Food Security and the Data Revolution: Mobile Monitoring on the Humanitarian Frontline

Publication Date: 
Friday, August 26, 2016
© World Food Program (WFP)

This guest blog comes to us from Jean-Martin Bauer, Brittany Card, and Alice Clough with the World Food Program (WFP) food security analysis unit.

Obtaining real-time and actionable information on the needs of affected populations has long been a priority for humanitarians; so keeping up with new technologies that could improve existing data collection systems is also a necessity. Innovations such as mobile phones and the Internet have already profoundly changed the nature of humanitarian work. They are proving to be faster and cheaper than legacy information systems, increasing the amount of information that decision makers have, and ultimately enabling them to save more lives.

However, what is truly transformative is their potential to reach previously ‘invisible’ populations. An estimated 3.2 billion people now have access to the Internet, and in developing countries more households have access to a mobile phone than clean water and electricity. New digital tools such as online messaging and social media are offering a participatory approach to data collection, energizing legacy monitoring systems. Rather than the traditional top down, institutional form of early warning that focuses on only collecting beneficiary information, they offer a more ‘democratic’ and citizen-led model (Mock Morrow and Papendieck). More vulnerable people are now able to make their voices heard, giving them the agency to make humanitarian systems more effective and suitable for their needs.

Mobile surveys in eastern DRC new insights, new challenges

One example of this approach is the development of mobile Vulnerability Analysis and Monitoring (mVAM) by the World Food Programme (WFP), which uses mobile phones to survey affected populations. The result is near real-time food security information directly from beneficiaries that helps support its humanitarian operations. The pilot deployment of mVAM in Mugunga 3 Camp in Goma, in Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in January 2013 took place at a time when the eastern DRC was in the midst of a protracted humanitarian crisis. The use of mVAM built on the experience of other phone surveys, notably Listening to Dar, and offers lessons that apply to the broader humanitarian community. 

The mVAM pilot showed the transformative potential of data collection through mobile phones. Phones and SIM cards were provided to 400 camp residents, who took short surveys every month. With response rates of 60-70%, mVAM reached more highly vulnerable people who were able to provide new and important insights into their own community’s food security. Furthermore, data collection through mobile phones proved quicker, more affordable, more convenient and safer than face-to-face interviews. Key insights into household vulnerability from the high frequency mVAM data have since been able to inform WFP decisions on food assistance allocations to the camp and areas like it (Morrow et al., 2016). The information has also proven to be a powerful tool for advocacy on behalf of displaced people in eastern DRC.

As the months went by, mVAM also produced a body of data that WFP had never gathered before. The fact that camp residents kept their phones – and, crucially, kept taking survey calls after they had left the camp – allowed us to track the food security trajectories of households within Mugunga 3, as well as those who returned home as security returned to parts of North Kivu. Comparing the Food Consumption Scores (FCS) of those in the camp to respondents who had left the camp enabled Pasquier (2015) to estimate that households who left the camp improved their food consumption by 27%, a difference that widens with time [Fig 1]. This finding has important implications for all humanitarian agencies engaged with helping the IDP community cope with the dislocation of displacement.











Fig 1: Comparison of the Food Consumption Scores (FCS) of camp residents and returnees in Mugunga III (DRC)

WFP provided basic cell phones to IDPs in order to reach them for surveys. However, doing so had unforeseen empowering effects. For instance, some displaced people were able to use mobile money for the first time, receiving micro-loans from relatives, and were able to obtain information on security conditions in their home community, or call the WFP office with questions about assistance.

The mVAM experience shows that low bandwidth services offer important immediate opportunities for humanitarian agencies to connect with the communities that they serve. The value of these systems is clearly illustrated by their multiplication and expansion. Since the pilot deployment, WFP’s mVAM now covers 26 countries and collects more than 250,000 questionnaires a year. Other humanitarian organizations are also increasingly deploying similar methods, like UNICEF’s U-report, which has more than one million users in Nigeria alone.

Mobile data and human processes

During the mVAM’s pilot, a number of limitations and risks of this mobile data collection also came to light. Incidents occurred in the insecure camp environment, where some people had their phones stolen, events that could be mitigated through closer collaboration with camp management, sensitization and reporting. Unfortunately, the process that turned mobile data into information – involving complex indicators, advanced statistical techniques and automated data processing – was also seen as something of an impenetrable ‘black box’ by some managers. The absorption of large volumes of data at high frequency posed a further challenge for field managers, limiting its value for the very people who are best positioned to make use of it. As a consequence, the approach took time to gain acceptance in Goma and was only expanded beyond Mugunga 3 in early 2016, suggesting that socializing digital innovations takes time, and underscoring the importance of process as a precursor to change.

Perhaps paradoxically, the deployment of remote data collection made face-to-face processes all the more necessary. WFP Goma field staff spent a lot of time with the displaced people of Mugunga 3 to carry out the baseline work needed to validate findings, and to sensitize the community. This face-to-face engagement contributed to trust between the agency and the community, leading to improved data quality. An important success factor was the involvement of a grassroots organization in the camp, which took responsibility for troubleshooting issues and relayed messages to WFP about the project.

Fix it now – data privacy risks

With new technologies come new risks and challenges that are yet to be fully understood. Vast amounts of personal and demographic data are now being collected, much of which is sensitive and has the potential to do as much harm as good. The negative consequences of collecting personally identifiable data are present in many sectors, beyond the humanitarian field. For example, in one of the largest data breaches in history, Target, a US retailer, compromised up to 70m customer credit card records in 2013. Although one has not occurred yet, a breach of a fraction of that size in a humanitarian setting would be very dangerous because it would expose some the world’s most vulnerable people to abuse and violence. To avoid these outcomes, the notion of ‘do no harm’ must be articulated anew in the digital age as humanitarians increasingly use technology to collect information from affected populations.

Unfortunately, settings such as Mugunga 3 Camp seem far removed from ongoing debates around ‘responsible’ data practices. For instance, protocols for protecting people’s phone numbers were not clear enough and had to be strengthened. While humanitarian agencies have strong policies and processes in place to promote beneficiary protection, they have not fully or systematically extended to data collection. WFP has developed an extensive set of guidelines on food security assessments, however they make very limited reference to responsible data practices. This underscores the novel and transformative nature of new data collection systems, and the extent to which humanitarians are struggling to keep pace with rapid change.

As many other data opportunities mature – including the analysis of call detail records or transaction data – it is time for the community as a whole to consider their implications at the policy and tactical levels. While some laudable initiatives exist – such as the work of the International Data Responsibility Group – WFP’s experience shows that the largest and most critical gap is basic awareness by staff on the humanitarian frontline. For instance, where are the ‘national’ or ‘local’ Data Responsibility Groups that bring together frontline humanitarian staff with ethics and legal experts?

In order to ‘do no harm’ in a digital age, agencies need a shared set of ethics about data use that engages all stakeholders along the data value chain, including data collection, processing, analysis, reporting, sharing and data disposal. While progress in this area is taking place, much more emphasis is required on raising the awareness field staff, since they are the ones in direct contact with people and communities. Field managers should be empowered to assess risks in order to draw a line when new data initiatives go too far. Finally, sustained engagement with communities on the data collection processes that concern them is an essential step on the road to enabling the emergence of the decentralized and ‘democratic’ information systems that new technologies enable.

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