Using data to save lives

WFP wins prestigious international award for advanced analytics

A woman sits with bags of WFP rice at a general food distribution in northern Mozambique. Photo: WFP/Sean Rajman

The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) is the 2021 winner of the prestigious Franz Edelman Award, which recognizes excellence in advanced analytics, operations research, and management science. Previous winners include IBM, Intel and UPS. The award recognizes WFP’s use of advanced analytics to drive every donor dollar it receives further to save lives, at a time when the growing needs due to the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic are meeting tighter funding outlooks. WFP aims to reach 138 million people with food assistance in 2021 in over 80 countries, after reaching a record 114 million people in 2020.

“Analytics help us stretch every dollar as far as possible,” says Amir Abdulla, WFP Deputy Executive Director. “As the world continues to face one of the greatest humanitarian challenges in history, it is key for us to be as innovative and efficient as we can. Data and analytics are great propellers in our mission to save lives and change lives.”

A community support member carries a bag of food at a food distribution center in Kukareta, Yobe State, Nigeria. Photo: WFP/Damilola Onafuwa

A journey begins

“Our investment in the use of data and analytics has revolutionized the way that we do our work,” says Alex Marianelli, WFP Director of Supply Chain, as he reflects on the changes he’s seen over his 20 year career of working in some of the world’s biggest emergencies.

“Ten years ago we operated on Excel files with a three month planning horizon, but since then we’ve seen a drastic evolution in the way that we can use analytical data and information to be able to plan parts of our supply chain in rapidly changing environments that are almost impossible to plan for.”

An investment on WFP’s part has seen the growth of a dedicated team of Supply Chain Planners who today work across the organization to analyze vast swathes of data to drive informed decision-making, supported by cutting edge technology.

WFP has used analytics to improve the supply chain of specialized nutritious foods used to treat children like Maitre in Kalemie, Democratic Republic of Congo who suffer from malnutrition. Photo: WFP/Arete/Fredrik Lerneryd

Brains trust

This isn’t something WFP has done alone. WFP has a long history of working with academia to develop new ideas and methods of working, and analytics is no different.

A great example of this is Optimus, an online decision support system that helps WFP’s staff to identify the most cost-effective and efficient way to help the people they serve. Students from Georgia Tech and Tilburg University came together to develop a mathematical model that could support WFP to design its operations in the best way possible.

Combining models that look at how to optimize supply chains with those that look at design of WFP’s food basket in a particular country (based on preferences and cost), the system helps WFP to understand which food commodities it needs to distribute in order to cover the nutritional needs of the people it serves in the most cost-effective way possible. This approach has already led to more than US$ 50 million in savings in countries like Syria, Iraq and Yemen.

WFP High Energy Biscuits are offloaded at the Kutapalong Refugee Camp in Bangladesh to provide emergency food assistance to those affected following a devastating fire in the camp. Photo: WFP/Sayed Asif Mahmud

Tech savvy

Technology has been key to driving WFP’s data and analytics journey, and it is private sector partners like Palantir and UPS are among those companies who have provided the fuel.

“At a time when global hunger is on the rise, innovation and technology continue to be the great enablers in our mission to ensure no one in need is left behind,” says Enrica Porcari, WFP Chief Information Officer and Director of Technology.

One of the biggest challenges in using analytics to support WFP operations is that data is spread across dozens of different systems, making it difficult to get a consistent picture of what is happening. We also need to constantly balance the need for visibility with concerns around data protection and data collection activities. WFP’s partnership with Palantir has helped to address these challenges, and allowed WFP to automate complex data flows, bringing everything together into one user-friendly system able to be accessed and used by any WFP staff member, anywhere around the world.

However, creating a new analytical tool is just the beginning — and no one knows this better than UPS. Longtime supporters of activities to improve the efficiency of our supply chains, they have also supported WFP in rolling out complex tools across their business, particularly around change management and business processes, to guide the adoption of these new tools across our own operations.

Following the opening up of the river network, WFP food is loaded onto a barge for transport in South Sudan. Photo: WFP/Gabriela Vivacqua

Putting it into practice

WFP’s team in South Sudan has seen firsthand the power of analytics. In a country where over 7 million people are in urgent need of food assistance, WFP staff face multiple challenges due to insecurity and a rainy season that renders large portions of the country inaccessible by road for half the year. Costly airdrops had been relied upon for many years to get food to remote locations, until analytics allowed WFP to formulate a plan to deliver large amounts of food by river barge, and to purchase food ahead of time and pre-position it during the dry season when it could be transported by road. As a consequence, the number of air drops required has been halved, crucially stretching donated funds further.

“It’s because of the enormity of what we have to achieve and the complexity of working in South Sudan, that analytics is so important to our logistics work,” says Matthew Hollingworth, WFP Representative and Country Director in South Sudan. “When we can demonstrate to donors that a dollar spent six months before the rainy season is ten dollars saved as soon as the rainy season starts, that’s when we see big savings, and savings means that we can save more lives and change more lives.”

To learn more about WFP’s use of data and analytics and the Franz Edelman Award, watch the full submission video here.

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