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Tableau analytics capabilities aid World Food Programme

The United Nations' World Food Programme is now using Tableau to inform its decision-making process and speed the time it takes to respond to crises worldwide.

Using analytics capabilities from Tableau Software, the World Food Programme has been able to speed its response time to help people in need.

The WFP, founded in 1961 and based in Rome, is the food assistance branch of the United Nations and is the largest humanitarian organization in the world focused on hunger and food security. In 2020, the organization was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for its work providing food assistance in conflict areas and its work toward preventing the denial of food as a weapon of war and conflict.

Annually, the WFP feeds about 100 million people, most of them affected by crisis or subject to chronic hunger, but it receives no funding and is, therefore, 100% reliant on donations.

Data is a crucial means for the organization to show efficiency and results in its fundraising. Data is also a crucial means to efficiently get food in the hands of the people who need it most.

Like many organizations, however, the WFP was struggling with its data. About four years ago, it was discombobulated, saddled with isolated systems that didn't communicate with one another.

The organization needed to get a better grip on its data and identified data literacy, data availability and data integrity as the areas that most needed improvement in order for it to better use data to become more efficient.

Data literacy meant enabling everyone in the organization with data and not just a privileged few. Data availability meant breaking down the silos and making data easily accessible and actionable. And data integrity meant ensuring data is accurate and trustworthy.

The WFP already used Tableau for some of its analytics needs and determined that broader adoption of Tableau would help the organization harness its data and enable it to use that data for action.

Pierre Guillaume Wielezynski, Zaheera Valani speak during Tableau Virtual IT Summit
Pierre Guillaume Wielezynski (right), deputy director of digital transformation services at the World Food Programme, discusses the organization's use of Tableau with Tableau's Zaheera Valani, vice president of engineering, during a virtual user conference on June 15.

"Data pervades the entire enterprise," said Pierre Guillaume Wielezynski, deputy director of digital transformation services at the WFP, on June 15 during Tableau's Virtual IT Summit. "We wanted to make sure everyone in the organization embraced data in their function, and that meant we needed to have a program where everyone felt comfortable using data in day-to-day decisions."

Improving data availability and data integrity were matters of improving technology, building a better data management pipeline and developing a comprehensive data governance framework.

Improving data literacy, however, entailed training the WFP's employees and getting them comfortable with Tableau.

To do so, the WFP's IT and data teams helped establish a data literacy program.

First, they made existing Tableau users data champions -- leaders who were asked to expand their knowledge of Tableau and work with new users. In addition, they sent field coordinators into every country to work with employees on the ground to find out what the data literacy skills were at the time, and then improve those skills.

When working with the organization's executive team, the IT department and data team made sure to celebrate successes, starting with small projects to show proof of concept and building out from there to establish organizationwide confidence in analytics as a tool to drive decision-making and in Tableau as the platform for analytics.

"Those executives need to really be able to understand the data universe, understand what's feasible and not feasible, and then work with us to deliver the right products so they can make the right decision," Wielezynski said.

We wanted to make sure everyone in the organization embraced data in their function, and that meant we needed to have a program where everyone felt comfortable using data in day-to-day decisions.
Pierre Guillaume WielezynskiDeputy director of digital transformation services, World Food Programme

Finally, the IT and data teams made sure to nurture new data users. They established weekly "doctor's hours" to answer questions and held competitions to celebrate new data visualizations.

"We really saw this as a critical success factor in the execution of our data program," Wielezynski said. "What has really moved the needle on literacy is a sustained engagement with the community."

Steadily, over the past four years, use of Tableau has become widespread at the WFP, and as with digital transformation at many organizations, the pace of adoption accelerated throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, there is about four times the traffic on the WFP's servers than there was four years ago, and four times the creation of workbooks, according to the Wielezynski.

"We've seen very operational decision-making enabled by Tableau, and [over the past 15 months] we've seen a strategic view of how COVID was progressing to inform us at the global level," he said. "It's been a very strong adoption and all the metrics are shooting through the roof."

The primary result of the WFP's broad adoption of Tableau to use analytics as the primary driver of decisions has been speed. The WFP is now able to respond to crises much faster than it previously could.

In August 2020, more than a thousand tons of ammonium nitrate stored at the port of Beirut in Lebanon exploded. The blast killed 207, injured 7,500 and left an estimated 300,000 homeless. In addition, it curtailed shipments in and out of Beirut.

The WFP needed to respond quickly to help feed the people affected by the explosion. In particular, Wielezynski said, there was a shortage of flour.

Using data, and making decisions based on Tableau analytics, the WFP was able to equip bakers in Lebanon with flour so they could make bread. It was able to identify which neighboring countries had flour, establish how to reroute that flour to Lebanon, determine the optimal route to get it there at the minimum cost and figure out how long it would take to get the flour to the bakers.

What would have taken a week just a handful of years ago instead took a day, according to Wielezynski.

"Without data, without Tableau, without the investment we made in our data program, it would have been impossible to articulate, formulate, orchestrate and deploy the operation," he said.

Now, no matter the crisis, because of analytics, the WFP better understands supply chains, population movement, the location of resources such planes and warehouses, its network of suppliers and other information that informs how quickly it can get food resources to people in need.

"To me, the hardcore KPIs and metrics of adoption -- the utilization of the software combined with those human stories -- make me feel really good about our data program," Wielezynski said. "Now, the first conversation that happens in an emergency is infused with data."

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