Let’s invest in mobile phone surveys to monitor crises

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A devastating famine has struck parts of East Africa and the Middle East. As the world rushed to prevent the worst from happening, it was a good time to understand how a disaster of such proportions, affecting millions of people, could go unreported for so long.
 
There are many ways in which crises can be identified sooner and relief efforts monitored better. One of these is by calling people in affected areas to get a clear picture of things on the ground. With the amazingly rapid spread of mobile phones, it is possible to get accurate information about major events on an almost real-time basis. 
 
In Africa, we have used mobile phones to monitor the Ebola crisis in West Africa, floods in Dar-es-Salaam and Malawi, forced displacement in Mali, and the conflict in northern Nigeria —so we know it can be done, and done quickly. Based on our experience, mobile phone surveys are an extremely valuable tool not only to assess a crisis but also to measure the efficiency of the response to it. 
 
One promising initiative is Listening to Africa (L2A), which uses mobile phones to collect data cheaply, quickly, and from people who are otherwise hard to reach. It started with an idea and a collaboration with an NGO in Tanzania almost seven years ago. Initial funding allowed the team to demonstrate that it is, in fact, possible to collect reliable data through mobile phones.
 
Over the past five years, the World Bank has expanded the approach to six countries—Madagascar, Malawi, Mali, Senegal, Tanzania, and Togo—and shared the lessons learned online, through academic articles, and in a handbook. In the process, we have convinced many skeptics about the potential this innovative approach has for data collection.  
 
Bringing the approach to this point has involved a tremendous amount of hard work and learning. We learned about collecting reliable data from respondents who may be illiterate; about keeping respondents and interviewers interested in repeated surveys; and about avoiding bias in responses and ensuring data quality.
 
We also learned how to minimize the risk of drop-out. Above all, we learned to adapt on the fly as not everything turned out to be an instant success. 
 
We learned, for instance, that mobile phone surveys cannot replace traditional face-to-face household surveys. We also learned the cost per question is relatively high and the depth of analysis greater if more information is collected in one go. So, if you want to ask many questions, mobile phone surveys are not the instrument of choice. And we learned that if a baseline survey can be avoided—for instance because phone numbers have already been collected—the approach becomes extremely cost effective and rapid to deploy.
 
This last lesson lies at the core of the prevailing approach to crisis monitoring, where you pro-actively build databases with phone numbers and core respondent characteristics. Such data can easily be compiled as part of ongoing surveys for e-voucher schemes or social protection registers.
 
Statistical offices are well placed to do this.
 
Once the database is constructed it can be tapped into whenever there is a need. During an emergency, or when a pressing issue requires answers, a call center can be set up. (We learned how to do this quickly.) Information collected directly from the people affected can be analyzed rapidly and used to organize and monitor the effectiveness of the response effort.
 
This would greatly help policymakers protect the most vulnerable better.
 
A little goes a long way
 
With all this knowledge and experience, we think this is the right time to scale up this initiative and go mainstream, especially in crisis monitoring. Imagine if we were to deploy a representative mobile phone survey within a week’s notice in any country in sub-Saharan Africa during a crisis. This would not only provide valuable real-time information but could be used to mount an effective response.
 
Clearly, this idea is appealing: it is no coincidence this approach has won multiple prizes. Yet, to make this happen, we need more than recognition: we need funding. The sums of money we need may not be huge compared to others in the global aid community, or relative to the billions that are now needed for emergency assistance in just a few countries. To set up a system across sub-Saharan Africa would require an estimated US$20 million. 
 
Given the value of this tool for crisis monitoring, it seems like a smart investment, and we are ready to share our experience and offer our assistance to make it happen. 
 
 
 

Authors

Johannes Hoogeveen

Lead economist in the poverty and equity practice

Alvin Etang Ndip

Economist in the Poverty and Equity Global Practice at the World Bank

Join the Conversation

RAM JANAKIRAM
June 01, 2020

This is a much needed project - and should be expanded to establish transaction and outcome based community owned data, information and knowledge services using the latest advances in digital tools and applications, Such an initiative will address two problems:
One Lack of digital skills among the un-employed youth especially in the rural areas in developing countries and
Two - obtaining reliable, useful and close to real time data on the poor in many developing countries is a problem facing all who work in the areas of poverty reduction and development programs.

The solution to the above two problems is to develop business models which ensure that data is owned "by" the poor (which is the mantra) - using recent advances in digital tools and applications – through the establishment of community owned, operated, managed, maintained, transaction, outcome and web-based data, information and knowledge services by using the untapped potential of young women and men in the poor communities and developing their skills in their areas of passion - who are trusted by their peers. This could be achieved through two main components:
One : Institutional component - consisting of capacity building of all members of a poor household to develop and market local content (consisting of data, information and knowledge) in easy to understand local language, management, entrepreneurship, IT skills to increase digital literacy, protection of intellectual property rights of the poor, cyber security, and
Two: Infrastructure component – consisting of appropriate and cost effective mobile and fixed broadband internet connectivity, mobile phones, laptops, IPADS, digital cameras, video recorders, radio, television, training aids, relevant digital tools and applications, reliable power supply (including solar power, bio-gas, wind, small scale hydro, etc.), feeder roads, small scale procurement centers to store local farm and non-farm products; etc
How this will work?
Young women and men (who may be unemployed/underemployed – with limited or no schooling) from the community who are trusted by their peers, and have free time, would be especially targeted and trained to become content specialists. They will be identified following an assessment of their aptitudes, passion, skills and aspirations. Continuous training to nurture these skills, mentoring and equipping them with the relevant and latest Information Technology tools and applications will be provided. This will enable them to carry out the collection, analysis, storage, and use of close to real time data in their chosen areas of interest, passion, increase their productivity and skills which are in demand by the private and public sectors.
Where do we start?
Areas where this project could focus on initially are nutrition, health and agriculture in two or more rural areas in Nigeria – because these are areas where there is lack of close to real time data, is in the interest of every person in the household to be healthy, increase agricultural productivity, outcomes can be observed and measured quickly. .Focus will be on data on various aspects of nutrition, (height-weight, diet patterns, etc) health (such as vaccinations, types of illnesses, remedial measures available locally and agriculture (Crop inputs being used - type of seeds used, water, fertilizer, pesticides, etc., agricultural practices, yields, prices of local farm products, climate related data (temperature, humidity, rainfall, soil characteristics, water availability and use at the household level, forest products and their uses (such as forest wood for fuel, medicinal plants, etc.), skill levels in a few communities in the rural areas. These areas are chosen as possible starting points because these are areas where there is lack of close to real time data, is in the interest of the rural household to be healthy, increase crop and water productivity, preserve forests and maintain them as a source of livelihood and incomes – which can be observed and measured on a regular basis. A person with an aptitude and passion in health, nutrition, agriculture areas would be provided with the necessary training in each of these specialized areas complemented by training in the use of relevant Information Technology applications to collect related data in each of these areas. A clear career path will be developed for them to become local, regional, national and international nutrition, health, agriculture, forest, water specialists or in their chosen areas of passion depending on their capability and level of effort, rather than being seen as enumerators or simply data collectors. The data will be collected as frequently and as needed to design and implement relevant and appropriate interventions, provide relevant advisory services by specialists to improve the health, nutrition, agricultural,soil and water productivity in a timely manner by experienced local service providers and experts and the creation of a close to real time data base on various agricultural characteristics of the rural household. This will be complemented by providing access to freely available data from other sources on health, nutrition, agriculture, etc which are relevant to the local situation. Quality control and continuous mentoring will be provided by local non-governmental organizations, academic, research and training institutions, experts in various fields - whose full potential have not been used effectively. Various IT tools and applications – using mobile smart phones – IPADS, tablets, social media, Geographic Information System (GIS), on-line and off-line survey and analytical tools, etc. will be used. This close to real time data will be made available to relevant and interested organizations for a fee to public –private – non-governmental organizations. This will help provide advisory services based on reliable data in a timely and measurable manner to improve the agricultural productivity, health and nutrition levels of the rural household.
Expected Results
- Provision of timely advice to improve agricultural and forest productivity, nutrition and health levels and incomes of the rural household based on reliable and timely data by experts in the respective areas
- Development of skilled professionals with digital skills in various aspects of agriculture and other areas – ranging from Agriculture to Zoology over time.
-Creation of a foundation data base on various aspects of the household - which is close to real time, owned and marketed by the community - for use by decision makers at various levels of the Government, development organizations involved in both policy and operations of poverty reduction programs, researchers, academics, operational staff, monitoring specialists, evaluators, and others interested in this area
- Contribute to the measurement of sustainable development goals (especially those related to poverty, food security and nutrition (Goal 1), healthy lives (goal 3), education and lifelong learning (Goal 4), and sustainable management of water and sanitation (Goal 6).
Vision

This pilot initiative is envisaged to be a first step towards achieving the following vision:
Establishment of inter-connected, sustainable, community owned, operated, managed, maintained, transaction and outcome web-based data, information and knowledge and business services within the rural communities, states, regions within the country and other countries providing a range of services which would:
• Be tailored to meet the multi-disciplinary data, information and knowledge needs of each member of the household - the basic unit - and other interested institutions, universities, individuals, private and public sectors;
• Provide Free to Fee based data, information, knowledge and business services and
• Use a variety of traditional and modern digital tools and applications

Can we make this vision happen?
Views welcome.
Ram