Food• DATA

Big Data Comes to Food Aid

A potential advance in efficiency and cost savings for distributing food aid makes for some strange bedfellows in humanitarian innovation.
David Wyld

The allure of big data is not lost on humanitarians. The United Nations' World Food Programme (WFP) works to combat hunger and to provide emergency assistance in all parts of the globe. According to the organization’s latest statistics, the WFP provides food and other assistance to approximately 92 million people annually in 83 countries around the globe. They operate a massive, worldwide logistical operation, moving 3 million metric tons (3.3 million U.S. tons) of food in order to deliver 15 billion meals annually. Two-thirds of the WFP’s aid is delivered in countries experiencing active military conflict or civil unrest, where hunger is three times as likely as in more stable nations. 

In early February 2019, the WFP announced that it would be partnering with the private sector on its own big-data operation. The goal of the effort would be for the UN operation to streamline its own operations and enable it to better coordinate its work with other relief operations. Before issuing the full $45 million contract, a pilot program was tested first, aimed at using big data to bring better coordination and improved efficiency to the WFP’s relief efforts in Iraq. Quite impressively, the pilot produced approximately $30 million in savings. According to WFP’s chief information officer, Enrica Porcari, the organization hopes that once the data intelligence effort is fully integrated into its global operations, the cost savings and efficiency gains could make it possible for the agency “to potentially provide food assistance for tens of millions of additional people.” 

The WFP's data analysis vendor of choice is Palantir, a Silicon Valley data analysis firm funded in part by In-Q-Tel, the CIA’s venture capital arm. Palantir has previously partnered with the military, intelligence, and law enforcement agencies in the U.S., as well as private sector operations in manufacturing, supply chain efficiency, finance, and healthcare. Now, Palantir is bringing its data analytics approach to the world of nonprofits and relief agencies, in what has heretofore been pro-bono work—a practice the company refers to as “Philanthropy Engineering.” 

Learning that the UN relief agency was now working with Palantir set off alarm bells among both privacy advocates and human rights advocates, regarding just who would control the data and the potential for misuse or abuse. As Faine Greenwood wrote recently in Slate, there is great concern, both in the tech community and beyond, that collaborations such as these between aid organizations and private sector firms, “if done without adequate oversight, can create ethical issues and expose vulnerable people’s data to surveillance and appropriation by powerful interests.”

The WFP has sought to reassure critics that the program’s data would stay within the UN’s control, and that the aggregated data would not be individualized so as to endanger the rights of those receiving the aid. Porcari stated in a release, “With these checks and balances in place, WFP believes it is in a good position to explore the boundaries of what digital transformation can offer when it comes to improving delivery of humanitarian assistance to the millions that we serve.”