Postcard from Bangui

Good to be OKING:It may not be new and super large, but the owner claims this phone has a week-long battery life! WFP/Dominique Ferretti

It may not be new and super large, but the owner claims this phone has a week-long battery life!
WFP/Dominique Ferretti

Greetings from the Central African Republic (CAR)! Our team recently visited Bangui and Kaga-Bandoro to help the Country Office team assess how to enhance the current mVAM system and see what other mVAM technologies we might be able to deploy. CAR is a very unique context, because there’s little-to-no cell phone reception outside of main towns. Only 26% of the population own a phone, one of the lowest rates in the world according to the World Bank.  This means that collecting data remotely takes some creativity. The CAR team uses a key informant system, where they contact approximately 200 people around the country each month to collect information on basic commodity prices, market access, population movements, and security issues. The collected information is then shared with the humanitarian community, who appreciate the data, as it’s the only national-level food security data that’s currently collected regularly!

A local woman in Kaga-Bandoro selling a great source of protein and a central African delicacy—caterpillars! WFP/Dominique Ferretti

A local woman in Kaga-Bandoro selling a great source of protein and a central African delicacy—caterpillars!
WFP/Dominique Ferretti

The only downfall to the key informant system is that it doesn’t give us household-level food security information. The CAR team has therefore decided to try a small pilot using household questionnaires in the city of Kaga-Bandoro. Courtesy of UNHAS, we visited the city (more like a very small town!) and the 2 IDP camps it hosts during our day trip. While not that many people had cell phones, enough community members and displaced persons had phones that we’ll be able to get some idea of the food security situation.

Stay tuned for more as the pilot unfolds…!

Chatting with community members as they collect water WFP/Dominique Ferretti

Chatting with community members as they collect water
WFP/Dominique Ferretti

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.

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If you’re not human then who are you?

Experimenting with chatbots in Nigeria and Haiti

WFP/Lucia Casarin

Testing the bot in Haiti – WFP/Lucia Casarin

Readers of this blog know that the team has been experimenting with chatbots to communicate with disaster-affected communities – read our previous posts about our prototype and the Nielsen Hackathon.

As part of this effort, during recent missions to Haiti and Nigeria, our team went out to talk to communities to find out whether a chatbot would be right for them.

Would a chatbot be a stretch in these communities?

Well it’s not that much of a stretch.

In North East Nigeria, most displaced people live in Maiduguri, a city of over 1 million people. In this ‘urban’ setting connectivity is good, most people own cell phones and many young people use social media and messaging apps. Mobile operators have been offering services that allow people to access the internet by selling ‘social bundles’ (unlimited social media access sold in very small increments) and offer some services for free, including Facebook Light and Facebook Messenger.

In Haiti, three-quarters of the population live in the capital, Port-au-Prince, where 3G connectivity is good and most people use messaging apps to communicate with friends and family. Even in rural and difficult-to-reach communities, leaders and young people own smartphones and connect to the internet. There is a lot of competition between mobile operators so the prices for mobile data are very low. This means that most people can afford to access the internet either via their own smartphone or from shared smartphones.

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Mobile phones charging station on the road from Léogane Peri to Port-au-Prince WFP/Lucia Casarin

A bare-bones demo

In both countries we tested a simple chatbot that asks people about food prices and what the food security is like in their community. The survey we used was much more basic than our usual mobile questionnaires as we felt it was important to keep things simple at this stage.

For Nigeria, the bot demo was initially in English but we soon translated it into Hausa, the primary language spoken by displaced persons in Maiduguri. In Haiti we made it available both in Creole and French. The chatbot was very responsive on 3G and it even worked with slower 2G connections so the technology works in these contexts. But this was only the starting point, what we really wanted to know was what ‘real’ people thought about the bot.

We organized focus group discussions with displaced people in Maiduguri and with community representatives in Haiti. We helped people access the WFP bot via their Facebook accounts, and they began chatting away.

Sounds cool, but what are the limitations?

Here’s what people said:

First of all, people thought the bot is a convenient, quick, and easy way to get in touch directly with WFP and they really liked that the bot allows them to speak to WFP without intermediaries. They had lot to tell us particularly through the open-ended question where they typed out detailed responses.

In Nigeria, they did tell us that our (somewhat wordy) English-language demo should be translated into Hausa because it would make it easier for everyone to use. Our first group of testers were young people who were already Facebook users and so were familiar with Messenger. It was therefore no surprise that they were interacting smoothly with the bot and able to go through our questionnaire in minutes.

WFP/Jean-Martin Bauer

Testing the bot in Nigeria – WFP/Jean-Martin Bauer

In Haiti, people started interacting with the bot as if it was a human rather than an automated questionnaire so they got stuck pretty fast when it wasn’t as naturally responsive as they’d expected. This means that either we give clearer instructions to people or we add Natural Language Processing capabilities to our bot.

There are of course other barriers. In both countries women appeared to be less likely to own a smartphone. This means that bot users will likely be overwhelmingly young, male and better educated than other people – hardly ‘representative’ of WFP’s target affected population. The free version of the bot is also not always available: in Nigeria only Airtel subscribers can access it, while in Haiti the free service doesn’t exist yet.

This means that the bot would need to be a complement to the other tools we have. We might use data from the bot to obtain a quick situation update, but we will continue relying on other sources for more representative data.

mVAM for nutrition: findings from Kenya

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Photo: WFP/Kusum Hachhethu

We’ve used mVAM to collect data on a range of things that impact food security – so what about information on nutrition? Back in October, we went to Kenya to conduct a study on whether we could use remote mobile data collection to gather information on women and children’s nutrition.

The summary of our findings from the case study are now available in a new report from mVAM and our partners in the study, WFP’s Nutrition Division and the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF).

Read more:

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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.

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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’!

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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.

Ain’t no resolution high enough

One of the major challenges we currently face is that while our survey results provide a detailed picture of the food security situation at the regional level, they are only able to provide representative food security estimates at a larger geographic scale, and don’t always tell us where smaller hotspots or pockets of food insecurity are. So we want to find a way to produce the most accurate, up-to-date and granular representations of food insecurity as possible, to help inform our decision making.

Recently some of our team had the great chance to go to Southampton – a peaceful city in the south of the UK – where we loaded up on shortbread and started working on a type of dynamic high-resolution mapping known as Geostatistical Mapping.

The purpose of the trip was to work with and learn from Flowminder/WorldPop. As you might remember, we’ve worked with them in the past to do things like tracking population displacement in Haiti after Hurricane Matthew. They’ve also developed a way to produce high-resolution maps of population demographics and characteristics. We believe these methods can be applied to create high resolution maps of food security indicators.

We collect information at a cluster level (LEFT) - a village, for example. This is relevant at state level (RIGHT)

We collect information at a cluster level (left) – a village, for example. This is relevant at state level (right)

 

As modelling techniques and data processing capability have evolved, and as high resolution satellite imagery has become more available, creating more granular maps than ever before is possible. This is where Flowminder/WorldPop comes into play. Their aim is to provide estimates of population demographics and characteristics for low and middle income countries by integrating census, survey, satellite and GIS datasets, in a flexible machine-learning framework.

So, how does it work? (if you’re not a satistician, skip to the pictures!)

Basically, these high-resolution maps use one or more geolocated data sets, such as rainfall, vegetation or accessibility to markets, and look at the correlation between these secondary sources of geospatial data and something else, say, a particular food security indicator from a household survey in sampled areas (for this reason, high resolution mapping is also referred to as geospatial mapping) . Once we understand the relationship between the two variables in sampled areas, we can make more accurate predictions about the food security situation in non-sampled areas. If available, mobile phone metadata (Call Detail Records) can also be used as an additional covariate, especially in urban areas where the mobile network is dense.

 

How it is now: male literacy rates in Nigeria (shown at cluster level)

How it is now: literacy rates in Nigeria (shown at cluster level)

How we want it to be: high-resolution map of male literacy in Nigeria

How we want it to be: high-resolution map of literacy in Nigeria

 

 

 

 

 

Looking at the example above and the difference in coverage, you’ve probably already understood how appealing high-resolution maps are as a tool for better planning. But we don’t want to stop here – we’re young and full of dreams! If you noticed, we spoke at the beginning of this post about dynamic high resolution maps. We just discussed how to get a static map for more detailed spatial information, but the next step is actually to update this map each time we have new data. This is a great opportunity, because some satellite imagery already provides new data every ten days or so. This means that we could have maps representing the situation in near real-time.

To take this step, we have to bring in data that is available on a high-frequency basis, such as  mobile surveys. These can be used to highlight some areas of our map on regular basis, or to assess the accuracy of the map by checking hotspots with a quick mobile survey.

VAM Talks: Episode 10

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Alice Clough interviews the VAM team in the Afghanistan country office about why they’ve started using mVAM’s remote food security monitoring system.

 

 

Hearing from those who are #FacingFamine

Photo: WFP/Amadou Baraze

Photo: WFP/Amadou Baraze

 

In early March, Stephen O’Brien, the United Nations’ Emergency Relief Coordinator, reported that 20 million people across four countries face starvation and famine.  The famines looming in Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia and Nigeria represent the largest humanitarian crisis since the UN’s creation. “Without collective and coordinated global efforts,” O’Brien said, “People will simply starve to death, and many more will suffer and die from disease.”

One of the components that complicates these particular emergencies is access to the areas in crisis. Without safe and unimpeded access for humanitarian aid workers, it’s difficult to get a picture of what’s going on in the affected areas, which adds another dimension to an already challenging response. In Northeast Nigeria, the threat of violence made it difficult for WFP’s food security analysts to visit vendors in local markets or speak with people in their homes – all part of their usual food security monitoring routine.

In order to continue gathering information needed to understand the situation in the affected areas, WFP used remote mobile data collection to get a picture of what was happening in the communities they could no longer speak to in person. With an overwhelming amount of responses, we turned to Tableau , who had already helped us create data visualizations for other countries which use mVAM, to help us visualize the results in a way that could be easily understood by everyone.

mVAM hears directly from people in affected communities in the northeast of Nigeria

mVAM hears directly from people in affected communities in the northeast of Nigeria

 

Our latest interactive data visualization of the food security situation in Northeast Nigeria is now online, and the story of how it came to be can be found on Tableau’s blog. Make sure to check out the free response section, where you can hear from 5,500 households on what should be done to improve the food security in their community.

 

VAM Talks: Episode 9

Logo2VAM’s Arif Husain and Jean-Martin Bauer travel to New York for a hackathon run by Nielsen where the participants try to build a food security surveying chatbot.

24 Hour Hackathon People

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Hackers in action at Hacking Aid (Photo: WFP/Angie Lee)

 

As some of you might have already guessed, we at mVAM LOVE hackathons. Last weekend, we had a chance to participate in another one: “Hacking Aid” which was organized by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs and PwC, together with UNHCR, OCHA and Leiden University’s Center of Innovation. This event brought together more than 70 participants from all walks of life – students, aid workers, programmers, developers, linguists, teachers, professionals from the private sector and government. A common thread linked them all: they were brimming with ideas to find digital solutions to some of the pressing challenges the humanitarian community currently faces.

The overall theme of this particular hackathon centered on finding ways to make humanitarian aid more efficient and transparent. Specifically, we looked at solutions that would enable self-reporting by affected populations, so that people in need would be able to report where, when and what type of help is needed.

In order to come up with specific challenges that could be addressed with practical solutions, we had a rapid prototyping session (a.k.a. think hard and quick) to define a problem around collecting and reporting data. This was followed by an open-mic stage, where we pitched our challenges to the hackers.

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Wael explains what we need (Photo: WFP/Angie Lee)

After working away for nearly 24 hours straight, the twelve teams submitted their final outputs for evaluation by an independent jury panel. The winner of the Hacking Aid award, Team Dream Catchers, developed an app to register complaints and feedback, even offline, from refugees in camps. The second winner, Team Seeing Hunger, proposed a solution to WFP’s challenge: a chatbot tool to pick up and verify self-initiated feedback or reports coming through social media.

A special mention went to Team Botcast, which won the Tech Award for the technically most impressive prototype with their chatbot for Dabanga radio station in Darfur. The chatbot facilitates the process of handling requests for assistance and protection. Team Transformers took home the Innovation Award for their app “Noci”, which uses audiovisual techniques to enable those whom are not able to read or write to report on their needs. 

The winners of the hackathon will have a change to travel to Geneva, where they will pitch their ideas to the board of UNHCR, and will receive support from PwC and Leiden University as they develop a prototype. All prototypes will be available open source.

We noticed that many teams proposed chatbot-based solutions to the challenges we pitched, which is exciting for us as it suggests this is a promising area for technological development. mVAM is already exploring how chatbots could be used to help WFP’s work and we hope to find ways to collaborate further with the teams from the hackathon and other partners to vet other ideas in the area of two-way communications.