The World Food Programme (WFP) is committed to putting the last first – that is, lifting the most vulnerable out of hunger and poverty as an absolute priority. Leaving no one behind is a core WFP responsibility. The idea that the poorest (often women), children, and marginalized individuals and communities deserve special attention is not only morally just. From a development perspective, it is also pragmatically sound.

But having agreed this, how do we know who the last are? People do not self-identify as vulnerable; poverty or malnutrition are not criteria around which they spontaneously coalesce. Surveys take months to process, if not years; they fail to reflect what can be fast-moving, life-critical situations. Crops fail. Crises hit. Conflicts erupt. Added to which, statistical capacity in most developing countries is often lacking.

To remedy the shortage of actionable data, WFP has assembled a team of experts armed with advanced scientific tools, many developed in-house. Known as Vulnerability Analysis and Mapping (VAM), the system we have devised gathers and processes large amounts of information to pinpoint the most food insecure people; it determines the nature and extent of support required; and it helps allocate scarce resources where the impact is greatest.

VAM uses satellite imagery of rainfall and vegetation to track the progress of the growing season and assess its repercussions on lives and livelihoods. It features interactive visualizations of food price information, which it makes accessible to both the scientific community and the general public. The VAM unit works in close coordination with local and national authorities, grassroots activists, civil society organizations and others. Its data collecting and analytical power helps WFP shape programme design, provide technical assistance to governments, and strengthen local capacities for food security planning and crisis response. On any given day, VAM’s findings serve to sharpen and expand out hunger-fighting toolkit.

The mobile Vulnerability Analysis Mapping platform, or mVAM, takes this functionality further by using voice calls and text messages. Operators contact individuals directly, for example in refugee camps. This allows us to collect real-time data on access to food, on the availability of it, on prices, on consumption patterns, and on the coping strategies of food insecure populations.

WFP Calling: What Did You Eat Today?

Quick, reliable and inexpensive, mVAM is growing fast. Crucially, it is helping WFP respond to acute food needs in conflict settings, as has happened in Iraq. Data from the country, where mVAM began operating in February 2015, provided evidence of extremely high prices in the besieged city of Haditha. Information spurred action: WFP managed to reach the city and provide enough food to feed 15,000 people for a month.

Cases such as this one show WFP at its most agile and responsive: they testify to the role of technology-led solutions in achieving Zero Hunger.