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Moving to Mobile: How Phones Are Revolutionizing Hunger Relief
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Moving to Mobile: How Phones Are Revolutionizing Hunger Relief

For humanitarian and nonprofit organizations around the world, knowing which families and communities lack access to enough nutritious food throughout the year is no easy task—particularly in remote or dangerous areas, such as those currently under threat from Ebola in West Africa. But understanding the nature of food insecurity—the state of lacking reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food—is essential to the everyday work of global organizations like the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), the largest humanitarian agency focused on hunger relief in the developing world.

Fortunately, today’s rapidly evolving technology is helping nonprofits improve their reach to tackle tough issues, including food insecurity and deploying resources in the midst of global crises.

WFP reaches more than 80 million people each year with food assistance. In order to deploy resources and lifesaving programs effectively, it must collect quality data across a variety of media to have a clear vision of food insecurity in countries and communities around the world. In the past, face-to-face surveys were the primary means of collecting this data, but this method is costly and time consuming as well as potentially hazardous in areas affected by pandemics such as Ebola. Upgrading WFP data collection methods to include remote mobile surveys is crucial to monitoring rapidly changing conditions.

Mobile phones have opened a door for businesses and organizations to reach consumers in previously isolated locations around the world. According to a recent study on rural India, in the 10 years spanning 2001 and 2010, the density of mobile phone use jumped from a mere 0.7% of the rural population to a healthy 21%. And in the past four years alone, the country’s telecom subscriber base has expanded an estimated seven times in rural villages, outstripping three-fold growth in urban areas.

Similar growth is happening in Africa and the Middle East. In fact, mobile penetration was at 86% in a 2012 study of urban consumers in seven African countries and at almost 100% in an urban part of the Middle East as of the first-quarter of 2014. While rural areas in these regions will have lower mobile density, the recent growth in device ownership rates is helping organizations such as WFP connect with more people.

While expanding its use of mobile technology for data collection, WFP sought guidance from Nielsen in four key areas—data collection, methodology, analysis and in-country expertise. To help WFP reach its goals, Nielsen advised the organization on how to develop a sound methodological approach to collect and analyze data received via mobile phones and to address potential mode effects—or potential differences that could arise in the validity of its data—when collecting information through its new phone surveys, compared with face-to-face interviews.

Together, WFP and Nielsen discussed how WFP’s food security surveys needed to be adapted for three different types of phone surveys: calls through live operators, interactive voice response, and text message (SMS). Questions that worked in one context or country needed to be tailored in another, because of the length or the complexity of the question. Similarly, understanding the potential biases associated with a particular survey mode was critical to determining how best to interpret the data. For example, the team saw a drop-off in responses to a complex question about food need through an SMS survey. Multifaceted questions that worked through in-person interviews or phone calls needed to be scaled back for shorter text message-based surveys.

In addition, optimizing the techniques used for collecting this information through SMS and interactive voice calls (both in deploying this technology and determining who to reach out to) was essential to updating WFP’s data collection. Nielsen also helped WFP interpret the data and validate the quality of the various collection methods used, honing in on country-specific best practices where needed.

One particular finding that challenged the WFP team was the difference in respondents’ answers to questions about food insecurity based on their gender and head of household status. Both aspects mattered; when the team had the opportunity to distinguish the respondent’s sex and the sex of the head of the respondent’s household, it found that women tended to report greater food insecurity than men—and this was especially true when women were heads of the household. Within this demographic, the team also found that there were differences in terms of how respondents answered these questions in face-to-face, SMS, and IVR (interactive voice response) interviews, and that these differences varied by country.

Nevertheless, surveys using technology like mobile phones are crucial in allowing Nielsen and WFP to remain flexible when responding to challenges as they come up, like working in the midst of the Ebola crisis when it was unsafe to send enumerators into the field to collect data. Through this collaboration, WFP was able to field SMS surveys in Ebola-affected regions when the need arose, and it has gained a better understanding of how the disease is affecting access to food and nutrition issues.

Pro bono support for WFP was provided through Nielsen’s global corporate social responsibility program, Nielsen Cares.