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Posts Tagged ‘Benin’

As part of their efforts to reduce violence against children, Plan Benin is rallying motorcycle-taxi drivers to use SMS to report violence against children that they witness in the streets.

Florence Cisse, Plan West Africa’s regional communications officer, says:

The Zemidjan or “Zem” swarm the streets of Cotonou like bees. They are everywhere; silent observers to all comings and goings. Now, they have received training on how to recognize cases of child trafficking or kidnapping which often occur on the same busy streets. Using SMS texting on their mobile phones, they send information which is tracked and mapped by Plan using Ushahidi, an open source web-based technology platform. Plan then alerts authorities through partnerships with the Benin Central Office of Child Protection and ministries of Family, of Home Affairs and of Justice who begin the process of retrieving the children or investigating the abuse.

“The Zem are always working on the streets, which is where children experience the greatest risk,” said Michel Kanhonou Plan Benin Programme Manager. “The use of Ushahidi to track SMS texts and map the incidents of violence has helped to inform the authorities where, block by block, they need to invest greater resources to keep our children safe.”

The Zem join youth, heads of police squads, community and religious leaders and others who have received the training on how to recognize abuse and report it through simple SMS from Plan. Plan promotes a phone number that is used to collect the SMS on billboards and radio programmes.

This is the kind of innovation I think is most interesting – identifying existing networks and systems, and seeing how to enhance or expand them via new technologies. I’m looking forward to seeing how the program advances, and what Plan Benin learns from this effort to engage broader networks in preventing, tracking and responding to violence against children.

The team in Benin has created a video about the violence reporting system, which uses both FrontlineSMS and Ushahidi. The technology tools, however, are only part of the program. In addition, the team launched billboard and community radio campaigns to promote the violence-reporting number; engaged local communities, government, child protection agents, and NGOs; and trained children, families, teachers, school directors, parents and community leaders (and now moto-taxi drivers!) about violence, its impact on children and how to respond to it. Children and young people have been involved in program design and implementation as well, and there have been thorough discussions on how to manage this type of sensitive information in a private and secure way.

For some older posts that demonstrate the evolution of the project, which started off in early 2010, click here.

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This is a first guest post by Jacqueline Deelstra, who is working for about 2 months to support Plan Benin to solidify their SMS Reporting and Tracking of Violence against Children (VAC) project.

The VAC Benin project started as a pilot in February 2010. Plan Benin welcomed Paul Goodman (see earlier posts) for the month of May to support refining and optimizing the actual SMS and mapping system, and Jacqui is now spending 10 weeks looking further at the non-technological aspects that underlie the initiative, including staff training, links with government duty bearers, and community input around the idea and practice of SMS-based reporting.

During the initial workshops with staff, government representatives and youth in February 2010, we identified the need to map out and better understand what information should be collected in order to 1) allow Plan staff and government to understand the nature of violence against children in Benin, respond to VAC reports, and to avoid creating parallel information systems and 2) the need to provide clear guidance and training to ensure consistent categorization of reported cases. Jacqui writes about this below. (More on the overall project and process via the links at the end of this post.)

In coming to Benin for two months as a consultant to work with Plan staff on a project using FrontlineSMS and Ushahidi to collect and map citizen reports of violence against children (explained previously in this blog) I knew part of my work would be training staff in the technology and answering their questions about how it works and what it’s good for.  In other words, that this work would fall under the often discussed buzz phrase “capacity building” for local staff. And certainly, many questions have come to me about aspects of the technology.

For example, how data from Ushahidi can be downloaded for analysis and to make graphs for reports and how staff without access to Ushahidi as administrators can use the public site to submit cases of violence that are reported to them in person as opposed to being submitted directly from the reporter to our Ushahidi platform via our SMS helpline.

During the recent trainings I carried out in Cotonou on Tuesday and Wednesday I was able to demonstrate to staff members the features of Ushahidi, but just as important was the chance to field a lot of interesting comments and questions. As this was the first time many staff members had seen the vacbenin.ushahidi.com site, it was a process of discovery. There was resulting curiosity about things I had just taken as given in the system.

Comments were made about how we are currently processing reports of violence received by SMS by classifying them into certain categories and specifically why we chose the categories we did for the type of violence and location. The categories we have are listed below.

Current categories on the Violence Against Children (VAC) Ushahidi site in Benin

From French to English they translate to:

Type of Violence– death, sexual violence, psychological violence, physical violence, negligence, exploitation and kidnapping

Location– At home, at school, at work, in the community and in institutions.

You will see next to categories right now there is the statement: “Select as many as needed.” Everyone knows it is difficult to classify many things into just one box. Thus, with cases of violence such a forced marriage it was initially decided that multiple boxes should be checked because it certainly entails sexual and physiological violence and potentially physical violence, and we wanted to cover all our bases.

However, comments from the standpoint of the country office staff pointed to a different conclusion: you have to categorize each report in just one category or else it will be difficult to do a good analysis of the data. They see instead that there is one category which the case belongs to above all, (for forced marriage this would be sexual violence) and that is how it should be categorized. As it was explained to me they look at the categories and say, “just because only one box is checked does not mean the case does not belong to other categories, and selecting one box ensures there is not double counting of cases in the analysis.”

Finally, in our discussion of the choice of locations when processing a report, questions come up about why “at work” was chosen, when other locations more specifically of interest to staff, such as the market, were not included. (Note: the original categories were taken from the UN Study on Violence Against Children, which provides the framework for the overall program.) Staff explained that markets are known to be dangerous places for children who work in them and thus they would like to see if reports come in specifically about that. They also discussed their feeling that “at home,” is too vague. Violence at home could be committed by parents against their own children. Or it may be violence committed against domestic workers or other children living in the household, which they have the impression happens frequently. But the category “at home” does not provide any insight into that question.

The clear value of this discussion of categories and what information would be of most use to the local staff points to another buzz phrase in development, “participatory methods for program design, monitoring an evaluation.” Without consulting various staff members and getting that local knowledge about what issues a project should be tracking and addressing, it is likely the project will not be as useful and impactful as it could be. Especially with a project like as this one that is gathering data for the sake of advocacy, awareness raising and informing future programming, the way data is collected and classified has to fit the local needs and context.

Thus in my trainings this week it was certainly not only the Cotonou-based staff that learned something. I learned more about what types of violence are of interest to staff and how we can make this project work better for them by better meeting their information needs.

Related posts:

Future proofing the VAC Benin project (by Paul Goodman)

Update from Benin: charting a course forward (by Paul Goodman)

Revisiting the SMS violence reporting project in Benin

Tracking violence against children in Benin video

Community-based child protection

Tweaking: SMS violence reporting system in Benin

Finding some ICT answers in Benin

7 (or more) questions to ask before adding ICTs

Fostering a New Political Consciousness on Violence against Children

Related links:

Text messages to help protect children against violence

Plan International case study: Helping children report abuse in Benin

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This is a third guest post by Paul Goodman who is supporting Plan Benin to solidify their SMS Reporting and Tracking of Violence against Children (VAC) project. More on the overall project and process via the links at the end of this post.

Plan Benin uses Ushahidi to map reports of violence against children in Benin. The platform is powerful right off the shelf (or right out of GitHub, as it were) and the latest version offers enough features to get the majority of deployments up and running without issue.

One benefit to working with Ushahidi — there are other options for gathering and mapping reports, of course — is that the global Ushahidi team works hard to cultivate a community of software developers hell bent on improving the software and innovating around new use cases. During my month in Benin I took advantage of a number of resources available to individuals and groups using Ushahidi. A few resources I consulted when working on solutions to technical problems:

In addition to making use of Ushahidi’s standard functionality, in Benin we’ve made some small customizations, configurations, and tweaks to that extend the functionality of the system, making it easier and faster to use.

A few tweaks:

FrontlineSMS – after upgrading to the latest version of Ushahidi, we made use of the new Plugin architecture and activated the FrontlineSMS plugin, which facilitates a seamless connection between FrontlineSMS and Ushahidi.

Location highlight – developed by John Etherton, this plugin improves the experience of mapping locations in areas that are not well-mapped. Instead of staring at a blank map, users creating reports can select the program area and nearby city from a drop down menu. Administrators can add as many points or areas as they’d like to aid the mapping process. Furthermore, the relatively slow internet connection in Benin makes loading map tiles and labels a painful process. In many cases, Location Highlight allows users to avoid having to load new zoom levels.

Nested Categories – a visual improvement more than anything, this functionality is supported out of the box. Rather than loading the Ushahidi landing page and seeing 20+ categories, we now see the major categories and users have the ability to drill down on the various categories to filter results.

Custom forms – the use of custom report forms with private fields allows Plan Benin to track information related to cases alongside the public report, allowing Plan staff in disparate geographies to track the reporting and resolution of incidents.

Related posts:

Future-proofing the VAC Benin project (also by Paul)

Update from Benin: charting a course forward (also by Paul)

Revisiting the SMS violence reporting project in Benin

Tracking violence against children in Benin video

Community-based child protection

Tweaking: SMS violence reporting system in Benin

Finding some ICT answers in Benin

7 (or more) questions to ask before adding ICTs

Fostering a New Political Consciousness on Violence against Children

Related links:

Text messages to help protect children against violence

Plan International case study: Helping children report abuse in Benin


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This is a second guest post by Paul Goodman who is supporting Plan Benin to solidify their SMS Reporting and Tracking of Violence against Children (VAC) project. More on the overall project and process via the links at the end of this post.

Future proofing? Wishful thinking! There is of course no way to “future proof” an ICTD project. There are ways, however, to ensure that an ICT project has a fighting chance at sustainability. Here in Benin we’re revisiting the entire VAC Benin workflow in an effort to document the non-technical aspects of the project so that each person that touches this system fully understands the way that information moves through it. In addition to supporting training, this small but critical step will help drive consensus around how the project should and can work well into the future.

A succinct overview of this project:

The beginning of any development initiative is often marked by energetic optimism. At the onset, when a project enjoys the attention and enthusiasm of its creators and supporters, it is easy to forget that over time this attention will wane, priorities will shift, and critical personnel will undoubtedly take on new responsibilities or even different jobs. Purposeful problem definition and documentation can minimize the impact of these eventualities and only with a thorough understanding of the problem is it possible to discuss appropriate technology-enabled responses. And yes, in the real world, the problem often shifts over time as the situation changes or new information comes to light. But with a well-defined problem you have clarity around your intent and can face new challenges head-on.

Once defined, the problem and corresponding solution must be documented so that others may benefit from the insight gained during this process and apply that insight systematically. This seems elementary, of course, but in years of ICTD work I’ve found that the documentation of both technical systems and non-technical processes is often neglected in the rush to deploy or as a result of over-reliance on a few knowledgable individuals. Furthermore, in international development, documentation sometimes plays second fiddle to the production of reports and case studies.

Now I’ll happily get off my soap box and get back to business in Benin.

After sketching out the various aspects of the information flow with my colleague Elsie, I documented the workflow in a way that can be used to inform, train, and guide others as they interact with this project. I’m working on reference materials of different shapes and sizes including a number of graphics. Several of the graphics appear below; these are drafts and will be revised with Elsie, translated, distributed to the team, and revised again. These graphics represent the way we would like the system to work and are intended to be living documents.

In this graphic I included all the critical actors and their key responsibilities:

 

In this flow chart, I illustrated the way that messages should be processed:

In this graphic, I illustrated the way that reports should be created:

Finally, this flow chart will support report approval and verification:

Related posts:

Update from Benin: charting a course forward (also by Paul)

Revisiting the SMS violence reporting project in Benin

Tracking violence against children in Benin video

Community-based child protection

Tweaking: SMS violence reporting system in Benin

Finding some ICT answers in Benin

7 (or more) questions to ask before adding ICTs

Fostering a New Political Consciousness on Violence against Children

Related links:

Text messages to help protect children against violence

Plan International case study: Helping children report abuse in Benin

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I’m thrilled to write that we have 4 masters level students (or recent grads) who have been prepping for the past few months for 8-10 weeks of ICT4D, child participation, and child protection work with our teams at Plan Benin and Plan Cameroon.

My last post here on Wait… What? was an excellent guest post by Paul Goodman (@pdgoodman) who has been working with Plan Benin for most of May to help optimize the Frontline SMS / Ushahidi-based violence against children (VAC) reporting system that we initiated a little over a year ago. Paul is a Masters Level student at the School of Information Management and Systems at the University of California, Berkeley. In addition to on-the-ground ICT4D experience in Haiti, Pakistan and Bangladesh with DAI, he has worked on several USAID funded projects including the Cuba Development project and the Global Development Commons. Paul has also worked in business development and as a press assistant, multi-media editor and freelance photographer.

Jacqueline Deelstra has just completed her Masters at the Fletcher School at Tufts University. She’s worked overseas in the past with Twaweza in Tanzania and Kenya, World Teach in Ecuador and Tostan in Senegal. While at Twaweza, she focused on citizen reporting, village mobile phone surveys, and the use of mobile phones in development and governance programs. Jacqui will be spending her time in Atacora and Couffo, Benin, learning more about the social context and social challenges surrounding the implementation of the above-mentioned Violence against Children Reporting system in Benin, and looking at its contribution to good governance.

In Cameroon, we will be working with Joe Pavey and Rebecca Tapscott.

Joe (@joepavey) is a Master of Communications student in the Digital Media program at the University of Washington, where the program has an emphasis on storytelling and technology. Joe also spent 7 years at Microsoft, where he specialized on new standards of practice for processing and encoding video content. His undergraduate degree is in documentary film production. Joe will support the Youth Empowerment through Arts and Media (YETAM) Project on the technical side, helping youth and local partners in Cameroon to improve video production quality and to streamline the process from editing to uploading. He’ll also work closely with the well-skilled Cameroonian ICT team that is setting up a violence reporting system using Frontline SMS and CrowdMap, based on our learnings from the system in Benin.

Rebecca is a first-year Masters degree student at the Fletcher School at Tufts University, with experience in both development and journalism. She has also worked as an assistant researcher on a story about the Daniel Pearl case, a legal assistant and a production assistant at NPR. She previously completed a 6-month internship with Tostan in Senegal, where she worked closely with staff and program participants to support program implementation and evaluation. She also wrote stories for the Tostan website and blog. Rebecca will support the local partners and youth who participate in the YETAM project, especially with uploading content to the web and growing more accustomed to social media and ICTs in development. She will also be doing research on the traditional practice of breast ironing as an independent side project.

Joe and Rebecca will spend 8-10 weeks in Cameroon with the Plan team. I’m super excited to have Paul, Rebecca, Jacqui and Joe on board, as are the teams in Benin and Cameroon.

Look for some posts from the team on the Plan USA Blog and relevant cross posts here at Wait… What!

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This is a guest post by Paul Goodman, who is spending the month of May supporting Plan Benin’s Violence against Children (VAC) prevention and response project. The post appears on Paul’s own blog and also on Plan USA’s blog.

Elsie, the VAC - Ushahidi Project Coordinator in Benin

I’m working with Plan Benin to support the Violence Against Children project. The team here has established a system whereby victims of violence and observers of violence can send text messages to Plan to report violence in their communities. Plan then processes and maps the messages and works with the government of Benin to investigate the cases. In about a year of operation the system has received more than 80 reports of violence against children. The reports include physical violence, sexual violence, psychological violence, and other abuses including kidnapping, negligence, and so on.

At the beginning of the year the team identified a number of technical challenges that they’re facing using the system, which rests on the foundation of two stellar open source technologies  FrontlineSMS and Ushahidi. Those technologies are the focus of my time here in Benin though along with everything else in life, nothing is black and white.

“Technical” issues are often social, social issues often have no technical remedies, and things become confused. Beyond the division of technical and social, there are many other factors to consider. Thorough problem definition and planning for the short, mid, and long term are necessary to help define expectations, support project evaluation, and improve the chances of sustainability. These themes should be revisited periodically and updated as necessary.

In recent months Plan Benin lost two staff that were key to the day-to-day management of the system. Their departure temporarily disrupted the flow of information through the system but also created an opportunity: with a renewed organizational focus on the system we have an excellent opportunity to revisit the purpose of the initiative, consider the day-to-day functionality of the system, and ask (and hopefully answer) questions about the initiative’s future.

Today I worked with Elsie S., Plan Benin’s Project Coordinator, to chart out the operation of the system. The purpose of the exercise was to clarify the day-to-day operation of the system and revisit the roles and responsibilities of the many actors that interact with this project. Getting a firm grip on all of this information and documenting it for others will make it easier to train staff and partners and build further support inside Plan and within the government of Benin.

Elsie sketching her version of the workflow

A few of the questions we asked and answered today:

– How long should it take for incoming messages to be processed (stripped of personally identifying information, mapped, and so on)?

– What model is best for managing this process? Should the responsibility be centralized at the Plan Benin Country Office? Or should it be distributed to the Plan Benin Program Units (PUs) where the majority of the reports originate?

– How can we modify Ushahidi to support a distributed model, where focal points in the PUs take responsibility and have agency?

– How can we create a shared vocabulary around the various actions within the Ushahidi system? What does “approve” mean? What does “verify” mean?

Me describing my version of the workflow and discussing realistic timelines for different actions within Ushahidi.

In the coming weeks we’ll work with Plan Benin staff to ground truth any revisions to the workflow and modify the system as necessary. We’ll also spend quite a bit of time creating the documentation that will ensure the continuity of operations in the future: reference guides for Plan staff, guidelines for maintaining the privacy of victims, and documentation of the relevant technical aspects of the system.

In parallel, I’ll continue working on some necessary tweaks to Ushahidi including establishing security protocols, enhancing the system’s mapping capabilities (thanks John Etherton for your location highlight plugin and support), and more. In ten days we’ll be joined by Jacqueline Deelstra, a recent graduate of the Fletcher School at Tufts, who will continue these activities and dig deeper on the relevant social issues.

More from Benin soon.

Note: For background and additional posts on child protection, child participation and the VAC Benin project, click here.

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Last year, I spent some time in Benin piloting an SMS reporting system to track and respond to Violence against Children (VAC). After almost a year developing the idea and thinking it through to see if it was potentially feasible (see 7 or more questions to ask before adding ICTs), in February 2010 we conducted 2 workshops with youth, staff and local authorities in Couffo and Atacora, Benin, to design a system with their input (see Finding Some ICT answers in Benin). The main pieces of the reporting system are FrontlineSMS and Ushahidi. A few months after, staff reported back on some of the challenges with implementation (see Tweaking: SMS Violence Reporting System in Benin).

Romeo Essou, project coordinator

Since then, many of the issues have been resolved, and we’ve improved outreach so that communities are more aware of the SMS reporting system and how to use it. We’ve also been looking at the system itself, continuing testing, and seeing what improvements are needed. We didn’t have resources to dedicate someone fully to the program at first, but after seeing the potential, Plan Benin assigned Romeo (see photo) to manage the pilot project full-time in Benin. It’s been quite a pleasure working with the team there, and Romeo is no exception. Having someone dedicated full-time to working with communities and staff in the two districts has really made a difference. From November to mid-January, several additional violence cases were reported and a good number of them have been followed up on and closed.

Last week, Romeo shared what we still need to find solutions for. Some of these are issues that we’d identified last year and others are additional things that Romeo has suggested as he’s gotten down to business.

Some people still call instead of texting, or they send “call me back” texts

Cases are now coming in

  • The team is fairly certain this is due to illiteracy. Plan will involve more school-going youth in the initiative because they have higher literacy levels and can support others with reporting if needed.
  • Romeo and the team will continue doing outreach and education on how the system works both at community meetings and via radio broadcasts in French and local languages.
  • To address the calls that may continue to come in, a voice mail will be set up on the phone that links up to the FrontlineSMS laptop, with a message explaining that people have to send in a text. Romeo will do some research to determine which languages to use in the message for the best result (French and the 2 main local languages….).
  • If that doesn’t resolve the issue, Romeo and the staff will call back anyone who phones in.
  • Cost of an SMS continues to be a discouraging factor for people in terms of reporting. Often when Romeo or other staff visit a community, community members take advantage of their physical presence to report additional cases of violence.  This is not necessarily negative, considering that we want to increase the number of incidents reported and followed up on; however, if it turns out that awareness around violence is high but the cost of the SMS is a deterring factor in reporting, more inexpensive channels to report also need to be offered. We are still negotiating with the local operators to get a free SMS line.

Spam

  • Some 50 spams a day are coming in. This is an issue on all mobile phones in Benin. Much of the spam comes from the mobile service providers themselves.
  • If the spam is coming from the same number, it’s possible that a workaround script could be written up at the point where FrontlineSMS forwards to Ushahidi. The messages can also be marked on Ushahidi as spam, but they will still be arriving via FrontlineSMS, unfortunately, unless numbers can be blocked somehow.
  • Needs further thought on how it might be overcome.

The Violence Tracking Platform (Ushahidi):

Ushahidi platform

  • We need to be 100% sure that any personal or identifying information coming in via the SMS reports is scrubbed so we do not put any children or witnesses at risk or falsely accuse anyone of violence against children by publishing the reports to the Ushahidi platform.
  • Romeo will develop a Privacy and Protection Checklist and train those administering the Ushahidi system to be sure to remove identifying information thoroughly before allowing it to be published on the Ushahidi site.
  • The identifying information still needs to be stored somewhere on the system to support with follow-up on the cases that come in. We may need additional development work on the platform to allow for that.
  • We hope to integrate the Ushahidi map into the Violence against Children website, which has educational material, videos and cartoons done by youth, and a discussion forum. However if the information poses a risk to anyone, we may decide to make the Ushahidi site private and keep it as a management tool rather than a public site.

Categorizing:

  • The staff who administer the Ushahidi website are not always clear which type of violence an incident should be categorized as (physical violence? sexual violence? psychological violence?).
  • Romeo will create short guidelines to help people to categorize the incidents properly. He’d like these to be incorporated into the Ushahidi platform.
  • Often a reported  incident can fit into more than one category – eg., both physical and sexual violence. If it’s categorized in two categories, then we lose the sense of how many incidents there have been overall, and we’re unable to properly chart the data. We need to find a way to manage this on the system so that we have proper statistics.

Recent reports of physical violence, sexual violence, forced marriage and exploitation

Follow up on reported cases:

  • We still want a way to track response and follow-up on cases within the Ushahidi platform, as often a report requires more than one verification visit.
  • We need someplace within the platform to store this type of information to keep records of follow-up.
  • This will require work by a developer, but it might be helpful for other institutions using Ushahidi as well. It’s also possible that FrontlineSMS Medic could be used for case management rather than Ushahidi, but it might prove confusing for staff to have to store and act on the same kind of information using two different tools.

Names of villages, hamlets, etc:

  • We would like to have a listing on the map of the various hamlets, villages, etc. They do not currently appear on the map since there is no record of them on Open Street Maps or Google Maps. Plan has this detailed information in its internal systems and we want to add it to the base maps so that it’s easier for administrators to locate the incident in the right community.
Coordination and outreach:
  • In addition to the technical work on the system, Romeo will continue to coordinate and share information with local partners and other organizations working on violence against children. There are similar initiatives already in place and we don’t want to duplicate efforts. Combining and sharing help line numbers and taking reports by both phone and SMS is one option.
Related posts on Wait… What?

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Our Tracking Violence Against Children in Benin project won first prize for Most Innovative Use of Technology or Social Media in Plan’s internal Global Awards contest. The competition was fierce and we were up against some really great projects.

Here’s a nice video overview of the project and where we hope to take the initiative as we go forward.

We still have some kinks to work out and we are still in pilot phase, but we are pretty happy about the award in any case. It helps motivate us even further to improve on the idea until it’s fully functioning and sustainable and we know that it’s resulting in more reporting of violence, helping to track trends and cases of violence, and being used by local and national authorities for responding and following up on those cases that occur.

Many many thanks to everyone who has helped the project get where it is, including:  Henri da Silva, Carmen Johnson, Bell’Aube Houinato, Amelie Soukossi, Eleonore Soglohoun, Morel Azanhoue, Victoire Tidjani, Alfred Santos, Jean Sewanou, Michel Kanhonou, Paul Fagnon, Camille Ogounssan, Anastasie Koudoh, Mika Valitalo, Ken Banks, Josh Nesbit, Patrick Meier, Juliana Rodich, Henry Addo, David Kobia, James Bon Tempo, Stefanie Conrad, Theresa Carpenter, Penelope Chester, Shona Hamilton, and community leaders, parents, school directors, local authorities, children and youth in the 2 participating communities.

Related posts on Wait… What?

Fostering a new political consciousness on violence against children

7 (or more) questions to ask before adding ICTs

Finding some ICT answers in Benin

Tweaking SMS based violence reporting system in Benin

Community based child protection

New Plan report on ICT-enabled development

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Henri from Plan Benin training on SMS reporting.

In February I was in Benin to support staff to pilot the idea of using SMS reporting (FrontlineSMS) and digital mapping (Ushahidi) to strengthen local and national systems for reporting, tracking and responding to violence against children.  We conducted 2 workshops in mid-February with youth leaders, frontline staff, community members, local authorities from the Center for Social Protection (CPS) and representatives from the Ministry of the Family to get things started.

For some more background, check out my previous posts on the Violence against Children (VAC) project, the questions we asked ourselves before getting started on the SMS and mapping initiative, and the February workshops in Benin and what we learned there.

Since February, staff in Benin have been following up with workshop participants and with local authorities and institutions, including: the Prefect, the Mayors, community supervisors, animators of the children’s/youth media clubs, headmasters and other school authorities and the CPS.  The youth in one community did a radio program about violence against children and talked about SMS reporting. They also designed an information sheet that’s been hung up all over the town to encourage the population to report cases of violence.

Henri, Plan Benin’s ICT Director who facilitated at the Benin workshops, went to Togo to replicate the training with staff and youth there.  He and Carmen, who manages the overall VAC project in Benin, have also been observing and collecting feedback on the system to see where it needs tweaking.  They have put a project plan together for the next 6 months or so.

Carmen the VAC project coordinator in Benin.

Observations that Henri and Carmen shared and some thoughts we have about resolving them:

Issue:

  • Most people call instead of sending SMS

Hmmm….

  • Why?  Habit?  Literacy?  Unclear indications of what to do or unclear expectations of what the system is for?  We need to find out more about this.  It would be good to know exactly what kind of volume we are talking about total in terms of SMS vs calls. (I will update this post when I find out.)
  • Should we start taking calls too then? And are there resources and capacity to manage calls in addition to FrontlineSMS (which is automated)? How are we linking with the Child Help Line in Benin?
  • Could both calls and SMS be administered in the Ushahidi system?  Eg., Just as an administrator needs to review any SMS’s that come into Ushahidi  before approving them, someone could be tasked with inputting information from a phone call into the Ushahidi back end to then trigger the rest of the process (verification, response, etc). And how would that impact on pulling data out of the system for decision making?  (See this post for more information on how the system is currently conceived)

Issue:

  • Some people are sending a re-call SMS (asking us to return the call)

Hmmm….

  • We need to find out why people are sending re-call messages instead of SMS’s.  Because in the current set-up, text messages are not free?  Literacy issues? Because our system looks like something else they’ve done where re-call was the norm?  Something else?
  • If it’s due to low literacy or language issues, how can we open the system to those who cannot read/write or who do not use French?
  • Plan Benin is discussing with the GSM provider to find a way to send back an automatic reply SMS informing people not to call but to send a message, and to take this opportunity to indicate in the message what is expected as information.  But if literacy/language is the issue, we will not have solved anything by doing this…. Sounds like we really need to make sure calling is an option, and that good integration with the national Child Help Line is a real priority.
  • Plan Benin is also negotiating getting a “green line” or free short code, so that might resolve part of this.

Issue:

  • Many people are not using the key word ‘HALTE’ (stop) at the beginning of the message, meaning that the commands don’t trigger the messages to automatically send the information to Ushahidi.  (In the current system, each SMS should include the key word ‘HALTE’.  This key word triggers a “thanks for your message” automatic response from FrontlineSMS, and the forwarding of the message to the Ushahidi back end for subsequent management and follow up by local authorities.)

Hmmm….

  • Staff noticed that most (but not all) of the messages without the key word ‘’HALTE’’ contained the word ‘enfant’ (child). Henri has added ‘enfant’ as a key word in addition to ‘HALTE’ — and says it is working fine.  So we will assess if this helps.
  • Another alternative would be to not use any keywords – we will need to look into whether we can set FrontlineSMS up so that any SMS that goes to that number gets auto forwarded to Ushahidi.

Early draft of a poster promoting violence reporting by SMS

Issue:

  • Most of the messages are too vague to find the place and the victim for responding (and people do not have GPS enabled phones).  We have suggested that an SMS report should contain certain information [HALTE+type of violence+where it's happening (eg., school, home, etc)+village name+district+age+sex+name of child if known], but people don’t follow the suggested format.

Hmmm….

  • How can we simplify it or better explain the type of information that’s needed?  Something we need to dig deeper into and consult with users to figure out.  Carmen’s take is that we are at the beginning of the process and we need to be patient and sensitize a lot so that people get used to the idea and understand how things work.

Issue:

  • Compatible FLSMS phones and modems are very difficult to find.  We were only able to find one phone that was compatible in Benin (a used one) because newer phone models are not compatible and the modems we found refused to connect.

Hmmm….

  • We really need to get this resolved since the entire system in Benin rests on one phone. What if it stops working?  It’s really difficult to expand the project without a larger set of phone/modem options.  We’ll work with the FrontlineSMS forum or staff (both are always super helpful on this kind of thing) in the next couple weeks to figure out how to resolve the compatibility issues, because there are modems available in West Africa that should be compatible, but that we couldn’t get to function.

Issue:

  • We planned for community response teams to be able to subscribe to alerts on Ushahidi, so that when there is an incident reported in the zone where they work, they would be alerted by SMS and could set the follow up process in motion.  But we haven’t been able to get the alerts working on Ushahidi or set up email reporting there.

Hmmm….

  • We discussed with the Ushahidi team and the problem was that not all the strings of code in Ushahidi had been translated into French yet.  Thanks to @theresac and @penelopeinparis, who volunteered to translate a load of strings, we are getting everything into French, and Henry at Ushahidi is helping get alerts working.  We still need to finalize all the elements on our Ushahidi page however and get everything working.  We’d also like to customize our Ushahidi page to make it our own, similar to the customizing that Voices of Kibera has done with their Ushahidi instance.

Any additional thoughts or help on the above issues are most welcome!


As for next steps, Henri and Carmen shared their plans:

  • Present the system to political and administrative authorities, including: head of the Brigade for the Protection of Minors, juvenile judges, Ministry of the Family’s Director for Children and Adolescents, Director of Family Programs, Minister of ICTs, cabinet and authorities who regulate telecommunications, Ministry of the Interior and Public Security, National Assembly, mayors and prefects, schools and teacher-parent committees, community authorities, media
  • Train staff, government partners, school and parent committees, and local NGOs on the reporting system, including a 1-day workshop with all Plan staff and a 1 day workshop with local NGO partners, schools and government staff
  • Accompany child protection committees and organized youth groups to use the system.  This will be done by holding sessions with organized children and youth groups at village level to reinforce and raise awareness on the reporting system; training child protection committees to use the new reporting system; holding one day sessions each month with the village level child protection system staff to discuss follow up on reports that have come in, and installing FrontlineSMS in each local site and adding local focal points as Ushahidi administrators
  • Strengthen awareness in the public and with leaders to support violence reporting by developing a communications plan to generate awareness on the issue of violence, the importance of reporting, and the mechanisms to report via SMS; supporting youth to use arts and theater to raise awareness on the issue of violence against children; talking with religious leaders and village chiefs; creating television, radio, newspaper and web advertisements to reach the general public and decision makers
  • Secure a free short code (target:  by May)
  • Conduct a national level evaluation workshop with involved local and national actors (in 6 months)

As we move forward, more questions will surely come up and we’ll need to continually tweak things. But I feel that we’re off to a good start. The fact that people are calling in and SMS’ing in is a good sign already that the program has some potential, and that people are willing to report violence against children.

—————-

Related posts on Wait… What?

Breaking it down: violence against children

Fostering a new political consciousness on violence against children

Seven (or more) questions to ask before adding ICTs

Finding some ICT answers in Benin

Meeting in the middle

Read Full Post »


Mapping Violence against Children in Benin

In my last post, I wrote about key questions to ask before adding ICTs to a development initiative, using the example of a violence against children program I’m working on in Benin. The piece that was missing, and which came together over the past 2 weeks, was the view from the ground.

We just finished two workshops (in Natitingou and Couffo Districts) with 24 youth from 9-10 villages in each district, the district heads of the Center for Social Protection (CPS), and the Ministry of the Family (both of whom are responsible for responding to cases of child abuse/child rights violations in their varying forms).  We covered several topics related to youth leadership and youth-led advocacy.

I was most excited, though, about getting end user input and thoughts about implementing a FrontlineSMS and Ushahidi set-up as a way of reporting, tracking and responding to violence against children.

I had a lot of questions before arriving to Benin, but by the end of my 2 weeks here, I feel satisfied that the system can work, that it’s reflective of real information and communication flows on the ground, that roles of the different actors – including youth – are clear, that it can add value to local structures and initiatives, and that it could be sustainable and potentially scaled into a national level system in Benin and possibly other countries.

What we are tracking.

Violence children said they experience at family and community levels.

Forms of violence that children and youth experience at home and in the community.

The UN Report on Violence against Children (VAC) identified 4 key forms of violence against children (physical, psychological, sexual and neglect) and 5 key places where it takes place (home, school, community, institutions, workplace).  Plan is one of the organizations that participated in the elaboration of the study. Now, together with local, national and global partners, we are working on sharing the study’s results and strengthening capacities at different levels to prevent and respond to violence against children.

Plan’s approach helps rights holders (in this case children and youth) know their rights and engages them in educating on and advocating for those rights. At the same time Plan works to strengthen the capacities of duty bearers (local and national institutions, including the family) to ensure those rights.

The VAC study revealed some shocking statistics on violence against children, yet we also know that under-reporting is a reality, meaning that the magnitude of violence is not fully known.  People don’t report violence for many reasons, including fear of reprisal and stigma, difficulties in communication and access to places where they could report. Institutions also face difficulties in responding to violence for a variety of reasons, including lack of political will, disinterest, lack of awareness on the magnitude of the problem, scarce resources, poorly functioning or corrupt systems, and poor quality information.  Even when violence against children is reported, national response and judicial systems in many countries don’t do a good job of addressing it.

How ICTs can help.

Watching testimonials captured as part of the workshop.

Watching testimonials youth produced during the workshop.

Mobiles can pull in and send out multiple bits of information, creating a kind of glue that can hold a system together.  In Benin, the use of SMS and mapping can bolster and connect the existing system for reporting and responding to cases of violence against children. SMS allows for anonymous and low cost reporting. It’s hoped that this will encourage more reporting.  More reporting will allow for more information, and for patterns and degrees of violence to be mapped.  This in turn can be used to raise awareness around the severity of the problem, advocate for the necessary resources to prevent it, and develop better and more targeted response and follow-up mechanisms. Better information can help design better programs. SMS can alert local authorities quickly and help improve response. Mapping is a visual tool that children and youth can use to advocate for an end to cultural practices that allow for violence against them.

In addition to FrontlineSMS and Ushahidi, digital media tools can be used to record audiovisual information that helps qualify the statistics and better understand attitudes towards violence.  At the workshops we trained youth to use low cost video cameras, mobile phones and audio recorders to document violence and to take testimonials from other youth and community members.  These testimonials can help youth improve and target their messaging to change violent behaviors and can be used to educate in their communities and generate dialogue around violent practices. Testimonials and audiovisual materials also help youth connect with people outside the borders of their communities to share their realities, challenges and accomplishments via the web.

What the system looks like.

My colleague Henri sharing the basic idea of the information flow and how it could intersect with a FrontlineSMS and Ushahidi system.

My colleague Henri explaining the basics of the system.

We had some ideas and a drawing of what the system might look like that we shared to get across the basic idea of the system and to obtain user feedback on it.

After the workshops, with input from the youth, national and district level Plan child protection staff, community outreach staff, the Center for Social Protection (CPS) and the Ministry of the Family, it ended up looking something like this (forgive my poor artistic talents….)

My low tech attempt at drawing out the system....

For now, the Frontline SMS piece of the system will be managed by Henri (see photo above) at Plan’s Country Office. Plan’s district level child protection staff will administer the Ushahidi system, receiving and approving the SMS reports that are automatically forwarded to Ushahidi from Frontline SMS.  Automatic alerts will be set up so that when there is a case reported in a particular community, the Plan staff person who liaises with that community, as well as the CPS point person, and the local police and any other relevant community level persons will be alerted.  These authorities will verify the cases and do the follow up (they are already responsible and trained for this role).  The goal is for management of the whole system to be handed over to national authorities.

Main challenges we face(d) and ideas for overcoming them.

There were many questions and thoughts from users about the system that need to be worked out (see below). But these are not insurmountable.

Lack of resources to respond to violence at the local and national level is the main challenge seen by the CPS and local Plan staff.  It will be easy to report now because there will be a locally available, low cost and fast system.  The number of reports will increase. What if we don’t have enough capacity to respond to them? Children and youth may feel discouraged and stop reporting.

Proposed Solution:  Plan Benin will continue to work closely with the Ministry of the Family and the CPS during the 6-12 month pilot phase in the Natitingou and Couffo districts.  The end goal is that the CPS and Ministry will manage the entire system. The information collected during the pilot phase will be used to advocate for more resources for prevention and response.

Anastasie during some group work with the youth.

Anastasie

Airtime and mobile phone access in order to report incidents was raised as a potential challenge by children and youth in both groups.  What if people don’t have credit?  Can Plan purchase credit for the participating youth leaders and buy them phones?

Proposed Solution:   My amazing colleague Anastasie, who coordinates the program in West Africa, turned around to youth and said, “Hah? Do you honestly think Plan can purchase credit and mobile phones for the entire country of Benin?  No! This is not only Plan’s concern. This is not only happening here in one community or one district.  This is a problem that we all share, and we all have a responsibility to do something about.”  The kids laughed and agreed that anyone could find a way to report by borrowing a phone if necessary or asking an aunt or friend to help them.  The youth that we are working with are all part of organized community youth groups, about half of them have mobile phones and all said that their families or neighbors had phones that they could borrow or use.  Still, Plan will approach the government and cell phone providers about getting a “green” number that would allow for free SMS violence reporting.

Phones and modems. “Here (at the Nokia Store) we don’t carry the older models, surely you would prefer this nice new one with many cool features and capabilities?”  Um, no, actually what we’re looking for is an older, cheaper phone or one of the modems on our list here!  We spent quite some time visiting stores and testing modems and phones to find one that worked with FrontlineSMS.  Mobile phones are a complex ecology with many factors — phone or modem model and auto-installed programs they come with, SIM cards, etc.–that can trip you up and there is not a lot of standardization across phones or countries, so what works in one place may not work in another. It’s good to have an additional day for testing things out.

Proposed Solution:  The young woman working at the Nokia store in Cotonou was very happy to sell us her used old phone for an exorbitant price…..  I’m thinking I will go on e-bay or someplace to find some older model phones that work with Frontline SMS to use as a backup.  I wonder if there are original (not pirated) phones at local markets….

Weak internet, electricity. Staff and CPS wondered: What if our internet is down, or not strong enough to go into the system and verify the reports in Ushahidi?  Will the messages from FrontlineSMS forward to the Ushahidi system if the internet is down?  What if there is a power cut? Will FrontlineSMS still capture the SMS’s and forward them?

Proposed Solution:  Power and electricity are always a challenge, but we were able with a normal degree of patience to make the system work. I was constantly reminded how my habits are based on having constant electricity and high speed internet.  Use patterns are quite different when it’s a weak, intermittent connection, but most people in places with customary weak connections and unreliable electricity have higher tolerances for the situation.  Internet and electricity are not really in our hands, but we did use mobile internet as a back up and that worked in some cases.  The Ushahidi system will be managed from the two Plan district offices for now, which have good internet (the training site where we were working did not). Eventually if/when the system is passed to local authorities this will need to be looked into.

Our own technical knowledge.  We were asked: How can we set it up so that the CPS or Plan staff or local authorities can get an SMS when a case is reported so that they can go immediately to check it out?  Can people make reports by email?  Can we get statistics on a regular basis from Frontline SMS and Ushahidi to send to our superiors?  Is there a way to track the status of each case so that we know where it is in the process from reported to resolved?  Well, yes, there is but we couldn’t get the email or the alert system working.  Likely this is our lack of experience with the system…. and the weak internet didn’t allow us to do a lot of poking around on user forums while at the workshops to find solutions.

Proposed Solution:  We’ll continue to explore FrontlineSMS and Ushahidi to better learn all the functionalities and see what potential ones we can use.  We will also add relevant feeds, add an “about” page, clear off the test SMS’s, etc., so that our Ushahidi instance can go live.  There are likely add-on functions that we could use to query data in FrontlineSMS for exporting to spreadsheets for sorting and managing (I have done this with Frontline SMS Forms but couldn’t make it work with text message contents).  We will look into to a way to manage the status of each incident report, moving from reported into FrontlineSMS, approved in Ushahidi, sent out by alert to the relevant authority for verification, verification completed and marked in the system (hopefully with a report), and some kind of closure of the incident – what response was given or what legal or community resolution process was started and what was the result – and finally, incident closed. Some of the applications developed during Ushahidi Haiti may be useful for us here, or those being used by FrontlineSMS: Medic.

Privacy and protection for violence victims/witnesses who report.  In this sense we have two challenges.  Can we capture all the information that comes in, yet scrub it before publication on Ushahidi so that it doesn’t identify the victim or alleged perpetrators, yet keep it in a file for the local authorities to follow up and respond?  And a second challenge:  If everyone knows everything that happens in the community, how can we ensure privacy and confidentiality for those who report?

Proposed Solution:  Find out how this was managed in the Haiti situation in the case of names of missing or separated children.  Learn more about all of the possible data exports from both FrontlineSMS and Ushahidi.  Find out if a separate box for “Private Information” could be added to the report section of Ushahidi for information to be kept in the system but not published on the public site itself or if there is a program that can query the data base either in FrontlineSMS or Ushahidi. The second challenge, that of information confidentiality at the community level, is actually more of a concern.  Staff will have follow up meetings with children and youth to identify additional ways to ensure confidentiality at the community level.

What if your phone rings while you are making a video report with it!? Strangely enough, this was one of the hottest questions with the most debate at the workshop.  I found that amusing, but it was a question that needed to be resolved then and there.  I suggested that it was unprofessional/rude to answer your phone if you were in the middle of a video testimony.  But what if your family has been in an accident?!  What if it’s an emergency!?

Proposed Solution:   OK, well in the end we decided it was up to each individual to decide what to do!

Next steps.

Draft campaign poster after the first workshop; information to send by SMS will be updated to reflect input from the CPS in Couffo.

Draft poster. Information to send in the SMS will be altered to reflect input from the CPS.

Our main next steps will be follow up training for Plan staff, Ministry of the Family and Center for Social Protection, including discussions on how to pass management of the system over to them. We’ll also continue to support youth to promote the SMS hotline and to do their video and photo testimonies.  We will continuously monitor how the system is working and in about 6-12 months we’ll evaluate what has happened thus far with the system in order to make decisions about potential scaling up to the national level in Benin and/or to other countries. And we’ll follow up on resolving any of the challenges noted above.  During the pilot phase we will also tweak the system according to suggestions by users – including the youth, the CPS, Plan staff, and other reporters and responders.  For the evaluation, we will want to measure results and factor in a variety of elements that may impact on them, both those related to ICTs and those not related to ICTs.

Key principles confirmed.

Your ICT system needs to rest on an existing information and communications flow. Conversations about a new ICT system can be a catalyst to help identify and map out or even adjust that flow, but it’s critical to understand how information flows currently, and to find points where ICT systems can help to improve the flow.

End user input and testing is critical. We learned a lot and our thinking evolved exponentially during the workshops because we had children and youth present, as well as Plan frontline staff who work on child protection at the community and district levels, community members, local authorities responsible for child protection and responding to cases of violence, and the relevant ministry.  At first, my colleagues from the Country Office and I were uncertain that the system could be used for more than gathering information on violence for future decisions; we didn’t feel confident that there was a reliable local/national response system in place.  We wondered what the point of collecting information was if there would be nothing done about it.

However, the excitement of the CPS, children, and Plan staff working at the district level changed our thinking, and during the workshop we adapted it towards supplying information for future decisions as well as for immediate response.  Local authorities did have concerns about their own capacity to respond, but embraced the system and its potential to help them do their jobs.  They suggested many ways to improve it, and fleshed out our original ideas on how the information should flow to those responsible for responding and supporting victims, including local actors that we hadn’t thought of during the initial design phase.

The CPS, for example, suggested that the SMS’s should contain the full name of the victim, which is something we hadn’t thought was necessary for information gathering.  “We will have a much easier time finding the victim and responding if we have a first and last name.”

Testing SMS with the youth was important. We initially set up the word “HALTE” as our key word, but during testing noticed that people were spelling it “HALT” and “ALT” in their messages. So we adjusted the key word in FrontlineSMS to “ALT” to capture the alternative spellings that people might use when sending in reports.  Something we can find out during the next 6 month testing period is how to set up the system for local languages as well.  Local staff brought up the issue of adult literacy.  During local promotion of the violence prevention hotline these will all be key factors to consider.

Youth have a main role in promoting the SMS number and orienting peers of where to go for support.

Youth's role in promoting the line and orienting their peers will be critical.

The role of the participating youth leaders was a bit nebulous before the workshops for me.  I wasn’t clear if they were to be those who reported violence or if they would have another role. I was concerned about potential retaliation against them if they played a leading role in reporting violence. At the workshops it became very clear what they saw as their role – working to promote the SMS number for violence reporting, taking testimonials from youth and community members on the situation of violence, carrying out radio and poster campaigns against violence, leading educational sessions at schools and in their communities about violence and the SMS line, working to approach local leaders and decision makers to engage them in the campaign, and orienting those who had questions about which authorities and institutions they could approach for support if they had been victims of violence.  They are also key people to consult with around how the system is working during the monitoring and evaluation – what are the challenges children and youth face in reporting by SMS, how can we work around them, what other factors do we need to consider.

Input from the CPS and Ministry was critical to flesh out the information flow.  Participation by the CPS and Plan’s Child Protection point persons who know how things work on the ground brought us amazing knowledge on who should be involved and who should receive reports and alerts, and at what levels different parts of the system should be managed.  Their involvement from the start was key for making the system function now, for sustainability over time, and for potentially scaling to a national-level system.

Continued monitoring and evaluation of the effort will be critical for learning and potential scaling to a national system in Benin and for sharing with other countries or for other similar initiatives.  We’ll establish indicators for the various steps/aspects outlined in the information flow diagram.  As we pilot the system in these 2 districts in Benin, we will also want to pay close attention to things like:  additional costs to maintain the system; reporting and response rates; legal action in severe cases; adoption of the system and its sustained use by local entities/government bodies (Ministry of the Family and Center for Social Protection); suggestions from users on how to improve the system; privacy breaches at community level and any consequences; numbers of verified cases; number of actual prosecution or action taken once cases are reported and verified; quality of local level promotion of the hotline and education to users on how to report; progress in obtaining the green (free text) line; factors deterring people at different levels from using the system.

The end goal, something to evaluate in the long term, is whether actual levels of violence and abuse go down over time, and what role this system had in that.  Our main assumption — that education, awareness, reporting and response, and follow up action actually make a difference in reducing violence — needs also to be confirmed.

Related posts on Wait… What?

If you are still in the mood to read… I added a 7a and a 7b to my 7 or more questions to ask before adding ICTs post based on suggestions from readers and my time in Benin.

Here is an update on the project after 2 months:  Tweaking: SMS violence reporting system in Benin

For background on the broader Violence against Children (VAC) initiative:

Fostering a new political consciousness on violence against children

Breaking it Down:  Violence against Children


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