The evolution of data innovation in the fight against hunger

Arif Husain, United Nations World Food Programme

When I joined the UN World Food Programme in 2003, war was unfolding rapidly in Darfur and as in any crisis, evidence and data were urgently needed to inform the humanitarian response. Back then, ‘no-go’ zones were a fact of life: there were places that were literally impossible to access because of high levels of insecurity or insurmountable logistical constraints. Meaning there were communities that no one could see living in circumstances that no one could monitor.

A lot has changed since then. Hunger continues to rise and crises multiply. But in the meantime, technology has evolved, unlocking new ways of working and pushing us to continually re-imagine the status quo. Thanks to mobile and satellite technology, at WFP we no longer must resign ourselves to working with a partial view of events: instead, we gather vital food security data through mobile phones, draw on Earth observation imagery to predict crop production and deploy drones in the immediate aftermath of a disaster to rapidly assess infrastructure damage. With these innovations, we now have “eyes in the sky and our ear to the ground” – a capability we could have only wished we had during the crisis in Darfur – so how has this transformed our work towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals and where do we go from here?

Doing more with less

The words ‘digital transformation’ often conjure up projections of efficiency savings – and undoubtedly they are part of the prize. Leveraging digital solutions has often improved efficiency at WFP, with automated processes and custom-built systems shrinking the time from data collection to publication from months to days. Introducing interoperability between our tools and systems has allowed us to seamlessly mix and match digital solutions without disrupting the continuous flow of information that is so vital to our operations.

Rethinking the possible

But this is just part of the picture. Digital transformation has also unlocked new ideas and approaches that were previously unimaginable. Our use of mobile technology (called mobile Vulnerability Analysis and Monitoring, or mVAM) allows us to track the needs of affected communities wherever they are through phone calls. What began as a pilot deployed during the Ebola crisis in 2014 has evolved to become a series of near real-time food security monitoring systems that collect data round the clock. The thousands of data points generated by these systems each day flow automatically into HungerMapLIVE, the WFP global hunger monitoring system, where this data is immediately visualized and made available for anyone to use, contextualized by information on conflicts, climate shocks, populations and weather. Meanwhile, in countries where these systems are not in place or data is limited, HungerMapLIVE leverages artificial intelligence to close the gap, with predictive models used to estimate the food security situation. The result? A free, openly available platform that displays near real-time information on food security for more than 90 countries – a world away from the patchy knowledge we had to work with in Darfur.

Evidence-based predictions for preparedness and response

Technology has wrought changes of similar magnitude in agricultural monitoring. Indicators now common today – such as soil moisture – used to be wishful thinking. It was only with advances in geospatial technologies and remote sensing that it became possible to measure soil moisture at scale, opening up new windows of insight into the health of agricultural land globally and its potential impacts on food security.

As well as leveraging this and many other Earth observation indicators for WFP monitoring and early warning systems, we are increasingly sharing our expertise with governments seeking to strengthen the capacity of their national systems. In Mozambique, a country highly exposed to climate shocks, we are working with the government to develop tools and systems for forecasting and monitoring drought, transforming geospatial data and a variety of satellite and imagery into actionable information that will strengthen disaster preparedness and resilience to climate shocks.

Building the right foundations for future innovation

As we search for new approaches, we’ve also been building the foundational springboards from which we often take our exploratory leaps. By foundational springboards I mean robust, sustainable data governance and infrastructure. At WFP, we’re building data bridges to create a seamless flow of information across countries and within our organization as we embark on mass standardization to ensure that our data, tools and systems can be used and reused, available to anyone, anywhere and at any time.

With a global network of analysts across the 80+ countries WFP operates in, the volumes of food security data we collect are immense: why not ensure that this data and the tools and systems we’re building are global public goods? And in the process, we can empower others in their pursuit of impact at little to no cost – guided by an ethos that there’s always room to do better.

Empowered to question the status quo

We’re also asking ourselves: what can we do differently? We’ve made substantial gains since Darfur, but the landscape of technological innovation continues to evolve, bringing new opportunities. It was the capacity and courage to re-think the status quo that led to our mVAM pilot, which is now giving a voice to hard-to-reach communities around the world. Empowered by an organizational culture of persistence and problem-solving, WFP continues to challenge standard methods.

For instance we are asking ourselves: are food security surveys and assessments still relevant, or are there new, less intrusive methods to collect the same data? How can we use technology to ground-truth information, and where does measuring well-being fit in? Can we use data to look into the future and determine where food insecurity will surface next?

In a world faced with growing hunger, entrenched conflicts and climate change, no one should shy away from challenging current thinking.

As the 2021 World Data Forum reflected on the theme of “innovations and synergies across data ecosystems,” we should all be asking how digitalization and innovations in integrating different data streams can allow us to do better, think differently and achieve more with less. The barriers are there, of course: it is not easy to turn information into usable knowledge. Nor is it easy to set aside our intrinsic fear of change. But we must be bold enough to embrace all the potential with open eyes because one thing is certain: the next new idea is just around the corner and it might just save a life.

For background on how far WFP has come leveraging digital and data innovation in our operations, see our recent report “Digital Foundations: digital transformation and our fight against hunger.” There is much more work to be done as we strive for Zero Hunger by 2030, and we look forward to collaborating with partners in the next frontier – the world is counting on us.

About the Author

Arif Husain,
Chief Economist and Director of Research, Assessment and Monitoring
United Nations World Food Programme