Using mobile phone surveys to fight hunger

BY Marie Enlund, Jean-Martin Bauer | September 15, 2015|Comments 0

Surveys carried out over mobile phones are capturing timely data on food supply and access. The mVAM project of the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) is piloting mobile voice technology for household food security.

Remote data collection on food security

The mobile Vulnerability Analysis and Mapping (mVAM) project is collecting food security data through short mobile phone surveys, using text messages, live telephone interviews and ‘robocalls’ through an Interactive Voice Response (IVR) system. The mVAM project is the first project to use mobile phone surveys at scale in humanitarian settings, as shown in this video from a refugee camp in Goma, ‘WFP calling: What did you eat today?’ As readers of our blog know, the project has now been scaled up to 11 countries in Africa and in the Middle East.

Advantages of monitoring with mobile technologies

Mobile surveys provide a valuable complement to the face-to-face survey approaches that are commonly used.

  • We use the data to help track changes in food security in near real-time, increasing our ability to understand needs more quickly and efficiently.
  • mVAM provides information we can use to drill down on a specific theme, area or group.
  • Turnaround is estimated at one to two weeks compared to six weeks for face-to-face surveys.
  • Costs range from $3 to $9 per questionnaire compared to $20 to $40 for face-to-face surveys.
  • mVAM enables data collection in hard-to-access, remote or dangerous locations without putting enumerators at risk.

Mobile surveys are feasible and affordable

In the past, advanced computer coding skills were needed to design and run a polling survey using text messaging or IVR (interactive voice response). Today, it can be done using a drag and drop interface – which is great news if you are less-technologically inclined. Advances in technology make real-time monitoring a feasible and affordable option for agencies. In particular, free and open source technologies offer user-friendly SMS and IVR packages. If you want to do mobile surveys at a large scale, private companies also offer SMS and IVR services at affordable rates.

Lessons learned

  • Before you take the plunge, do remember that real-time monitoring is no ‘silver bullet’: large analytical capacities are required to churn through the data and make it speak to decision makers.
  • Determine exactly what questions to ask in your phone surveys, as you want to keep them as short as possible.

How we avoided the ‘data silo’ trap

From the start of the mVAM project, we have tried to ensure that our data is being made available outside the confines of WFP.  We think that the mVAM-HDX collaboration around Ebola data is a great example of how two UN agencies have helped each other out for the greater good: WFP and the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).


Interactive visuals on WFP food price data

At the peak of the Ebola emergency last year, we teamed up with OCHA’s Humanitarian Data Exchange (HDX) in order to help share our data with the wider humanitarian community. When we put our data on HDX, we saw a surge in traffic on our website, a clear indication that having an open access policy was the best way to share our information.  Soon, we saw partner organizations – donors and NGOs – publish reports using the data that had been shared in this way. In addition, HDX has helped us develop cool visuals that we have embedded into our website. Interactive visuals on WFP food price data are already up and visuals of mVAM data are coming soon.

Looking ahead

WFP looks forward to expanding its partnership network and working with others on remote data collection. We see potential for collaboration with UNHCR in camp settings, for example. Working with community-based organizations at the grassroots level has promoted continued engagement of communities with our surveys, and we will continue doing this. We also plan to conduct a series of webinars this autumn, which you are invited join.

More information

For more information and updates on mVAM, please visit MVAM: THE BLOG and the VAM Resource Center, where we offer guidelines, training materials, sample survey forms and related articles and news.


Marie Enlund Marie is Food Security Analyst at the United Nations World Food Programme. Follow Marie on Twitter.
Jean-Martin Bauer Jean-Martin is Food Security Analysts at the United Nations World Food Programme. Follow Jean-Martin on Twitter.

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