UN World Food Programme promotes organization-wide data literacy to advance food security worldwide
$138M saved by 2020 while supporting 100M+ people in 120+ countries & territories
Savings from an organization-wide data culture feeds an extra 2 million people for one year
Built a data literacy program focused on collaboration, peer leadership, and attracting talent
The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) is the world’s largest humanitarian organization, operating in more than 120 countries and territories to deliver food assistance in emergencies and build the resilience of food insecure people and communities. The organization helps save and change the lives of more than 100 million people each year, including places affected by conflict—the single biggest driver of hunger worldwide.
WFP has long been aware of the impact reliable data can have on its mission. By 2011, WFP was using data to accelerate its operations, reducing lead times by up to 40 days in countries such as Syria. By partnering with Tableau, WFP gained access to Tableau products and expertise, helping their staff make leaps forward in integrating visual analytics into vulnerability assessments and other work areas to improve impact at every level of the organization. Moreover, WFP not only learned best practices for using Tableau but also affirmed the importance of data culture and literacy in their organization’s mission.
“We’re at a point now where data is a critical part of our day-to-day work,” said Jay Mahanand, WFP Chief Information Officer and Director of Technology. “In an emergency, every second can mean the difference between life and death for the people we serve. Reliable data helps us reach as many people as we can, as fast and effectively as possible.”
Data helps all of us work together to serve people in the best, most efficient and effective ways.
Promoting data literacy as a way to better serve humanity
Achieving results has meant focusing on uniting the people involved in WFP operations—leadership, staff, and partners alike—around a single community of shared data. Starting in 2016, using resources from Tableau Foundation and Tableau Blueprint, WFP began shaping the efforts of its workforce around better, more comprehensive, and more targeted uses of data, in the form of visualizations and other tools powered by Tableau Server. This initiative has been far-reaching within the organization and has benefited greatly from the visibility and support of WFP leadership, from top-level executives down to teams and individual staff.
When we have the right data in front of us, we can read it, communicate with it, argue with it, and interpret it. Data has become a common language within our organization to accelerate our mission.
Shifting to a data-driven mentality has produced many positive benefits for WFP’s bottom line. By 2020, for example, the organization had saved more than $138 million, which it redirected to support more people globally—all by having the right analytics and the right people using them to create targeted, impactful solutions. “When a single dollar can bridge the gap between hunger and health for the vulnerable, we can’t afford to waste any resource,” said Mahanand. “Our efforts to date around data have helped us save enough money to feed an extra 2 million people for an entire year.”
Throughout WFP, teams have taken this challenge with the utmost seriousness. “Data literacy is the cornerstone of our ability to transform and become a data-driven culture,” said Diana Klein, Head of the Data & Analytics branch of WFP’s Technology Division. “Right now, we’re establishing our formal data literacy program, with support from Tableau.”
The program, said Klein, comprises three main areas of development:
- Collaboration. “As we continue to mature our organization, collaboration becomes almost natural,” said Klein. “We need to keep engaging teams and helping them understand how data and analytics can support their work.”
- Peer leadership. Making learning stick with all users means identifying “data champions” who will take the WFP data literacy curriculum and amplify its messages to their colleagues and to the business units they support.
- Talent. Attracting the best workers to join WFP means having a data culture they will want to work in. Likewise, WFP needs the best talent possible in order to develop the content needed for the data literacy program.
The blending of these elements yields a new level of efficiency and collaboration for WFP operations. “Location data, for example, helps us understand where to source food, where to drop it off, and where to store it in the meantime,” said Klein. “If we all use the same source for location data, it means we’re more accurate and productive when it comes to the food we gather and deliver. This kind of productivity is critical to fulfilling our mission.”
Engaging operations at every level with data analytics
This new data literacy focus has already made its way into the day-to-day decision-making of WFP’s operations. Teams across the organization use Tableau dashboards to execute on projects of all sizes, including the development and maintenance of complex plans for strategic interventions where help is needed.
“For a specific intervention, we start by analyzing the number of food-insecure people affected, including where they are and what kinds of support they need,” said Gaetan Bailby, Field Data Program Lead for WFP. “We focus on the variables that apply, such as the security situation, funding forecasts, and types of distribution support available. After we determine the best intervention methods and goals, we work with various international and national NGOs on how, when, and where we will support those in need depending on the context. Then we implement an operational plan, monitor how it’s working, and assess whether we’re achieving what we set out to do.”
Our mission isn’t just about data—it’s about making connections with real people. Data is our way of understanding what they need and how best to to address those needs. This is how we serve humanity.
Each WFP staff member and partner involved with an intervention relies on accurate, up-to-date analytics to perform their role effectively. As an example, Bailby cited 3.5 million people who needed help in the border countries of Ukraine. “To tackle this, we needed to analyze the refugee reception point locations and their relative location to nearby resource stockpiles,” he said. “Then we overlaid that data with the answers we found to key questions: How many more refugees are there likely to be next month? Where will we procure more food in order to support that additional influx?”
This information, Bailby said, helped WFP procurement specialists understand and predict the best places for finding assistance, while helping supply chain specialists know where to deliver it, and enabling program leadership to monitor the project’s overall success.
Data for me is unbounded potential. It’s the reason I get up in the morning. At WFP, data means that I have an opportunity to make a positive difference in how we respond to and serve the most vulnerable communities.
Following a blueprint to enact change
Having a structure for planning the changes was essential for evolving WFP’s data capacity, and Tableau Blueprint played a critical role in that journey. The WFP methodology focused on building a roadmap of activities to increase staff capabilities and build out a thriving WFP data community.
“With Blueprint, we were able to not only build a community, but also build capabilities and mature our ability to use the technology Tableau provided,” said Klein.
The result of all this change has been far-reaching, as evidenced in the daily lives of staff across the organization and the impact on food-insecure people worldwide. Data transformation at WFP has meant more than just upgrading people’s toolsets—it’s been an opportunity for learning, growing, and pursuing new opportunities, with data leading the way.
“Whenever I see a data visualization, I am reminded of just how powerful data can be,” said Bailby. “Visualizations help me discover more about the challenges our teams face, and how to overcome them. To me, this shows that data can transcend projects, bureaucracy, and cultural boundaries—it’s really a means of bringing us all together.”
But above all, WFP’s data culture has accelerated its mission to save and change lives at a time when conflict and the climate crisis continue to drive food insecurity to unprecedented worldwide levels. In just two years, the number of severely food-insecure people increased by more than 200 million—from 135 million in 53 countries pre-pandemic to 345 million in 82 countries in 2022.
“Every dollar we save can mean an added four meals for a child,” said Mahanand. “With data-driven decision-making, we’ve been able to stretch our resources farther than ever, putting more food into the hands of more people and helping them build better and brighter livelihoods that are more resilient to disruption.”