VAM Talks: Episode 13

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

“There’s no such thing as free internet”?

Sensitizing refugees in Malawi about Free Basics

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WFP/Khataza Jere

We last reported on ‘Za Pamsika’, our Free Basics initiative in Malawi that shares nationwide food prices, back in April, so we wanted to update you on our progress. Free Basics is one of mVAM’s newest projects and part of our two-way communication systems. Through these methods, we do not only directly ask our beneficiaries and local communities for information, but we also share useful information with them, giving them the opportunity to ask questions and voice concerns in return.

Malawi hosts more than 33,000 registered refugees and asylum seekers. Most of them have fled conflict in the Kasai region of the Democratic Republic of Congo and live in two refugee camps where WFP offers food assistance in the form of monthly in-kind distributions and cash-based transfers. It, therefore, seemed like an essential area of expansion for our existing Free Basics sites. By offering the camp population access to information about food prices and markets in and around the camp, WFP hopes to increase transparency and ensure refugees do not pay unfairly high prices.

In our previous Free Basics feasibility research, we identified several challenges including low levels of internet-enabled phone ownership, digital literacy, and a lack of awareness about Free Basics. To see if we would encounter the same challenges when implementing the tool in refugee settings in Malawi, our country office colleagues recently visited the Dzaleka refugee camp. During this visit, they wanted to find out: Is Free Basics reaching the people in the camp? How do they respond to the idea of using WFP’s Free Basics site? And how could we improve the way we provide information to them?

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WFP/Khataza Jere

Our concerns that most refugees would not have access to internet-enabled mobile phones or would not be sufficiently digitally literate to use Free Basics were mistaken. Communicating with relatives and colleagues back home is very important to refugees, so having an internet-enabled phone that allows them to use internet-based chat apps such as WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger is a priority. We also discovered that Microsoft, in collaboration with UNHCR, had distributed 949 smartphones for ‘AppFactory’, its project designed to enable young people to learn software development skills. In fact, approximately seven out of every ten refugees own phones and are computer literate in Dzaleka – and Microsoft is planning to distribute even more devices. This will make it easier for us to spread the word about Free Basics and means that we could easily train refugees to show each other how to use it.

Overall, the people we met responded enthusiastically to Free Basics. As their ability to move outside of the camp is limited, Free Basics can give them access to the wider picture of market data and food prices. This will allow them to compare these prices with those of the markets where they buy food so that they can make informed decisions about their purchases. A key suggestion from the people in the camp was to add information about the stock levels of different commodities at the markets to the Free Basics site – this would allow users to plan their purchases and meals accordingly.

Initially, many people were skeptical about whether the website is free. WFP, therefore, showed them Free Basics on a phone which had no credit on it or checked the balance before and after using the website to convince them that Free Basics was, indeed, free. While we won’t need to do as much digital literacy training as we had anticipated, we still need to do more sensitization with refugees. Once this hurdle is cleared, the future for Free Basics in Malawi looks bright as refugees can use the site and are eager to do so, particularly if we add extra useful information such as food stock levels.

How Can Chatbots Help Us Respond to Humanitarian Crisis?


WFP/Rein Skullerud

Kaukuma refugee camp in Kenya (WFP/Rein Skullerud)

At the moment, The World Food Programme (WFP) and the wider humanitarian system are #FightingFamine in four countries. In Somalia, Yemen, North-Eastern Nigeria and South Sudan 20 million people are on the brink of starvation.

Our recent study “At the Root of Exodus” found that high levels of food insecurity lead to higher levels of migration across borders; UNHCR estimates that there are 65.6 million people forcibly displaced worldwide. The stakes are high, we need all the information we can get.

Who Needs a Humanitarian Chatbot?

Based on our previous experiences and secondary sources, we knew that some displaced people could potentially access our humanitarian chatbot. But, of course, the reality on the ground is incredibly complex.

They could be refugees who have travelled to a different continent or Internally Displaced People (IDPs) who’ve moved within their own country. Some may have just arrived in a camp or settlement a few months ago, others may be adults who were born in the camp and spent their whole lives there.

Within the same camp there might be different nationalities, languages, family demographics and education levels- the list goes on. These huge disparities mean that extensive in-country, context-specific research is needed to confirm any initial design assumptions. Only then can we really design the best tool to reach our target population.

This was very clear when we spoke to IDPs in Maiduguri, but also during our visit to Kakuma Refugee camp and Kalobeyei refugee settlements in northern Kenya where we conducted some focus group discussions about the possibility of using a humanitarian chatbot.

There are currently more than 200,000 people living in the two refugee settlements we visited in Kenya, including Somali and South Sudanese refugees, so we spoke to various groups in each of the settlements to get a broad overview of what different people felt could or couldn’t work.

Our research was therefore constructed around four fronts: phone usage, Internet usage, information needs, and a product review of the chatbot.

Refugee Phone and Internet Usage in Kakuma

First, phone and Internet usage. For people fleeing their homes phones can be their lifelines. They’re the way that they communicate with friends and family, get updates on the situations at home and even receive remittances or money from WFP.

It therefore wasn’t a surprise that a lot of the households, particularly in the older and more established camps, had access to a phone, and many also to the Internet. Kakuma refugee camp was established in 1992 so many of the young people we spoke to had lived their whole lives in the camp.

Here people told us that nine out of ten households had a phone (either basic or Internet-enabled) and they had good network coverage- encouraging news if we want to contact them with this channel! They confirmed our assumption that young people were most likely to have access to the Internet, either owning their own smartphone or by borrowing one from friends and used social messaging apps. But of course this wasn’t the only story.

The enormous increase in refugees means there are actually four different ‘Kakuma’ camps all of which are now full. To cope with ever-increasing numbers the Kalobeyei settlement was set up a few kilometres away to host new arrivals in an integrated settlement with the host community. The differences in people’s responses were stark.

Here people reported that only one or two out of ten households had handsets and it was very difficult and expensive to charge them. The young people also said they had Facebook profiles and knew how to use the Internet but they had no way to access it.

They pointed out that it’s now nearly impossible to get a Kenyan SIM card because as refugees they don’t have the necessary ID and aren’t eligible to legally work. Clearly whilst our assumption that a chatbot could be a good way of communicating with young refugees or IDPs was correct – there were some serious limitations.

Would Refugees Actually Use a Chatbot?

During our visit, we did not only want to check the feasibility of the chatbot and identify potential users, we also wanted to find out how to make it a) useful and b) interesting enough to hold users’ attention.

From our focus groups we learnt that refugees wanted to get more information about WFP programs. WFP already uses many different media like posters, hotlines, desks and even loudspeakers on cars to speak to people in the camps but a chatbot could act as a complement that sends outs updates immediately.

Refugees also really liked that they could have a direct feedback channel – they didn’t have to wait in line to send a message and WFP staff were happy they would have an automated way of handling these messages. Nevertheless there are limitations. Both staff and refugees reiterated that the chatbot isn’t the right communication channel to ask sensitive questions about security issues.

Two Surprising Findings

These interviews also gave us insight into some basic communication designs. Initially we thought that to reach the most people we needed to translate the bot into Kiswahili, Somali and Dinka (the most commonly spoken language by South Sudanese refugees). However, after talking to the refugees we soon realised there was no need as young people, our primary target audience, spoke English or Kiswahili.

In fact, the biggest takeaway was that the chatbot could be a springboard for other channels. By its nature a refugee camp is a very close-knit community. Even if not everyone has access to the Internet, young people said that they would still be able to share the messages they receive verbally with their friends and family.

Our trip to Kakuma therefore reiterated that context-specific research is the only way that we can produce a great communication tool for our target audience. There are challenges that we’ll explore in the next phases of our rollout, particularly as we explore using our chatbot in other countries and camps. Nevertheless, the future looks bright for the chatbot!

This blog was originally published on ICT Works 

mVAM is recruiting an intern!

Join the team!

Join the team!

Ever wanted to get involved with the mVAM project? We’re happy to say that we’re recruiting an intern! If you’ve just graduated or are still in education with at least 2 years of undergraduate experience and are interested in communications and food security we want to hear from you!

To see the full vacancy follow this link to the WFP careers posting and send us a message if you have any more questions to

Deadline for applications is 18th August 2017


VAM Talks episode 12: Monitoring Nutrition Remotely

Episode 12:   3 August 2017

Logo2Alice Clough interviews Lauren Landis, director of WFP Nutrition, Kusum Hachhethu from mVAM and Todd Rosenstock from ICRAF about mVAM for Nutrition

Postcard from DRC

Congo Call Center operator on the phone with a WFP beneficiary to discuss WFP’s activities

Congo Call Center operator on the phone with a WFP beneficiary to discuss WFP’s activities

Greetings from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)! Two members of the mVAM team recently travelled to Kinshasa to help the WFP Country Office assess how to improve upon its current mVAM system and see what other mVAM technologies we could roll out in the coming months.

mVAM data collection in DRC is conducted nation-wide in collaboration with the Cellule d’Analyses des Indicateurs de Développement, more commonly referred to as CAID. CAID is part of the Congolese National Government, housed within the Prime Minister’s Office, and is responsible for collecting food security and other indicators on a regular basis. Since April 2016, CAID—with technical support from WFP—has been collecting remote food security data across more than 50% of the country. Now this is quite a feat when you consider the vast size of DRC (it would cover most of Western Europe!) coupled with the fact that in many places there is little network coverage.

Map from:

Map from:

During the visit, the mVAM team met with CAID to discuss how to improve its data quality and expand to areas not yet covered by mVAM. This included a visit to the Congo Call Center (CCC). They have a team of operators dedicated to conducting the monthly calls so we went to discuss any challenges they encounter when placing calls. We also brainstormed different ways share the information that CAID collects with the general public. They currently produce a monthly bulletin called ‘m-kengela’ that shares price information and other food security-related details but they also want to share this information with a larger audience. So, together we explored the possibility of creating a Free Basics website that would be accessible to a larger audience. Given the success of our Free Basics pilot in Malawi and the fact that there are two participating mobile network providers within the country, we decided that this would be an ideal way of creating a nation-wide price website. We therefore met with cell phone companies and spent time with CAID mapping out what their site might look like.

Discussions are now underway vis-a-vis the next steps and the mVAM team and CAID are hard at work preparing for the launch of its first Free Basics price website. So stay tuned for more details as rollout takes place over the coming months!

mVAM falls in love in Nepal

WFP/Gaurav Singhal

The mVAM-NeKSAP team (WFP/Gaurav Singhal)


The mVAM Team is on the move again. This time our travels took us to Kathmandu, Nepal, where we’re not only excited at the prospect of using mVAM for the first time, but mVAM has also fallen in love and is soon be a proud parent!

The Government of Nepal currently runs a key-informant based food security monitoring system it calls NeKSAP. Each trimester, community leaders in 74 of 75 of Nepal’s Districts gather and use convergence evidence to assess the criticality of the food-security situation in their respective area. This exercise has proven invaluable in directing programming and resources not just for WFP but also for the government and other development/humanitarian organizations across the country. But the process is cumbersome and a bit imprecise when it comes to understanding and responding to a vastly complicated humanitarian landscape (think about the 2015 earthquake in Kathmandu and climate change!).

In 2016, an extreme drought in the high-altitude plateaus of the Mid-Western and Far-Western Development Regions of the country prompted the WFP Nepal Country Office to conduct a face-to-face food security baseline assessment. Given the persistent acute food insecurity in the region the team, collaborating with the Government of Nepal, requested assistance to create a seasonal food security monitoring system, leveraging the agility, efficiency, and cost-effectiveness of mVAM.

This region is so remote that in the past WFP preferred to use airlifts than trucks to deliver assistance. This could not have been a bigger challenge for mVAM given issues with selection bias and phone-ownership. This was compounded by the fact that government insisted on nothing less than high-quality, representative, publishable statistics that could be used in official government figures. If only there was some way we had to reach the most remote and inaccessible regions as well that can only be reached by travelling for several days on foot! As it turns out, the NeKSAP system has provisions for a small network of skilled enumerators to live and work in these regions.

Rural landscape in Bajhang District, located in the North Western region of the country WFP/Bikkil Sthapit

Rural landscape in Bajhang District, located in the North Western region of the country
WFP/Bikkil Sthapit

That is when we had brainwave borrowed from South Asian tradition: an arranged marriage for mVAM (don’t worry, there was a courtship first)…and mNeKSAP was conceived combining the best of traditional face-to-face assessment with mVAM! Why only rely on one survey mode?  For individuals without phones we decided to use the NeKSAP enumerators to do traditional face-to-face assessments.

Furthermore, all the individuals were first interviewed in a face-to-face pre-winter baseline. This means that not only is the data representative, ensuring coverage of non-phone owners, mNeKSAP also provides a rare panel data set, re-interviewing the same individuals every trimester over a year.  Panel data is the gold-standard for doing causal inference. There is much more work to be done of course but we’ll keep you updated on this exciting new collaboration.

VAM Talks Episode 11: IDPs in Nigeria test our chatbot

Episode 11:   20 June 2017

Logo2Jean-Martin Bauer and Seokjin Han travel to North-Eastern Nigeria to test out our humanitarian chatbot with IDPs affected by the Boko Haram insurgency,

After the rains: sprouts of green and mVAM in South Sudan

Our South Sudan mVAM operators at work (WFP/Angie Lee)

Our South Sudan mVAM operators at work (WFP/Angie Lee)

Greetings from an ever-green Juba! The last time we reported from South Sudan it was dry and dusty everywhere. This time our visit coincided with the start of the rainy season – a welcome respite to the scorching heat that lasted for months.

Other than the heat, there are many challenges in South Sudan, particularly when trying to set up an mVAM system. South Sudan is one of the worst ranking countries in terms of mobile phone penetration and connectivity: according to 2016 ITU data, approximately 24 percent of the population have mobile cellular subscriptions and merely 4.3 percent of households own a computer. The ongoing conflict has only made the situation worse. We found out that network coverage has significantly deteriorated since mVAM activities first started in February 2016. A case in point: one major network operator, which reportedly had the largest outreach in the country, reduced its coverage from 70 to 15 percent. Our mVAM operators told us that completing a 10-minute survey with one single phone call was nearly impossible, because the line is constantly dropping.

Even when a call does go through, it is extremely difficult to pinpoint the respondent’s location. People are on the move fleeing the conflict (more than 950,000 South Sudanese have crossed the border into Uganda alone according to the latest UNHCR estimates) and phone numbers keep changing (the average shelf life of a SIM is short as people are on the move and network coverage varies greatly between different areas). To make things even more complicated, the administrative boundaries of the country are also shifting (in addition to the existing 10 states, an additional 22 states have been newly created).

Being mindful of these challenges, we had previously recommended that the country office start contacting a pool of key informants who are easier to reach and were able to collect data on markets, displacement, and road access in the Greater Upper Nile Region. However, even here we are confronted with the challenge of collecting data in a highly politically-divided context. Relying exclusively on key informant sources can give you a biased picture of the situation on the ground, especially where the informants speak for specific interest groups. It is therefore necessary to triangulate various sources of key informant information and complement them with other secondary or even primary household data when possible.

Does all of this mean that there is no future for mVAM in South Sudan? On the contrary, we found that the demand for mobile surveys is there both for WFP and the humanitarian community at large. After all, South Sudan is a complex emergency where ‘putting boots on the ground’ is often not possible and we need all the creativity and tools we can muster. In fact, WFP South Sudan has been conducting mobile surveys for market monitoring and rapid emergency food security assessments (the latest one took place in select famine-affected counties). Similarly, other NGO and development partners on the ground are also conducting mobile surveys for programme or food security monitoring.

Moving forward, we have identified, together with the South Sudan VAM team, two areas of opportunity where we can scale mVAM: i) urban food security monitoring in selected hotspots and interest points and ii) complementing the early warning bulletin jointly produced by the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs and Disaster Management and WFP with mVAM key informant data.

Green fellows like these are often found at WFP premises (WFP/Marie Enlund)

Green fellows like these are often found at WFP premises (WFP/Marie Enlund)

Are you conducting mobile surveys responsibly?

Twitter card data responsibility

The use of mobile technology is a tremendous opportunity to better communicate with people in humanitarian settings. However, these advanced capabilities also involve new privacy and security risks for people in the communities where remote mobile surveys are implemented. We therefore collaborated with the International Data Responsibility Group and Leiden University’s Centre for Innovation to draft a practical guide: ‘Conducting Mobile Surveys Responsibly: A field book for WFP staff’.

The field book outlines the main risks for staff engaged in remote data collection and details best practices for data security, privacy and responsible data approaches in the very complex environments in which WFP operates.

data responsibility front page