WFP Streamlined Data Ecosystem

23 November 2021

By Diana Klien, Head of Data and Analytics, Technology Division, World Food Programme

When every second means the difference between life and death for those facing famine and conflict, data can be a humanitarian agency’s best ally. That’s why data paved the way for the World Food Programme’s ambitious journey in digital transformation that started in 2017.

We took a broad look at our data ecosystem, and realized we needed to streamline our siloed operational systems with powerful integration software. We needed to make more timely and effective decisions, stretch donor funds, and overcome all obstacles to reach families in need. To date, these investments have been critical in enabling these objectives; however, we still have more to achieve.

When every second means the difference between life and death for those facing famine and conflict, data can be the secret catalyst in the race against time.

So, how does the world’s largest humanitarian organization harness data integration to push back against world hunger and COVID-19? It’s a trajectory that is far from over, begins at the top and the bottom of our organization, and spans business leadership, process change, and embedding data in our culture.

Disparate data systems slow information gathering

Imagine you’re a Logistics Officer stationed in Malawi who’s tasked with making sure food gets delivered to those suffering from the prolonged effects of climate change and hunger. But like all large, public-sector institutions, WFP’s technology landscape has grown over the years and produced specialized systems with limited interoperability, making it difficult for them to talk to each other.

It may take you up to a full day to create a consolidated distribution plan, which gives a full view of how to deliver food parcels safely and securely to families facing hunger in an emergency. It’s a cumbersome, manual process, that includes channeling data from multiple systems together to plan what food should be sourced, the mode of transportation, and its routing. Piecing these details together from disparate systems can slow down our operational response when we can least afford it.

Asking the right business questions

It often begins by asking the right questions and helping others recognize how we can address those questions with data.

WFP’s journey to harness the power of data began with asking the right business questions: how can we ramp up our ability to deliver food to more families, more quickly? How can we accurately predict disruptions in our supply chains and proactively work around them to keep food moving during a pandemic? How can we empower governments with the right information to better serve their communities?

Data can help us answer these mandate-driven questions and keep leadership aligned with our overall data ambitions. With support from the top, we can set our sights on championing the culture change that will make our ambitions a reality.

From the top down: Investing in the right tools and governance

Once leadership believes in the transformative power of data, it becomes easier to get the tools and processes in place where people can find the information they need at the right time and all in one location. But since the value of data hinges on whether it is trusted and verifiable, it can only succeed in transforming an organization like WFP if it empowers the bottom line: saving and changing lives.

As humanitarians, we work in high stakes environments and we cannot afford to rely on outdated and disorganized information coming from disparate sources.

In addition to the right tools, we need to organize our governance frameworks to support the data culture we’re building and answer the business problems we face. This means bringing leadership together to figure out how we should manage our data, including everything from master data management to data collection policies, to normalizing the use of data across the organization, to sharing data with other organizations. Underpinning every move are strict data protection measures to safeguard the privacy and rights of the people we serve.

Data is only useful if it can be understood, is accurate, and verifiable. Because of the high stakes of humanitarian work, we cannot afford to rely on outdated or disorganized information.

Our efforts have helped WFP build a robust structure with clear accountabilities to properly govern data.  Our Data Governance Board takes a bird’s eye view of all data policies and keeps divisions accountable for their own data domains. Meanwhile, the Data Management Committee acts as a watchdog over these data policies while the Data Integration Working Group makes sure our systems are interoperable. Data Owners create policies on the quality, confidentiality, integrity and availability of their respective data domains while working with Data Stewards to ensure data is complete and consistent and abides quality metrics.  

By combining forces, these teams play a powerful role in pushing our data agenda forward, and their efforts have yielded a new data classification policy, a data protection and privacy framework, and data sharing agreements with other UN agencies and humanitarian partners, among other accomplishments.

From the bottom-up: Empowering WFP to embrace data as a culture

Potential is fueled by people. As data literacy increases in the WFP workforce, and people understand that data is everyone’s business, our data culture is coming into its own. We realized early in our data journey that it's not enough to simply say, ‘build it and they will come’; rather, we needed to invest in a team to work in context with stakeholders across the organization to help them realize their goals using data.

In essence, we complemented our top-down approach of securing leadership support with a bottom-up approach of democratizing data so that people believe in its inherent value, applying it to their daily work.  Often, this meant embedding data experts within teams, and educating, encouraging and empowering colleagues to use data as an asset in decision making. The result has been an optimization of our work across the board.

Potential is nothing without people. It’s not enough to simply say, ‘build it and they will come. As data becomes everyone’s business, we begin to see a new analytical culture emerging.

For example, in 2017, we kicked off our global Data Fellows Programme to promote the value and use of data across WFP’s diverse functions and locations around the world. Roughly 40 fellows – made up of WFP staff who frequently work with data - offer proactive, local support to colleagues, sharing their knowledge and skillsets and offering guidance and opportunities to make the most of our data platforms and tools. Combined with accessible, quality data (especially Master Data) enhanced by our governance efforts, the results have been exciting, with thousands of staff now accessing our data platforms daily to inform decision-making, which helps save time and money for our organization. To date, our data platforms have contributed enough savings to feed more than 2 million people for an entire year.

What are your business questions?

Data has, and continues to have, a tangible impact on the lives of the people we serve. It allows us to understand their needs better, anticipate problems in our supply chains, and mitigate these problems to ensure smooth, safe and secure delivery while stretching donor funds when resources are increasingly scarce. But it took time, effort, continued investment, and strong commitment to realizing our data vision, and it’s one that continues to evolve alongside our operational context.

We took a hard look at ourselves, understood how we could improve our work and decision-making, and then pushed towards a large-scale culture change—from top-down and bottom-up—where streamlined data management has become a WFP value.

Looking ahead, we already see opportunities to unite these different strands of progress and build a cohesive data strategy for the betterment of humanitarian service delivery. Let’s start by asking the right questions. With that in mind, what are yours? 

To learn more about how WFP is harnessing data and digital innovation to power its response, read its new Digital Foundations report, available today.

Note: The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations.

Last year, when the world shut down because of the COVID-19 pandemic, our data ecosystem—including data governance—enabled us to rapidly step up our response, delivering more than 148,000 cubic meters of life-saving health and humanitarian cargo to 173 countries on behalf of 72 organizations. The integration of our supply chain data, including secure data exchange with external service providers gave the organization a 360-degree view of our entire supply chain, helping decision makers immediately spot issues, notify concerned parties, and resolve problems on the fly. This streamlined deliveries and reporting. We are now undertaking the most extensive effort in our history, targeting 139 million people in dire need of assistance, primarily due to the economic fallout of the pandemic. The smart use of data continues to be a great enabler in ensuring no one in need is left behind.