Woman with mobile phone in her hand

Collecting food security data with mobile phones

How much protein did you eat in the last seven days? If you didn’t have enough to eat, what coping strategies did you employ to get enough food? For example, did you borrow from a neighbour or perhaps reduce the rations each adult in your family received?

These are the kinds of questions asked by the mobile Vulnerability Analysis and Mapping project, called mVAM. Launched by UN’s World Food Program (WFP) in Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2013, the mVAM is a food security monitoring system that uses mobile phones to track food security trends with real-time data.

On average, WFP brings food assistance to more than 80 million people in 80 countries each year. This data is vital to WFP in order to do their lifesaving activities effectively.

Less expansive than traditional face-to-face interviews

Phone operators call people in certain zones to gather information about food access, food consumption and food prices in order to determine the level of food insecurity and provide emergency assistance where there is a need and a possibility. Calling is a faster and less expensive way to gather data compared with traditional face-to-face interviews, which often are costly and take weeks to transcribe and analyse.

The calls also provide an opportunity to reach people in insecure areas, like war-torn Aleppo in Syria. Respondents receive $0.50USD in phone credit as compensation from the mVAM, which makes it easier for them to keep in touch with family and friends.

The method is also more useful than written surveys. Only 20 percent of women in Afghanistan are literate, while 8 out of 10 have access to mobile phones.

Charging mobile devices remains a challenge in many areas due to lack of electricity, but WFP attempts to relieve this by setting up solar charging stations.