to access relevant information using the phone keypad and speech recognition. Through the pre-recorded voice response option, the system will be used to answer beneficiaries’ questions relating to, for example, the registration process, food distribution dates, and technical issues, such as lost or damaged vouchers. Users will also be able to record their questions, upon which WFP gets back to them. The IVR system can also initiate calls automatically and direct them to an operator only when a respondent picks up the phone, thereby saving the operators time. This will help address a challenge that mVAM operators in South Sudan have had to grapple with all this time.

The next steps for mVAM in South Sudan will involve deploying and improving the IVR system and expanding our contact information database of potential survey respondents with the help of WFP units and our cooperating partners in the field. Until the next time!

 

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. 

Postcard from Dakar

mVAM workshop participants all smiles after learning more about IVR WFP/Lucia Casarn

mVAM workshop participants all smiles after learning more about IVR WFP/Lucia Casarn

During the last week of June, staff from WFP HQ’s mVAM team, the West and Central Africa Regional Bureau, and Nigeria and Niger Country Offices met in beautiful Dakar to work together on Interactive Voice Response (IVR) systems for two-way communication. (If you want to dig deep into all details IVR-related, check out the lesson in our mVAM online course!)

We’ve previously blogged about how WFP is responding to the needs of people who have been displaced due to Boko Haram insurgencies in both Nigeria and Niger. When we implemented these operations we also put communication channels in place so beneficiaries are able to contact WFP. In Nigeria, the Maiduguri Field Office created a hotline. Their operators receive an average of 100 calls per day from beneficiaries asking food security-related questions and providing feedback on the operations. The problem is the hotline is only available during working hours and has a limited number of people who can call in at the same time. To work around this they’re therefore looking at how an IVR system can support the call operators who are dealing with high volumes and better manage calls that take place outside of normal office hours. WFP Niger wants to set up a similar hotline system but without full time phone operators. Beneficiaries will call in to an automated IVR system and their queries and feedback recorded by the system and followed up by the Country Office. 

A Nigeria IT Officer working to install a GSM gateway for IVR usage in Maiduguri WFP/Lucia Casarin

A Nigeria IT Officer working to install a GSM gateway for IVR usage in Maiduguri WFP/Lucia Casarin

During the workshop participants were trained by InSTEDD on how to physically deploy IVR using a GSM gateway (a fancy tool that automatically places phone calls) and Verboice, the free open source software they’ve developed to manage these systems. The team also discussed the nitty gritty technical aspects of the system, including creating and modifying call flows (the sequencing of questions), scheduling calls and downloading collected call logs and recordings. Most importantly, participants had the opportunity to share their experiences and challenges with experts in this field and discuss best practices, alternative deployments and technical solutions.

The Country Office staff have now returned to Niger and Nigeria and they’ve already started testing the use of the IVR machines. We’re eager to begin logging data and hearing more from our beneficiaries. So stay tuned!

 

 

 

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!

Our 5 hacks for mobile surveys for 2015

WomanPhoneGoma

An mVAM respondent in Mugunga III camp, DRC.

  1. Gender matters. Design and run your survey in a way that promotes women’s participation. With mobile surveys, it’s hard to get as many women to respond as men. Make sure you’re calling at the right time and that you provide incentives. We also recommend having women operators. For more of our thinking on gender in mobile surveys, check out our blog entry on gender issues in West Africa.
  1. Validate mobile data against face-to-face data. Your mobile survey results may differ significantly. In many contexts, cell phone penetration has not reached the most vulnerable groups. In DRC, we had to provide phones to Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) and access to electricity- to learn more check out our video and our blog entry. But it’s not always possible to distribute phones so it’s important to check your results against other data sources. Also, people get tired of answering their phones all the time so attrition and low response rates will affect your results.
  1. Mind the mode!  Your results will differ according to whether the survey is done through SMS, IVR, or live calls by an operator. Live calls have the highest response rates, but you have to be ready to pay. For simpler data, we have found that SMS is effective and cheap. Just remember- the context matters. SMS is working well with nationwide surveys, even in countries where literacy rates are not that high- check out our recent results in Malawi. However, SMS can be a problem in communities where literacy rates are very low or familiarity with technology is low as we found in DRC IDP camps. For Interactive Voice Response (IVR) that use voice-recorded questions, the jury is still out on its usefulness as a survey tool.  IVR didn’t work as well as SMS in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea during the Ebola crisis (HPN June 2015). But IVR has potential as a communication tool to push out information to people. Check out our entry on our two-way communication system where we use IVR to send distribution and market price information to IDPs in DRC.
  1. Keep the survey user friendly and brief. Always keep your survey short and simple. Stay below 10 minutes for voice calls, or people will hang up. If you are texting people, we don’t recommend much longer than 10 questions. Go back to the drawing board if respondents have trouble with some of your questions. With mobile surveys, you don’t have the luxury of explaining everything as with in person interviews. It might take a few rounds to get it right. When we want food prices, we’ve found we need to tweak food items and units of measurement in Kenya and DRC to best capture what people buy in local markets. Again, short and sweet should be the mobile survey mantra.
  1. Upgrade your information management systems. There is nothing as frustrating as collecting a lot of great data – without being able to manage it all! Standardize, standardize, standardize! Standardize questions, answer choices, variable names, and encoding throughout questionnaires. Automate data processing wherever possible. Also, you’ll be collecting phone numbers. This is sensitive information so make sure you have the correct confidentiality measures in place. Check out our Do’s and Don’ts of Phone Number Collection and Storage and our script for anonymizing phone numbers. Finally, share your data so others can use it! We’re posting our data in an online databank.

 

 

Will IVR work for food security surveys in a Somalia IDP camp?

As the mVAM pilot project enters its final quarter, the team is focusing on finalizing all planned activities, while documenting learning that will allow us to scale up with a strong evidence base. This month’s highlights include some hands-on work with the team in Somalia, and the launch of a comprehensive review of our activities.

The Somalia IVR coming along
A key question we have is whether interactive voice response (IVR) surveys are user friendly enough to be used in Somalia with the vulnerable groups that WFP works with. The major issue to resolve was ensuring the IVR system Verboice in our Galkayo field office was fully operational. Although we had been able to place some IVR calls, the system required dedicated attention to be fully operational In mid-January, Marie and Lucia headed to Galkayo to meet with the team for a troubleshooting mission.
Thanks to late night remote support from Gustavo at INSTEDD, bugs were ironed out, and we were soon able to get our first complete IVR surveys using a Somali language questionnaire. The team in Galkayo was trained on how to place the calls and will be following a plan to scale up IVR calls in February. Meanwhile, we will continue collecting food security data through calls placed by our operators, a modality that has worked well to date.

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Making the IVR operational: training underway

During the visit, a key discussion took place regarding appropriate incentive rates. In both DR Congo and Somalia, respondents receive a token of appreciation from WFP in order to promote participation in surveys. The amount we provide –USD 0.50 per call – is equivalent to 5 minutes of airtime. While our respondents in DR Congo seem thrilled to receive this amount of airtime, the question of increasing the incentive has come up in Somalia, where it is perceived as too small.

There seem to be three schools of thought in the team. Some believe the incentive should increase in Somalia. Others think that increasing call attempts and better sensitizing respondents should be sufficient to ensure good response to our surveys. Others still question the principle of providing an incentive to people who might already receive food assistance from WFP.

In coming months, we will be making sure respondents are called more often and that the messages they receive tell them about the importance of their participation. We would then consider working with a larger incentive in the future should response rates not improve.

Launching the mVAM review

A critical milestone of the project is capturing and sharing learning. In order to proceed with scale-up strategically and responsibly, the review of the mVAM pilot in Somalia and DRC is now ongoing. Professor Nathan Morrow, who teaches at Tulane University’s Payson Center, is leading the review. Nathan has written extensively about technology in the humanitarian world, including a review of Ushaidi’s contribution to the 2010 earthquake response in Haiti.

In January, Nathan traveled to Goma, DRC, to meet with WFP staff, key stakeholders, and beneficiaries residing in the Mugunga 3 IDP camp to hear from them how the pilot was going, document their questions and concerns. He will also be chatting with staff in Somalia and the three-EVD affected countries to learn how they view the project.

The review will include documenting the demonstrated potential of mVAM at a larger level; noting areas of improvement that can ameliorate our technology; and explore how mVAM’s technology fits within the larger humanitarian sector’s work. Results will be available in the spring.

At the other end of the line: voices from Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia

Blog entry originally posted in November 2014 on the Humanitarian Innovation Fund website.


Over the past couple of months mVAM project has grown, and fast. The catalyst has been the Ebola virus disease (EVD) outbreak.

When the mVAM project started in 2013, we envisioned the advantages of remote data collection in areas that are frequently affected by conflict, natural disasters, or inaccessibility (e.g. villages cut off by impassable roads during the rainy season). The thought of not being able to collect data due to an infectious disease outbreak never crossed our minds. Fast forward a year, and we are suddenly collecting food security data from quarantined areas of Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Liberia through short SMS and interactive voice response (IVR) surveys.

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Staff in Rome testing new software we could use to conduct SMS surveys

As physical movement of our staff became increasingly more restricted in EVD-affected areas, remote data collection began to seem like the most viable option. Overnight, the team in Rome went from analysing data from DRC and Somalia to planning with colleagues in our West Africa Office on what would be the quickest way to conduct remote food security surveys on the ground. Using crowd source data in collaboration with a private company—meaning that we call or SMS households already registered in calling databases—our teams were able to begin data collection in late September. Data on food prices, households’ coping strategies, and other relevant topics is now being collected monthly in Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea. The goal of this ongoing data collection is to observe if/how the EVD is impacting food prices and households’ food security. So far, two rounds of data collection have been conducted, and we are gearing up for round three of data collection in early December. We are pleased to see the learning we’ve accumulated over the past year be put to practice for the Ebola response. For more information on our work in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea, please visit the mVAM monitoring website (link is external).

MEANWHILE IN DRC AND SOMALIA…

Despite the ongoing emergency in West Africa, our teams in DRC and Somalia are continuing with their monthly data collection and striving to improve the ways in which we implement the project.  Two of our Rome colleagues will be heading to Goma, DRC next week to work with the team on a review of SMS versus face-to-face surveys and provide technical support. So stay tuned for more from their trip soon!

In addition, this week, the Rome team had a conference call with staff in Galkayo, Somalia, to discuss project progress. During the call, team members brainstormed how to address declines in response rates. Since the inception of the project, response rates in Somalia for each round have slowly been decreasing. The staff expressed that this could be due to the fact that respondents’ cell phones are often switched off to save power; may be indicative of decreased interest on the part of respondents; or could be due to other variables. As such, the team is hoping to conduct focus group discussions to learn more. Based on the responses, possible solutions to boost response rates could include launching a campaign to remind people to respond, arranging for respondents to charge their phones for free with a local vendor; or perhaps providing a one-time airtime credit for respondents who respond often. Natural declines in response rates are normal over time; however, we are confident that with the implementation of some creative solutions Somalia’s call rates will be increased soon and will keep you posted on how it goes.