“If I walk out alone, I will be killed,” declared Ibrahim, one of our data clerks. Ibrahim’s job involved interviewing people face to face, and entering data at the office. It was close of business at the United Nations offices in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic, where we were working on a humanitarian needs assessment. Work ended mid-afternoon so that our national staff could get back home before the 6 p.m. curfew.
The three of us coordinating the assessment were standing with Ibrahim under the shade of an overgrown mango tree, as gunfire periodically echoed in the distance. The day had been violent in Bangui and Ibrahim was nervous, since, because of his religion, leaving the United Nations compound could put his life in danger. We looked at each other, got him into a white United Nations car, and drove him to the nearby peacekeeping base. There, we waited for him to find a shared cab headed to the relative safety of his neighbourhood, and resolved to find a way to make things safer for people like Ibrahim.
WFP launched the mobile Vulnerability Assessment and Mapping (mVAM) project in 2013. That summer, we used SMS to get information from some 6 000 people in North Kivu, a troubled province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). We carried out three survey rounds, in partnership with GeoPoll, a private polling service. We were able to ask thousands of people what they had eaten and how they were coping with the crisis by simply texting them. We managed to complete a survey in one to two weeks, getting results at a low cost from a place where physical access was highly restricted and without putting lives at risk.
While humanitarian organizations have not used phone surveys much in the past, the explosion in access to mobile phones over the past decade means that things are changing fast. In many places, cell phone coverage is now high enough to implement a rigorous survey by calling people on the phones they already have—the World Bank’s Listening to Dar or Listening to Latin America and the Caribbean surveys are good examples.
Of course, we were concerned about bias. Phone surveys have been used in the United States of America since the 1940s at least—when their improper use led to the notoriously incorrect “Dewey defeats Truman” Chicago Tribune headline after the 1948 United States presidential election. Are we not at risk of producing a latter-day Dewy defeats Truman moment? Not really. When we dug into the data, our analysis showed that SMS surveys produced the same results as our conventional face-to-face surveys—as long as questions were short and simple. SMS surveys also proved an effective way to reach women, an important factor considering that women play an important role in managing food within the household.
We’re now testing voice calls, believing that calls could work well in low-literacy environments. Thanks to a grant from the Humanitarian Innovation Fund, WFP has set up call centres in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo and now Somalia, where we call internally displaced persons twice a month. After a few teething problems, we’re now hearing from hundreds of people every month. We’ve learned how to keep people engaged in the survey—for example, by setting up a solar phone charging station in the Congolese camp and giving airtime credit to people who finish an interview.
In March, we used “robocalls” to collect information in the Central African Republic without sending Ibrahim or anyone else out in harm’s way. While these surveys certainly help in conflict zones, they also have broader application beyond. It is no longer about whether phone surveys should be used, it is about how we use them; WFP’s game plan is to gradually build on our experiences in different operational settings.
While we won’t end hunger by texting people or placing robocalls, these new tools will certainly strengthen our ability to understand needs more quickly and efficiently. So go ahead—let a thousand mobile phones ring. Someone who might need help is at the other end of the line.
Jean-Martin Bauer is a Senior Food Security Analyst at the World Food Programme.