Climate monitoring through satellites: How WFP’s PRISM provides real-time impact through open-source software
PRISM Global Programme Manager Amit Wadhwa shares updates on WFP’s climate monitoring system and talks about why it was important to make the technology open-source.
Interview by Vida Gabe | Field Focus Series
WFP: Can you give us a brief overview of how PRISM came about? Why was it begun, how did it get off the ground, and where is it today?
AW: PRISM started in Indonesia in 2015 when severe drought associated with an El Niño year raised concerns about the food security of Indonesia’s poorest, especially smallholder farmers. There was a need for objective information on the extent and severity of the drought, which was hard to come by. National rice production in Indonesia was a main concern and could quickly become a politicized topic. This was a clear opportunity to leverage satellite data to measure the current drought, and to monitor it as the growing season unfolded.
The version of PRISM developed in Indonesia was eventually repackaged and deployed in Sri Lanka and Cambodia. However, it became clear that the technology was difficult to update and to maintain. In 2020, thanks to funding from the WFP Innovation Accelerator, we were able to redevelop the technology used by PRISM from the ground-up and had our first deployment with the new version in Mongolia. The new version of the platform continued to focus on open-source software as a fundamental component of the project. It also took advantage of new tools for generating and distributing satellite-derived data, allowing us to streamline PRISM as a front-end application which can pull data from a variety of sources — rather than have us generate those products on our own. This meant we could focus on delivering a technology solution that is scalable, highly configurable, and easy to maintain.
The project is now managed at WFP headquarters where it is part of a package of climate monitoring solutions created by WFP’s Climate and Earth Observation unit. The shift has allowed us to collaborate with related initiatives, most importantly our forthcoming deployment of Open Data Cube, which provides us with the infrastructure to work with satellite data at a global scale. Paired with this infrastructure, we’ve been able to further refine the objectives of PRISM, which are to: 1) reduce barriers for governments in low resource settings to access climate monitoring data; 2) to produce rapid analysis of climate risks by combining data on hazards, exposure and vulnerability in one system; and 3) to enable local ownership of monitoring systems though the deployment and handover of an easy to configure technology solution built on open-source software.
WFP: Over the course of implementing the project, what top challenges did you face? How did you overcome each?
AW: We’ve had many! First, it’s not easy to go from pilot to scale-up. We were successful early on to get support and buy-in, but taking what we had learned locally in Indonesia and making that into a scalable project across the different contexts where WFP works has been a challenge. We had to become more willing to say no to the questions of ‘what can we do in the future?’, and really focus on delivering the core value of the project — which is to get climate monitoring information to our partners that they cannot access otherwise.
Another challenge has been the institutional arrangements required to successfully deliver PRISM to our partners in government. The project naturally lands either with the national disaster management agency, or the national meteorological office. But working across government departments poses challenges, and the lines can be blurry or political. We’ve learned that it is crucial to find the appropriate institutional home for PRISM deployments that meets the longer-term objectives of the project and fits within the correct government frameworks from the onset.
One last challenge that still affects our work was the military coup in Myanmar early in 2021. Myanmar was meant to be our showcase project, being the first in the region to make use of the new technology we developed. PRISM was developed as a technical assistance project for the government’s Department of Meteorology and Hydrology, and we had built relationships with that team over the course of a year. However, we were not able to move forward with this technical assistance under the current regime and instead refocused the platform to provide the most utility possible for the WFP Myanmar Country Office. So, while it’s important to focus on objectives for the project, it’s equally crucial to be flexible and ready to adapt to changing circumstances.
WFP: PRISM is open-source software. Can you tell us why this has been a focus of the project and what do you hope to accomplish by being open-source?
AW: PRISM has been open-source since day one. WFP and our partners at Pulse Lab Jakarta fully recognized that there are many technology projects out there that come and go, and whatever was created dies with it because the project was not built in the open. When we consider this type of pattern in the context of humanitarian work, it’s simply unacceptable. The resources are too limited and the impact too high to not work in the open. Everything we do should contribute to the larger good. Even though WFP is one of the largest humanitarian agencies around, we are not the only actor, and we will always deliver more to those in need if we work together with our partners.
The ethos of open-source software mirrors how the humanitarian space should work — open collaboration to reduce duplication of efforts and to build upon previous efforts. Being an open-source project, we’ve managed to have volunteers from the private sector help us with feature development. Through collaboration with Ovio — a technology matchmaker that brings skills-based volunteers to open-source projects, we received engineering support from a team of volunteers at Amazon that led to the creation of a new feature that is now live in the system. It’s very encouraging to know there are many talented individuals out there who want to contribute to our work, and open-source software on GitHub gives them that opportunity. We’re excited for more of this collaboration in the future.
More than anything, we see open-source as the means by which we can contribute our work to a much broader effort than we can within WFP alone. When we look at the role of digital solutions to reach the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), there’s a clear need for more open-source software, open data, and open science. This has been emphasized in the UN Secretary-General’s Roadmap for Digital Cooperation, and the creation of the Digital Public Goods Alliance (DPGA), which defines digital public goods as “open-source software, open data, open AI models, open standards and open content that adhere to privacy and other applicable laws and best practices, do no harm by design, and help attain the SDGs.”
PRISM was recently recognized as a digital public good aligned with the Digital Public Goods Standards. We hope that this will further increase its visibility and help other teams out there to benefit from the work we have done, and to further improve upon it, all towards the goal of achieving the SDGs.
WFP: Finally, can you share some next steps for this project? What is in store for PRISM?
AW: We’re gearing up towards several new deployments early in 2022. We’re excited to launch our first deployments in Africa, including Mozambique and our first regional deployment which will cover West and Central Africa through WFP’s regional office in Dakar. The Mozambique deployment includes the creation of climate monitoring products that blend locally-sourced station data alongside satellite data. The blended products will provide an opportunity for our partners in government to showcase their work and provide greater access to their outputs. This type of support, paired with PRISM deployments, is a model we’re replicating in other countries as well.
We’re also continuously adding new features to PRISM. We just finished integrating data collected on mobile devices using another open- source solution called Kobo Toolbox, which is developed by the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative and used widely by governments and humanitarian agencies. We’re also expanding the analysis capabilities of PRISM. I mentioned earlier that we’ve integrated satellite products from our upcoming Open Data Cube, for instance. We’re pushing that integration further to take advantage of Open Data Cube’s ability to work with large amounts of satellite data spread over years of observation efficiently. That includes the ability to visualize climate indicators over time for a location, which can facilitate more in-depth risk analysis and more data driven approaches to policy and national planning for climate resilience.
Our team is also very actively engaged in the Anticipatory Action space. Currently, PRISM facilitates early actions through its alerting system, which is based on triggers and thresholds applied to monitoring data. Building off this framework, we’re working towards the integration of forecast products to facilitate anticipatory actions using the same triggers and thresholds approach but looking forward, not just based on monitoring data.
We’re also moving deeper into the use of PRISM to inform adaptive social protection systems, also known as shock-responsive social protection — SRSP. In Cambodia, we’re preparing to integrate outputs from PRISM into the national poverty identification system to provide geospatial targeting of increased social assistance to poor households who have been exposed to a natural hazard, like a drought or flood. In Indonesia, PRISM is being integrated into a suite of tools used by the Ministry of Social Affairs known as the Disaster Mitigation Information System (Sistem Informasi Mitigasi Bencana or e-SIMBA in Bahasa Indonesia), to rapidly provide information on increased needs of poorer households due to shocks.
We’re also looking forward to expanding our work with scientific and research partners like the NASA SERVIR program. Through the SERVIR partnership, we integrated scientifically validated flood monitoring products into PRISM, which was instrumental in planning responses to severe floods in Cambodia last year.
Finally, we’re engaging additional partners to bring the best available information to the field. This is a key role for WFP and for PRISM — to bring research and data on climate and weather hazards directly to the partners on the ground who can use it to reduce the impact of disasters on vulnerable people.
If you’re interested to learn more about Anticipatory Actions, this video from our colleagues at FAO is a great overview, as is OCHA’s Anticipatory Action Toolkit. For a deeper dive, the learning materials on the Anticipation Hub provide valuable resources for practitioners, while WFP’s collaboration with the Overseas Development Institute reviews the evidence base for Anticipatory Action.
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