Digital Transformation and USAID's FEWS NET Project
This post is written by Steven Truitt, CTO, Kimetrica.
USAID’s first-ever Digital Strategy, released in April 2020, has as its overall goal, to achieve and sustain open, secure, and inclusive digital ecosystems that contribute to broad-based, measurable development and humanitarian-assistance outcomes and increase self-reliance in emerging market countries centered around two complementary objectives:
- Improve measurable development and humanitarian assistance outcomes through the responsible use of digital technology in USAID’s programming; and
- Strengthen the openness, inclusiveness, and security of country-level digital ecosystems.
FEWS NET is working to put these objectives into practice through a combination of appropriate technology and modernization of analysis and engagement practices. In many ways, FEWS NET has anticipated and pioneered the use of digital technology to analyze food insecurity. We can understand how these objectives work in practice through FEWS NET examples.\
Objective 1: Improve Measurable Outcomes
FEWS NET’s key outcome is in actionable intelligence for timely policy decisions making on food insecurity and key drivers of food security. The main goal of reducing famine, food insecurity, malnutrition, and other social ills is a complex system that depends in part on international politics and other exogenous factors FEWS NET cannot control. What we can control is the effective publication and dissemination of information about food security to those that need it. Therefore, efficiently delivering timely, accurate, secure, and trustworthy information and analysis, is FEWS NET’s first major objective.
A key challenge with measuring the value of analytic products is that the effects are often indirect. Therefore, a key proxy is the ability to measure the value of the analytic sources, methods, and supporting systems. For improvements to the system made as part of a digital transformation, value can be measured in three ways: efficiency, efficacy, and sustainability.
In FEWS NET, we have delivered changes that touch on all three of these aspects, and they have improved the quality and quantity of our production in meaningful ways.
CASE STUDY: Technology unlocks efficiency, efficacy, and sustainability improvements
From an efficiency point of view, FEWS NET’s data pipelines autonomously bring in key indicator data from multiple sources and across many countries in a common format, saving large amounts of web browsing and data cleanup time. Additionally, automation of data visualization allows for the creation of repeatable graphs and charts to highlight trends and changes.
The organization of data into normalized indicators regardless of source has benefits for the efficacy of analysis as well, making information available across time, country, and sectoral topic to allow broader and deeper analytic inquiry. Of course, neither time savings nor improvement of quality matter if it cannot be sustained.
The use of standardized data collection forms and units worldwide builds strong and sustainable practices while still being adaptable and flexible to local needs and key information considerations.
Objective 2: Strengthen the Ecosystems
FEWS NET is a program predicated on the establishment of network effects as a means to achieve greater food security. USAID’s second objective in the Digital Strategy to “strengthen the openness, inclusiveness, and security” is nearly identical to this objective. However, building and sustaining effective networks is hard, and to accomplish this for more than 35 years FEWS NET has focused on accruing value to, and from, a robust network that continuously delivers crucial value to humanitarian response planning.
The concept of accruing value is central to strengthening digital ecosystems within and across countries. For any technology project, the goal is to accrue value to the key stakeholders, most commonly users, sponsors, investors, and the development team itself. Importantly, the people that get value out of a project can be different than those that are most involved in it, with this dynamic almost always present in large, government funded efforts.
CASE STUDY: US policymakers
FEWS NET’s primary mission is to inform US policy makers about current and future issues that put food security at risk. To accomplish this, FEWS NET produces analysis and data that are used in policy decisions, supported with expert insights and information visuals. FEWS NET uses a combination of a robust ecosystem of data sources, experts, and technologies to access the right information to produce actionable intelligence in a timely manner. Thus, the most immediate value FEWS NET provides from a strong ecosystem is to the US Government.
While the immediate value of FEWS NET’s analysis is received by policy makers in the US Government, value ultimately accrues through decisions and intervention programs to people who need food. To get to that point there must be effective intervention program implementers, policy decision makers, legislative and executive branch staffers, and food security analysts. One of the benefits of digital technologies and a strong ecosystem is the ability to deliver valuable services to multiple stakeholders in this chain.
CASE STUDY: International food supply chain
In the course of collecting, cleaning, and organizing data to support FEWS NET’s primary analysis, a very robust set of information and data interrogation tools have been developed. FEWS NET provides access to some of this data for public consumption, supporting people that are directly involved in local food supply chains and are most able to intervene and self-actualize the change needed to avert a crisis. This type of direct data dissemination is a critical enabler of strong networks that can avoid problems before they become an issue, and something FEWS NET will continue to invest heavily in.
Understanding who value accrues to has been central to developing and delivering useful technologies to the FEWS NET project. It is the insight that lets us learn from each effort by receiving feedback, and it helps set expectations so that the people who use the technology are aware that they may not be the ultimate beneficiaries of the work.
The bottom line
Digital transformation can be hard, often slow, and requires deliberate strategic thought about how one’s stakeholders and partners get value out of our work. For FEWS NET this is a process we have been following, now validated by the USAID Digital Strategy, and aligned with the goal of having the most informative sources and analysis of food security data available. For a project that started with purely manual methods and has progressed to include insights derived from a combination of interviews, surveys, and satellites, digital transformation is a perpetual and necessary part of day-to-day work and can continue to evolve under the mandate of the USAID Digital Strategy.