Published on Africa Can End Poverty

Measuring the pulse of Africa one phone call at a time

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Listening 2 Africa

In urban Tanzania, sick people wait on average for 76 minutes at a health facility before seeing a qualified medical professional.

In September 2014, 82 percent of households in Lome (Togo) felt that the frequency of power outages decreased compared to the previous six months (March 2014).
In the data-driven world of policy making, such statistics discerned from surveys can help policy makers analyze and fine tune policies on the go to serve their citizens better. Timely surveys prove to be an effective way to analyze the performance of a government and development programs.
And household surveys that measure socioeconomic indicators are critical for monitoring welfare and progress as we march toward the goals of reducing extreme poverty and enhancing shared prosperity. There is a clear need for faster, cheaper ways to collect, lighter, more nimble data and address data gaps between big surveys.
Due to the remote and diverse nature of many of its populations, collection of timely welfare data in Sub-Saharan Africa has previously proved expensive and logistically challenging.  However, the recent proliferation of mobile phone networks and inexpensive handsets has opened up new possibilities for data collection. One such initiative that taps into this opportunity is the World Bank’s Listening to Africa (L2A) pilot program. The Listening to Africa program helps complement traditional household surveys with mobile data collection. By combining baseline data from a traditional household survey with subsequent interviews of selected respondents using mobile phones, the initiative is using mobile phone technology to facilitate welfare monitoring and program evaluation.
By collaborating with national statistical offices and NGOs in the region, the L2A program pilots usage of mobile phones to collect high-frequency information on living conditions. Given that L2A is a partnership with the respective national statistical offices and complements existing surveys, the initiative differs from any crowd-sourced efforts, as it is built on sound statistical sampling. The program has been rolled out in Madagascar, Malawi, Mali, Senegal, Tanzania, and Togo.

While the program is used to measure household welfare and socio-economic status, in Mali, it helps in collecting welfare data from the displaced population and refugee camps in Niger and Mauritania as a result of the crisis in Northern Mali.
How does L2A work?

L2A starts from a face-to-face household survey which serves as a baseline. The baseline ensures that the sample, which is drawn randomly, is representative of the target population. During the baseline, the field team distributes a phone and at times a solar charger. The participant is then trained to respond to mobile interviews. Following this survey, mobile phone interviews are conducted from call centers. Respondents start receiving calls from the call center monthly. The mobile phone interview includes some general welfare questions which are tailored on a monthly basis. The content of the monthly interviews are intended to be flexible and adaptive.

Interviews are conducted by call center interviewers rather than sending text messages or other alternatives. This allows for people who have trouble to read and write to participate, as well. The program is flexible to allow for interviews in appropriate languages and avoids costs for the respondents. At the end of the interview, respondents receive a token reward in the form of a small phone credit.

The value of such high-frequency phone surveys is their ability to analyze and make the data available quickly for policy consideration. While you can access some existing outcomes here, the plan is to publish data, along with short reports and questionnaires.

The ultimate aim of the program is to develop a high-frequency phone survey system which could be integrated into national statistical systems, just like censuses, surveys and other administrative data. These surveys strive to complement traditional household surveys and fill in data gaps with more frequent, real-time, high quality representative data on wellbeing in a cost-effective manner. While mobile phone surveys are not the right platform for lengthy interviews conducted by traditional surveys, this innovative approach is very suitable for monitoring rapidly changing conditions, obtaining feedback from households, collecting price data, opinion polling, identifying emergency crises (monitoring and warning signs), and so on.  

As there is an increasing appetite for quick and effective ways to measure progress in regular intervals and with technology evolving constantly, the scope of such programs is bound to expand. In the meanwhile, feel free to visit the L2A website and make sure to bookmark the site and keep up on the latest updates.


Alvin Etang Ndip

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

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