World Food Programme uses data to pivot to pandemic medical response

Pierre Guillaume Wielezynski describes how embedding Tableau dashboards into a new service marketplace enabled the World Food Programme to respond to Covid-19.

“We are a learning organisation,” Pierre Guillaume Wielezynski, Deputy Director of DT Services for the World Food Programme, says of how a transformational data programme has modernised and changed the United Nations organisation. During the global Covid-19 pandemic lockdowns, the World Food Programme became the world’s most important medical supplier; the success of its operations lies, in part, in the data strategy Wielezynski and his team enabled with partners, including Tableau.

“Everyone agrees Covid was the great digital accelerator, and we were no exception. We used data to inform the global response to Covid-19,” Wielezynski says from Kenya, where he is based. “We have seen how critical the difference it makes is, both for ourselves and those we are responding to."

The World Food Programme is part of the United Nations and is the world’s largest humanitarian organisation. “We have over 5000 trucks, 20 ships and 92 aeroplanes moving at any one time,” Wielezynski says. These numbers are all the more impressive when you consider the difficulty of delivering humanitarian efforts in war zones or to areas hit by climate change or natural disasters. “I mean, they are really challenging environments, no roads, no electricity, and we have to develop a large supply chain practice…Our service provision has really exploded over the last four to five years. We went from $4.5 million of volume a year to $320 million, and that is set to double again,” Wielezynski says.

An up close image of a corn maize field.

Covid-19 response

“When Covid-19 became a pandemic, we had to scramble. We had to engage at scale as a health supply chain, this is not something that we had done before, and within a few days, we were on the receiving end of an enormous amount of demand for large and small organisations to move PPE, ventilators, shelter and masks."

“We had to do all of this at a scale that we had not done before in a discipline that we were just getting acquainted with. The challenge for us is how do we build the one-stop shop to deliver the same consistency and clarity into the humanitarian response,” Wielezynski says of the role data and technology played in the rapid move from moving food to medical aid as the pandemic gripped the world. One of the largest organisational changes was that the World Food Programme went from having five to seven core partners to over 72 partners. “Data tells us we are delivering an effective response,” Wielezynski says.

Fortunately, the digital team at the World Food Programme had already built a Proof of Concept (POC) of a services marketplace ahead of the pandemic. The POC allowed other humanitarian organisations to enter the marketplace and submit orders for storage or transport, for example. As the pandemic increased in severity, Wielezynski’s team moved the POC into production and integrated Tableau dashboards to ensure all partners had transparent access to data that informed their partnership and response to the virus.

“It was a major ramp up, and that created a torrent of data. Tableau helped us visualise the data and tell the story,” Wielezynski says. The pandemic meant the World Food Programme was working with high levels of unpredictability; for example, it initially had no way of knowing if shipping and airline partners would still be able to operate. “We had to enter into new relationships with logistics partners. That meant system integration, and data management for a unified picture. We had to deal with the speed and complexity of the pandemic but present a relatively simple way for people to interact with us and to trust us,” he says.

Wielezynski says it was crucial that the organisation got “the data right, to make sure that we were accountable, data driven and efficient in our response”.

“Our long-standing relationship with Tableau meant we were able to spin up a number of workbooks and dashboards that showed different facets to the response for colleagues that were managing the response,” he says of how visualisation helped those leading, and at the frontline. “We realised how powerful it would be to expose that data to the different partners too.” With Tableau dashboards as part of the newly launched service marketplace, organisations such as Unicef and UNHCR - two partner humanitarian organisations within the United Nations - were able to track their orders with the World Food Programme. “We built a lot of confidence and a lot of transparency. FedEx and DHL have been doing this for years. We have lost just one small package, and the data really helped us up our game,” Wielezynski says.

Food for thought

“In any emergency, communications is really critical,” he says, adding that the Tableau dashboards and communications were focused on the end-user, something the CIO says is vital for effective storytelling with data. “There’s a world of difference between showing a budget or cost in an Excel file or through an architected data story. It makes a big difference. Data tells a story, whether, for a partner or a donor; it shows the power of context.

The private sector has focused on the need to “pivot” and change operating models in the face of digital change in recent years. Covid-19 demonstrated that the public sector, as well as international humanitarian organisations, can also enact a major pivot and move from a global food supplier to medical aid logistics. A common thread between the public sector, humanitarian organisations, and the business world is the need for data to tell the story that stakeholders need to be aware of. Whether customer, donor, clinician, councillor or sales director, data visualises the challenges and opportunities.

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