Electronic devices speed up international development work | Environment| All topics from climate change to conservation | DW | 25.08.2010
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Electronic devices speed up international development work

The World Food Program is using technology to speed efforts to learn where food aid is needed. With handheld devices, the organization is able to get more accurate data and transmit it wirelessly back to headquarters.

One of the palmtop computers used by WFP staff in Burundi

Handheld devices are helping WFP workers in the field

The United Nations World Food Program (WFP) in Burundi is using handheld Personal Digital Assistants, or PDAs, to help keep tabs on the country's food situation. The technology has helped speed up the process of data collection and improve the accuracy of the organization's food security surveys.

Staff members organize fact-finding missions to gauge the country's food supply. When WFP arrived in Burundi in 1968, the organization was using pen and paper to conduct their food surveys.

Now, WFP uses small palmtop computers, only slightly larger than normal cell phones and light enough to carry. The devices have held up against the strong Burundian heat and can last for days before needing a recharge.

"So you have the speed of gathering data, which means you can expand your survey area, and that makes it more valid by interviewing more people," Marc Neilson said, a public information officer for WFP Burundi.

The organization provides food assistance to more than 600,000 "food-insecure" Burundians and some 90 million people around the world every year. WFP plans to provide about 3.7 million tons of food in 73 countries to those unable to produce or obtain enough food for themselves and their families.

A beneficiary receives her food ration under WFP's mobile delivery system

WFP provides food assistance to about 90 million people worldwide

A welcome development

In Bihogo village in northern Burundi, WFP program assistant Gerard Bisman uses his PDA to conduct a 20-question survey with local residents about their food needs and living standards.

"It's very interesting to use the device because it's a lot faster," he said. "It used to take us about an hour-and-a-half to complete the entire interview with paper, and now it takes only half-an-hour."

Since he started using the device in March, Bisman has eliminated prep time, paper shuffling and the need to decipher sloppy hand writing, which has reduced the margin of error.

The WFP staffer said residents also appreciate the technology, noting that survey-takers used to get "very, very tired" back when the questionnaire was conducted by hand.

Bihogo resident Elisabeth Tembaidai had never been interviewed by WFP before. The 56-year-old primary school teacher said it is the first time she has seen a PDA - and the device shows the country is making progress.

A few years ago, Tembaidai received food aid from WFP during a drought. She said she hopes WFP will provide her with food this year, too.

"Well, we will probably need some help in regards to food this year because the water that used to come from up north doesn't come anymore," she said. "It's the dry season also, and we are short of food at the moment, and we are asking WFP for some food now."

A WFP staffer uses a PDA device

PDAs allow WFP to transmit data wirelessly

High-speed, wireless transmission

Information is currently collected on a memory card and sent to the main WFP office in Bujumbura, but soon WFP field staff will be able to transmit their findings wirelessly.

Burundi is one of the poorest countries in the world, with annual per capita income averaging about $300, or 236 euros. In 2006, the country emerged from a 13-year civil war; one rebel group laid down its arms just last year.

Now, however, the country has a new high-speed 3G wireless network. By sending data wirelessly to the central database for analysis, WFP staff can provide up-to-date information from around the country, helping streamline planning on food shipments.

The PDA's price tag is about $200, or 158 euros - and providing two devices in each of Burundi's 15 provinces costs about $6,000, or 4728 euros, not including training costs.

But Neilson said the devices are a good investment:

"Any time you can save doing that, it means those most at risk - the poor - are getting the assistance faster and more effectively, and you're not perhaps going in an area where you really shouldn't be," he said.

"WFP needs to be in the areas that are most at risk. That's the bottom line."

Beneficiaries in Zambia register for e-vouchers

Scratch card 'e-vouchers' allow beneficiaries more options to receive food aid

Scratch card 'e-vouchers'

WFP has put the PDAs to use elsewhere in Africa, including the Congo and Mozambique.

In Zambia, WFP distributes "e-voucher" scratch cards to improve the food voucher program. Instead of lining up for food aid, people can now choose when and where to pick up their monthly assistance. The scratch card codes are entered into a mobile phone upon delivery of the food.

WFP said the program reduces transaction costs and increases the "efficiency and effectiveness" of food distribution.

Beneficiaries register for the e-voucher stratch cards in Zambia

WFP's scratch card program reduces the transaction costs of food distribution

In Syria, 130,000 Iraqi refugees receiving food aid are able to get the WFP's "virtual vouchers" via text message. The electronic vouchers can be exchanged for items not normally included in conventional aid baskets, such as rice, wheat flour, lentils, chickpeas, oil and canned fish, as well as cheese and eggs.

Other organizations are also taking advantage of the new technologies in the field.

In the West African countries of Togo and Niger, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has worked with PDAs equipped with GPS capabilities to help prevent malaria. A team of scientists used the electronic devices to collect high-quality data on the use of insecticide-treated mosquito nets.

In the Asia-Pacific region, UN Children's Fund staff use PDA questionnaires to provide rapid assessments in emergency situations. Local statistical data on livelihood, poverty, health and nutrition can help inform situation reports, as well as high-level government officials.

Author: Zack Baddorf
Editor: Stuart Tiffen

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