Gaurdian Op-Ed by Our Jean-Martin Bauer: Mobile phone surveys can help World Food Programme reach hungry people

by Jean-Martin Bauer- The Guardian – 10 March 2016

WFP_Lucia Casarin

WFP/Lucia Casarin

Contacting people in vulnerable areas by telephone or text is enabling the UN’s World Food Programme to determine who needs food and when

One of the biggest challenges for the humanitarian community when disaster strikes is how to colour in blank spaces on maps of the affected country or region. To do our jobs well, we need to know who has been affected, what is happening, and what people need. And we need to know fast.

Information is critical to the design and implementation of life-saving operations. Yet all too often we struggle to collect these facts consistently because we cannot communicate with people on the wrong side of a frontline or in a difficult to reach area. People in no-go areas, including parts of Syria, Iraq, Somalia, South Sudan and the northern Sahel, are not just suffering, they are suffering in silence.

We believe that technological innovation has the power to fill in these blank areas. Thanks to a broad-based boom in mobile phone ownership – up by almost 20% annually in sub-Saharan Africa (pdf) – mobile surveys are poised to transform how we gather information…

Read Full Op-Ed

Getting food security data from rugged and remote areas of Papua New Guinea

Map with distribution of phone callsIt’s been a tough past year for Papua New Guinea (PNG). Since April 2015, El Nino has hit the country hard with both frost and drought. With damaged crops and dried up creeks, people are struggling with both water shortages and getting enough to eat. WFP supported the National Disaster Center (NDC) in Papua New Guinea by launching a mobile phone survey to track the deteriorating food security situation and identify hotspots. In January, we started calling households to collect indicators on their food security at both the household and community level.

Why mobile phone surveys in PNG?

PNG is an extremely diverse country.  It is spread out over 600 islands and has more indigenous languages spoken than islands- the current estimate is 800 different languages. Also, the islands are mountainous, with peaks as high as 4,500 meters, and covered in dense, tropical rainforests.  The largest island, New Guinea, houses the third largest remaining block of tropical forest in the world after the Amazon and Congo basins. This makes PNG one of the richest countries in the world in terms of biodiversity, ecosystems, landscapes, and indigenous cultures.

However, these remarkable characteristics also make traditional face-to-face food security assessments challenging to say the least. The rugged nature of the territory, coupled with poor transport networks, makes it difficult for people to move around. Many villages can only be reached by foot, by boat, or if you can afford it, by helicopter. To do a proper face-to-face survey, enumerators would need to travel for days or use helicopters – a time-consuming or very expensive task.

Learning about mobile phone culture in PNG

As we were doing our homework on mobile phone use in PNG, we learned that mobile penetration has increased substantially in the past ten years, expanding from 1.6% in 2006 to 35% in 2015. Yet, this is still a low penetration rate. So we decided to try something new and added community level questions to our household questionnaire. PNG seemed like the right place to test a community-oriented approach as 87% of the population in PNG is rural, mostly living in very small communities of a few hundred residents. Communities are also very tight knit; members are aware of what is going on in each other’s lives. With over 800 languages, we were wondering how we would actually communicate with everyone. We were reassured that even if 800 languages are spoken, the majority of the people are able to speak Tok Pisin.

To learn more about ‘mobile phone culture’ in Papua New Guinea, we contacted Dr. Amanda Watson, an expert in communication technologies in the country who has been working for several years on the Coffey-managed, Australian Government-funded Economic and Public Sector Program (see case study here). She explained that traditional methods of remote communication were public (striking drums, blowing into shells, and singing from mountaintops). Mobile phones introduced private remote communication for the first time in PNG. This new innovation far from society’s eyes raised some concerns in the population about mobile phones being used to foster illicit relationships like extra-marital affairs or organize criminal activities. Yet, the impact of mobile communication has generally been viewed positively, and Amanda herself already advocated for the use of mobile phones in collection of drought-related information.

Partnering with Digicel’s call center

Foto digicel 3Digicel has the best network coverage of the three network carriers in PNG, with coverage in areas where 94% of the population lives. So WFP contacted Digicel who put together a team of very motivated phone operators, coming from all over the country, and with previous experience in conducting phone campaigns for other organizations.

The team participated in a 3 day mVAM workshop which included training in food security issues, focus group discussions, and test calls. Training operators on the objectives and content of the questionnaire was crucial to minimize operator bias and increase the reliability of data, particularly because the questionnaire used in PNG is more complex than the typical mVAM questionnaire.

Foto Digicel 2Guess what- we learned that people in PNG love to talk! Initial interviews lasted up to 25 minutes – which is both a long time to keep people on the phone and quite expensive! So our operators did a great job learning what to say to keep people on point and reduce the call length. By the end of the third week of phone calls, we were able to reach our target: 3,709 completed surveys from 233 Local Level Government (LLG) areas.

Stay tuned to learn about the results!


Mobile Tech for Mobile IDPs in DRC

WFP food distribution in Mugunga camp

IDPs in Mugunga. Photo: WHO/Christopher Black

We’ve been writing a lot about how mobile technologies give us new opportunities to track food security. As WFP, we provide food assistance to many refugee and IDP camps. But right now, our knowledge often stops at the camp border.  What happens to refugees or IDPs when they leave the camp? And importantly for WFP, what happens to their food security situation? Mobile surveys could provide a key to this mystery.

Mobile Surveys and IDP Flows

jean baptiste_filtered

Jean-Baptiste Pasquier

Jean-Baptiste, our brilliant young colleague, did his Master’s Thesis on precisely these questions. He looked at almost two years of data, collected by mVAM since December 2013 in Mugunga III camp- 10km from Goma, DRC. Approximately 4,664 people live in Mugunga III, and since many people didn’t have phones, we distributed phones to 340 randomly selected households so they could participate in a phone survey.

Every month, our WFP operators, Mireille and Jean-Marie, have been diligently calling these same households. They’ve been asking households about their food consumption and any coping strategies that they’ve had to resort to if they were short of food. These questions let us calculate two key food security indicators- a household’s food consumption score (FCS) and reduced coping strategies index (rCSI). It’s also gotten Jean-Baptiste some pretty good data to play with. (For more on our work in DRC, see our blogs on our DRC launch, our market monitoring, and our 2-way communication system with camp residents).

Mireille and Jean Marie_cropped

Mireille and Jean-Marie review a call script. Photo: WFP/Marie Enlund

In Mugunga III, like most IDP camps, the population is always in flux and hard to track. People come and go without officially notifying the camp administration. In IDP speak, a “returnee” is someone who has left the camp (and in theory “returned” home though in practice the person might just have gone to live somewhere else). In March 2015, we started asking people about whether they were “returnees” and if so, where they had gone.

By using our mVAM data, Jean-Baptiste was able to pick up on changes in camp population not picked up by official figures and track where people went.  Most returnees reported staying in areas nearby to camp. Few were returning home to Masisi where over half of the IDPs in Mugunga III were from but where there still was conflict.

 IDP Flows and Food Security

We don’t just want to know where returnees go; we want to know how they are doing. However, usually, once IDPs leave the camp, they fall off our radar screen and we have no more information. But with mVAM surveys, returnees continued to respond to our calls asking about their household food security situation. Jean-Baptiste decided to see whether there were any difference in the food security situation between returnees and IDPs who remained in the camp

Sure enough, there was a difference. Returnees had better food consumption on average than IDPs who were in the camp.

But you might be wondering whether returnees were doing better even before they left the camp. Jean-Baptiste found that yes- on average, returnee food consumption climbed in the months before departing. It also improved more over time than IDPs who stayed in the camp; maybe their situation was improving so much that it allowed them to leave the camp.

graph for blog

Then, Jean-Baptiste went a step further. Maybe returnee households were just plain old different than IDPs who stayed in the camp. But he found that even by controlling for differences (for stat geeks- using a fixed effects model), leaving the camp had an estimated food consumption score increase of 7.64, which would be the equivalent of a 27% increase in the average food consumption score of an IDP currently in the camp.

Needless to say, all these findings could have a lot of implications for our programmes. Our office in DRC is looking into it.

Also, if we’ve peaked your interest, read Jean-Baptiste’s excellent thesis here.

Innovation Uncapped: World Food Programme in Action

progress report 2015HIF Progress Report 2015, 36-39

Marie Enlund, food security analyst for the World Food Programme, talks about the successes, challenges and next steps for the HIF-supported project to develop and implement mobile phone surveys in remote areas.

Read the full article here.

Progress report 2


Devex’s Take: What mobile tech innovation offers food security

By Elena. L. Pasquini –  Devex – 19 January 2015

Humanitarian organizations delivering food assistance in conflict-affected areas or regions plagued by natural disasters or outbreaks of epidemic diseases cannot do their job blindly. Practitioners operating on the ground need a steady flow of accurate, up-to-date information to remain effective — and safe.

In order to design, implement and monitor programs when access is limited and risky, critical questions must be answered to understand the cause of the crisis, ascertain the number of people affected, what type of assistance they require and where, and whether they have successfully received that assistance…

Read Full Article

VAM Talks: Episode 2

Jean-Martin BLogo2auer, live from Juba, talks about mVAM’s latest venture: preparing mobile data collection in South Sudan.


Yemen: Against All Odds

Aden – Dar Sa’ad District, Main Roads

Dar Saad District, Aden, Yemen buildings destroyed during the conflict. Photo: WFP/Ammar Bamatraf

In July, Yemen was declared a Level 3 Emergency – the highest priority level in the global humanitarian system. At WFP, we knew we needed real-time information to track needs on the ground. Mobile surveys had worked well for us in emergencies in Iraq and the Ebola epidemic. So WFP managers in Yemen decided to launch a phone survey-based food security monitoring system.

But, would mobile phone surveys work in Yemen?

Concerns were immediately voiced: Would people readily take survey calls in the midst of a conflict? Did people have access to electricity to recharge their phones? Would the phone network function well enough let us call all parts of the country? Would people trust us?

Guess what- people not only responded to our calls but many responded consistently! We started calling people at the end of July, reaching about 2,400 people with each survey round. Many respondents- 60%- have stuck with us month to month. This means we can offer trend analysis on food security indicators- check it out in our monthly food security updates.

First WFP ship carrying food docks at Aden port as humanitarian needs soar In Yemen

Yemen is declared a Level 3 Emergency and food assistance arrives to Aden in July 2015. Photo: WFP/Ammar Bamatraf

So, what have we learned from using mobile surveys in Yemen?

  • Working with a professional call center has been a great asset.Due to the conflict, we’re placing calls from a call center outside the country. Our operators had to go through a ‘learning’ phase where they picked up Yemeni dialect — food items seem to have quirky names and vary somewhat from Arabic spoken in other countries.
  • Random digit dialing works, just be patient! We used random digit dialing because we did not have access to a phone number database for Yemen. So we created our own! A computer dialed up random numbers, using the mobile network operators’ prefixes and generating the final five to seven digits. If a phone number worked and the call went through, it was immediately routed to an operator.  As you can imagine, this took some time, but after a few weeks, we figured out what bands of numbers are active in Yemen and ramped up the call volume. We always quickly get through to people in the capital, Sana’a, but it takes longer to reach enough people in less populated governorates. Patience has been a virtue. But we’re pleased to be at the stage where we can complete a round of data collection in 2 weeks in such a complex environment.
  • A qualitative, open-ended question provides rich information. In addition to asking people a quantitative food consumption score, we have an open-ended question where we ask people to describe the food security situation in their community. We analyze these responses using tools such as pattern sentiment analysis and word clouds. In the November Yemen bulletin, our pattern sentiment analysis showed a decline that we also saw in respondents’ reports of food consumption. This correlation not only shows that we are getting reliable data through open-ended questions but also that potentially, we could use people’s perceptions of food security to measure an actual deterioration in food security.
  • Time of day for calling is important. In Yemen we learned, call at night. We had a hard time reaching respondents when we called during daytime hours. It turned out that people were keeping their phones switched off during the day to preserve the battery in order to make calls in the evenings. When the call center noticed that 90% of the calls were going through during evenings, they allocated more operators to evening shifts. This helped us reach our targeted number of respondents.
WFP operations in Abyan, Yemen

WFP is also using mobile surveys to monitor the distribution of food assistance. Here, people pick up food in Al Dew village, Abyan Governorate. Photo: WFP/Ammar Bamatraf

Monitoring IDPs, Cyclones, and Operations

Yemen is another case where mobile phone interviews have enabled mVAM to reach households located in the most conflict-exposed areas, where we could not do a survey face-to-face. We are even able to reach internally displaced persons (IDPs)- currently over 1/3 of our sample. Interviewing IDPs is key in a conflict that has caused widespread displacement.

The system has also been flexible: in November, when the southern coast of Yemen was hit by two successive tropical cyclones, we were able to immediately place calls to affected areas of Al Maharah and Abyan. Mobile surveys have also allowed us to monitor our food assistance programmes. We are also currently calling 1,200 beneficiaries every month to ask about the food they received and track their food consumption. We’ve found our results to be in line with previous face-to-face surveys, confirming the reliability of remote mobile data collection.