WFP staff face complex, cross-functional challenges every day, often with many possible solutions. Whether it’s funding shortfalls, access restrictions due to rainy seasons, new import regulations, or operational scale-ups, every day it’s something new. To properly manage the complexity and to enable an agile comparison of potential alternatives, it is critical to use data and optimization to find the right solutions.
Optimus is an online decision support system that helps WFP staff identify the most cost-effective way to serve their beneficiaries. Building on data from dozens of sources, mathematical models provide key insights on food basket design, sourcing strategies, and delivery networks for any WFP operation.
Optimus is a web application that looks at WFP operations from an end-to-end perspective to support better planning, helping users identify the most cost-effective solutions using advanced mathematics. It pulls together a wide variety of data—from beneficiary numbers to sourcing options and from transport routes to nutritional values. Users can create their own scenarios or ask Optimus to find optimal plans, taking into account operational restrictions (such as lead times and funding) and preferences (such as nutritional value targets and local procurement targets). A user-friendly interface allows users from any functional area to quickly explore the different scenarios and compare them against each other.
First conceptualized in 2013 by and for engineers, Optimus was field-tested in 2015 and 2016 with tremendous impact. In Iraq, Optimus identified an alternative food basket providing only 3 kilocalories less than the previous one, but costing 12% less ($1.59 per person per month) and aligning better with local dietary preferences. Its implementation led to more than USD 25M savings over two years. In Yemen, Optimus helped manage the scale-up from three to six million beneficiaries by allowing the comparison of different food basket implementations. During the 2016 El Niño drought affecting Southern Africa, the tool helped identify robust sourcing strategies under different harvest scenarios. Applying the tool to real problems in close collaboration with field staff helped fine-tune the tool over the years to fit into WFP’s way of operating and be applicable to any operation.
Prototypes for Optimus were developed hand-in-hand with prestigious universities such as the Georgia Institute of Technology in the USA and Tilburg University in the Netherlands. Since 2017, WFP’s internal divisions, including its Technology division and the WFP Innovation Accelerator, as well as external partners like UPS and Palantir Technologies, have consistently enhanced the software solution through best-practice iterations using agile development and human-centred design.
Optimus is available to all WFP staff as an automated, user-friendly online application at https://optimus.wfp.org. In April 2021, Optimus 2.0 will be launched.
Now that an automated, user-friendly version of Optimus is available online, the next step is ensuring that every Regional Bureau has dedicated staff trained on Optimus. Power users representing different functional areas (such as supply chain, nutrition, and finance) are actively being trained to identify optimization opportunities and carry out analyses to support the countries in their region. Throughout 2021-2022 the same approach will be implemented at a country level to ensure full coverage of WFP operations.