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Obtaining food security data from remote PNG

Training for the phone survey (Digicel)MVAM: The Blog*

IT’S BEEN a tough past year for Papua New Guinea. Since April 2015, El Nino has hit the country hard with both frost and drought.

With damaged crops and dried up creeks, people are struggling with both water shortages and getting enough to eat. World Food Program (WFP) supported the National Disaster Center in Papua New Guinea by launching a mobile phone survey to track the deteriorating food security situation and identify hotspots.

In January, it started calling households to collect indicators on their food security at both the household and community level.

PNG is an extremely diverse country.  It is spread out over 600 islands and has more indigenous languages spoken than islands- the current estimate is 800 different languages. The islands are mountainous, with peaks as high as 4,500 meters, and covered in dense, tropical rainforests. 

The largest island, New Guinea, houses the third largest remaining block of tropical forest in the world after the Amazon and Congo basins. This makes PNG one of the richest countries in the world in terms of biodiversity, ecosystems, landscapes, and indigenous cultures.

However, these remarkable characteristics also make traditional face-to-face food security assessments challenging. The rugged nature of the territory, coupled with poor transport networks, makes it difficult for people to move around.

Many villages can only be reached by foot, by boat, or if you can afford it, by helicopter. To do a proper face-to-face survey, enumerators would need to travel for days or use helicopters – a time-consuming or very expensive task.

As WFP was doing its homework on mobile phone use in PNG, it learned that mobile penetration has increased substantially in the past 10 years, expanding from 1.6% in 2006 to 35% in 2015. Yet, this is still a low penetration rate.

So WFP decided to try something new and added community level questions to its household questionnaire. PNG seemed like the right place to test a community-oriented approach as 87% of the population is rural, mostly living in very small communities of a few hundred residents.

Communities are also very tight knit; members are aware of what is going on in each other’s lives. With over 800 languages, WFP was wondering how we would actually communicate with everyone. WFP was reassured that even though 800 languages are spoken, the majority of people are able to speak Tok Pisin.

To learn more about ‘mobile phone culture’ in Papua New Guinea, WFP contacted Dr Amanda Watson, an expert in communication technologies who has worked for several years on the Coffey-managed economic and public sector program.

Dr Watson explained that traditional methods of remote communication were public and included striking drums, blowing into shells and singing from mountaintops. Mobile phones introduced private remote communication for the first time.

This innovation has generally been viewed positively, and Dr Watson advocated the use of mobile phones in collection of drought-related information.

Digicel has the best network coverage of the three network carriers in PNG, covering 94% of the population. So WFP contacted Digicel who put together a team of motivated phone operators from all over the country and with previous experience in conducting phone campaigns.

The team participated in a three-day workshop which included training in food security issues, focus group discussions and test calls. Training operators on the objectives and content of the questionnaire was crucial to increase the reliability of data, particularly because the questionnaire used in PNG was more complex than usual.

WFP learned that people in PNG love to talk. Initial interviews lasted up to 25 minutes – which is both a long time to keep people on the phone and quite expensive. So operators did a great job learning what to say to keep people on point and reduce the call length.

By the end of the third week of phone calls, WFP had been able to reach its target with 3,709 completed surveys from 233 local level government areas.

* The Mobile Vulnerability Analysis and Mapping (MVAM) project at the World Food Program collects food security data remotely - through short phone surveys using SMS, live telephone interviews and interactive voice response (IVR)


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