Data: WFP’s secret weapon in the fight against hunger

WFP is harnessing the power of data to beat the clock in the emergency response

Story by Vincent Matak, Communications Business Partner, Technology Division

Using real-time data, WFP was able to immediately divert enough assistance to support 150,000 people following the Port of Beirut explosion last August. Photo: WFP/Malak Jaafar

Every extra minute or extra mile can be the difference between life and death in an emergency. And when the Port of Beirut erupted in a devastating blast nearly a year ago, throwing thousands of families into chaos, the sound of the clock ticking was deafening.

That’s why WFP is harnessing the power of data to beat the clock, helping staff reach more people, more quickly — no matter the barrier. In places like Beirut, where more than 200 people died, and more than 6,500 were injured in the port explosion, data was the secret weapon that enabled staff to think and act fast.

Leveraging WFP’s data integration platform known as DOTS, built in partnership with Palantir Technologies, staff were able to identify how much food was needed to support families in the aftermath, and how and where to source it — in just mere seconds. That information, presented in interactive visualizations, powered by Tableau Software, enabled them to swiftly send assistance from neighbouring countries to ensure no one in need was left behind, saving thousands more from the devastating impact of hunger.

WFP estimated around 150,000 vulnerable people affected by the explosion needed assistance.

“Thanks to DOTS, we were able to source food parcels for families and wheat flour for bakers in the immediate aftermath of the explosion, a process that could have taken weeks without such technology,” says Sune Kent, Lebanon Deputy Country Director.

12,500 MT of wheat flour was immediately diverted to Lebanon using real-time information made available through DOTS. The devastating blast in the Port of Beirut destroyed the country’s only wheat silo and left the ports operational capacity only at 30%. Lebanon is a country that imports nearly 85% of its food items, food security has become a main issue of concern following the blast. Photo: WFP/Malak Jaafar

Each food parcel contained around 60 kg of food — enough to feed a family of five for a month. The deliveries of wheat flour also meant families received two extra loaves in a staple bag of pita bread for the same price for a period of 62 days.

DOTS is a platform that pulls operational information that was once siloed in different systems across WFP into one central place. This enables staff to swiftly find the information they need to make informed decisions, anticipate problems in advance and find ways to work around them.

In the aftermath of the explosion, the platform allowed staff to see how much assistance nearby countries required and how much they had in stock, redirecting any surplus to those with the greatest need in Beirut, explains WFP Supply Chain Planning Officer Zohreh Khojasteh.

“Typically, this process would take a lot of time,” she says. “And that’s time we cannot afford to waste.”

A WFP-supported communal kitchen in Ashrafiye, a couple of kilometres away from the epicentre of the blast. Volunteers cooked food sourced by WFP through DOTS at this location and delivered it directly to affected people. Photo: WFP/Edmond Khoury

The destruction of the Port of Beirut impacted the available routes to deliver supplies to the region. Staff turned to DOTS to see how to transport stock from the other locations, including the Port of Tripoli.

“We could see clearly and easily the available transporter routes and were able to determine which ones would be the best routes to deliver that assistance,” she says.

The platform provides performance ratings for each route based on current and anticipated delays, she adds, shaving off more precious time in the delivery of life-saving cargo.

“That, in combination with assessing and redirecting stock surpluses, enabled us to respond to local needs on the ground more swiftly than we ever could have before.”

The powerful use of data to accelerate response in Lebanon is the latest example of WFP’s commitment to the responsible use of data as part of its digital transformation agenda. Last month, WFP won the prestigious Franz Edelman Award recognizing excellence in advanced analytics, operations research, and management science, following previous winners IBM, Intel, UPS.

Learn more about how WFP uses technology to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic

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