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

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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

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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.