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mGESA mobile mapping application

I wrote about a mobile mapping tool called mGEOS a few months ago, mentioning that I’d probably get a chance to try it myself in late July. Well that is just what happened.

I was at a workshop on ICT4D, including digital mapping, in Kwale, Kenya, and Peter Njuguna from Plan Kilifi’s District office came to share mGESA (aka Mobile Geographical Services for Africa) with us.

As far as I can tell, the difference between mGEOS and mGESA is that mGESA is a tailored application of mGEOS, designed together with Plan’s community based front-line staff for their specific information collecting and geo-visualization needs in Kenya.

Update: mGESA was the name for the pilot project. The final application is called PoiMapper (see www.pajatman.com). You can give it a try by downloading it and installing it on your mobile!

According to Njuguna, “the application is designed to run on simple mobile phones that have GPS capability and on which you can run applications.” It’s installed on the phone in the picture (update: the phone is a Nokia 6700 classic).

Njuguna explained “In Kilifi, we diverted from the route of going for applications that are there on the shelf or buying an application over the counter. We went the route of developing an application from scratch. We are working with various partners. We have Plan in Finland, we have Plan in Kenya, we have the University of Nairobi and we have the company Pajat in Finland. Plan Kilifi is the implementing office. So that is where we are coming from.”

The project has been on-going for 7 months. The first thing to define, according to Njuguna, was “Why do we need mapping? Why do we need GIS in the first place? Well, we need GIS to enhance the work we are doing and to try to answer some of the questions we are asking on a day to day basis. So that’s why we wanted to incorporate GIS into our work. Everything we’ve developed is towards helping us answer questions and make decisions in our program and sponsorship work. We wanted to build something that would suit our needs.”

The end users of mGESA are front-line staff in Plan Kilifi District office, and eventually in all of Plan Kenya’s district offices. “Kilifi front-line staff have all been involved in developing the application. The first step was developing a list of points of interest, for example, schools, hospitals and health centers, interest groups, water sources, trading centers, and the like; and outlining the kind of information that staff regularly collect about the points of interest for use in their work.

mGESA points of interest

“Developing the points of interest was a challenge,” said Njuguna. “It might look like we just sat down and listed them. But it has been a process. We had to go over and over it. We had to be sure the questions made sense, that the questions that we were asking were the right ones and made sense to people in the field.”

mGESA was tested in the field for the first time in mid-July. Njuguna and the team are hoping to kick off in another 3-4 weeks and start collecting the actual data. When the points are mapped out using the mobile application, then they are uploaded to a server that links with Google (or other) maps. The team is exploring the possibility of getting Kenya maps with administrative boundaries to use as the mapping platform. The data collected in mGESA can be exported into excel and .pdf files.

Peter let me try out mGESA while we were doing some GPS mapping in Kinango. He was using the opportunity to test accuracy, and whether mGESA was pulling in the same coordinates as the Garmin GPS units that we were using (it was). I found the data collection process to be quite simple. You basically arrive to your point of interest, take the point on the phone, and scroll through a menu to select pre-existing information (such as name of the district, type of point, etc.) or fill it in yourself. You can take a photo of the POI if your phone has photo capabilities (which most GPS enabled phones should have). I didn’t get a chance to upload data to the server or the web to see how easy that process is.

Peter Njuguna, ICT coordinator at Plan's Kilifi District Office

The group at the workshop had just been trained on several ICT different tools, so they had a lot of questions about mGESA for Njuguna:

What phones does it work on?
Any phone with GPS and capability to download an application will work.

Does it use up your airtime?

mGESA will work on the phone even without any airtime, but during testing, it seemed to work faster with about 10 shillings of credit (equivalent to about $.13).

Is mGESA free?

No. The application is in development and will eventually end up on the commercial market, via Pajat Management in Finland.

Can the application produce a base map or only points?

It can map points of interest only.  Later on it should be able to map out lines (roads) and areas.

mGESA data points on the web interface

Where do the points of interest go?

The points of interest that are collected on the phone are downloaded via a USB cable onto a computer, in the same way that you would download photographs from a camera. Then the points are uploaded to the on-line platform, and also then they will be visible on top of a Google map or other kind of map.

Is mGESA compatible with Open Street Maps?

Now that we know about OSM, this is something we shall look into, as it could be quite useful.

Will the information that you collect be public or private?

At this point the information will be closed, because the application is still in development.  Also for privacy reasons, some information will be shared and other information not shared. For example, if we are collecting personal information on individuals, or data that could put someone at risk, this will not be shared on the map.

What types of uses will the application be suitable for?

Plan can use mGESA when determining plans for phasing out of one area and moving into another area, for example. Instead of collecting data and indicators on paper, staff and managers can see this information on a map and the information that is collected can help us to know where to work.  Having the points of interest mapped out and linked with development information, and being able to select out different information layers on the map (on the internet) should make these decisions easier and more sound.

Will communities be involved and able to use mGESA for their own purposes?

Yes, communities will be able to use the information collected to make their own decisions. Communities can also purchase mGESA for their own use. We might also say to them, come and bring your phone and we will install this application so that you can use it for your own purposes.

Why are you developing a software from scratch and that costs money to the end user if there are existing tools available?

We know that GPS gadgets are expensive and so we thought – why not look into a mobile option. We also had very specific ideas and needs, and we had people willing to develop the idea from scratch. It’s a customized application based on our existing information needs and systems, and we can collect it by mobile rather than trying to find and purchase GPS units here in Kenya.

Update: see this post on Mobile Active for more information on the continued piloting of PoiMapper.

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Nothing to do with the topic of this post, but the Kwale coast is gorgeous.

Last week I was in Kwale, at a Plan Kenya hosted workshop as part of the Youth Empowerment through Technology, Arts and Media program. The team at Plan Kwale has been pointedly using ICTs in their community development programs since 2003 (not counting email and Internet of course) when they began working with radio and video as tools for raising awareness about children’s rights.

It’s really impressive to see how they’ve moved forward with very strategic ideas for integrating ICTs to help reach programmatic and development goals, especially in the areas of youth and governance, universal birth registration, and child/youth-led advocacy around rights and protection issues.

Over the 6 day workshop, the main things we wanted to do were:

  • look at the development context in Kwale, Kinango and Msambweni Districts (South Coast areas where Plan operates via the Kwale Office)
  • better understand the perspective of youth in the 3 districts
  • remind ourselves of rights-based approaches to community development
  • discuss youth issues, governance, advocacy, violence against children and gender within the local context
  • look at the ICTs currently being used by youth, communities and Plan in the Kwale Development Area
  • share and discuss new social media and ICT tools and ways they can be used
  • practice using new social media and ICT tools and see if they can be useful and sustainable in the 3 districts
  • determine next steps for integrating social media and new ICTs in specific local initiatives and plan for how to build on them in Plan Kenya’s overall work

Some elements that made the week positively brilliant:

workshop participants

Engaged and committed stakeholders

We were a group about 20, including staff and university student interns from Plan’s Kwale and Kilifi District Offices and Plan’s Country Office in Nairobi; Government District Youth Officers (‘DYOs’) from the Ministry of Youth, Sports and Culture; Youth Council members from Kwale, Kinango and Msambweni; 2 staff from Map Kibera and 2 youth mappers from Kibera.

This mix meant that we had a variety of perspectives and opinions, including those of youth from local communities, partner organizations, local government, frontline staff, protection and governance technical advisors, ICT managers, and senior level program managers. This helped to ensure that we were grounded in reality, technically and thematically sound, able to cross-pollinate and integrate new ideas with solid experience and practice, and take decisions immediately forward to a higher level.

Local partners and youth-youth networking

Peer-peer learning and exchange among all the participants was a big plus. Plan and Map Kibera have very similar visions and values, yet each has its own area of specialized technical expertise and experience.  The youth participants from local councils from the 3 South Coast districts and the youth mappers from Kibera brought different perspectives into the workshop which enriched the discussions.  We all learned a lot from each other. Combining expertise as partners brought the workshop to a whole new level, and will help to ensure that the efforts are sustainable and can be built on and expanded. The youth in Kwale can now extend their skills to more youth in their communities, the youth mappers from Kibera can take home new ideas to improve their work, the university-level interns gained practical experience, and the buy-in from the local government’s District Youth Officers (who manage government funds) in the 3 participating districts can help provide the necessary support to broaden the efforts.

Flexible workshop methodology

We had certain goals that we wanted to achieve and we were clear on that, but we let the agenda flow. We started by taking a deep look at the local context and resources. We heard from local experts in the areas that we wanted to focus on (youth and governance, child protection) as well as community youth and local authorities. We spent time getting to know some new tools and discussing the pros and cons of using them.

Hands-on with FrontlineSMS

Hands On Work

We had practical sessions and hands-on work on blogging, FrontlineSMS, Ushahidi, Map Kibera, and mGESA (a local application of the mGEOS mobile platform co-developed by Plan Kenya, Plan Finland, University of Nairobi and Pajat Management and being piloted in Kilifi).

This was important for helping participants feel confident about doing some of the work once the training team was gone. I imagine however that more practice will be needed during some follow up sessions, as most of the participants don’t have regular computer and Internet access for enhancing their skills on a daily basis with additional practice and exploration.

We spent one day mapping our Hotel on Open Street Maps, and another day in Kinango, mapping specific points in 4 teams.  Lessons learned during hands-on work included the importance of engaging and involving the community ahead of time, so that rumors about why people are mapping the community don’t fly. In my group, for example, we were moving around with George the District Youth Officer from Kinango. Someone that he ran into joked to him “Oh, now Kinango is going up for sale!”  A joke, but nonetheless if people don’t know why we were mapping, this or other rumours can quickly spread. (See the video about mapping in Kinango at this link and the background blog post here.)

End goals + new tools + back again

By starting with people’s expectations for the workshop, analysis of the local context, and an understanding of the goals that youth and staff wanted to achieve together, we could be sure that we stayed true to where we wanted to end up. At the same time, by learning about new tools, things that weren’t possible before became imaginable and people started to innovate and mix their existing knowledge and experience with some new ideas.

Combining the two, and having a good variety of perspectives in the room and a lot of space for discussion and practice means that next steps will be more achievable and sustainable, because people are clear and agree about where they want to go, and they feel capable of incorporating some new tools and ideas to get there.

The tools

We explored a number of new(ish) tools at the workshop. They had been identified over the past couple years due to their use by Plan or other organizations in areas such as: community development work, violence tracking, advocacy, governance and social auditing.  We talked about mobile phones, email, Internet, Facebook, Hi5, Google search and Google maps. We did a quick overview of Voice of Kibera, use of GPS, Open Street Maps, FrontlineSMS, Ushahidi, the YETAM project, the PlanYouth website, and a Plan pilot project in Benin using SMS to track violence against children.

The first day, the context analysis was very focused on youth and governance, transparency and social auditing, so we pulled out the 10 Tactics video by Tactical Technology Collective (which @hapeeg had given to me a couple days earlier). This video series talks about 10 tactics for turning information into action. It really sparked ideas among the participants for how they could use social media and ICTs in social accountability work and human rights/child rights work.  Map Kibera partners also shared a tool developed by SODNET (SMS for social auditing of the Constituency Development Fund).

We talked about the use of mapping and SMS in child protection work. One of the main child protection issues in the south coast area is the distance that a child, girl, family has to travel in order to report an abuse. Women’s lack of economic power, inability to own property and the importance of marriageability also mean that often women and girls feel unable to speak out or protest abuse when it’s happening. It’s still not certain what role ICTs can play in this context given the risks involved to those who report, but Plan’s child protection point person, Mohammad, is planning to host a series of meetings with local child protection authorities to discuss possible ways forward.

Digital mapping was immediately cataloged as an important tool for identifying resources, advocating for services and holding government accountable through social auditing. It was also recognized as a potential income generator once areas, shops and local businesses could be added to an on-line map, or if youth could purchase GPS units with funding from the District Youth Office and charge for their GPS services. George, the District Youth Officer for Kinango talks in this video about how mapping can be useful to the Kinango community, even if most members don’t have access to computers and broad band. (Click the link or watch below)

Information and communication gap analysis –> ICT integration plans

ICT integration for youth and governance program

Early on in the workshop, we worked in 2 groups to analyze the goals for the Youth and Governance and the Child Protection programs that Plan is supporting in Kwale. The groups discussed the information and communication gaps that needed to be filled in order to move towards the goals of the 2 initiatives. We looked at what ICT tools might best help reduce the gaps, from existing traditional tools (like meetings, face-to-face advocacy, drama, town criers, radio) to those new(ish) tools that we had discovered (see above paragraph) that might be useful to try out given the goals in the 2 key areas. The groups revisited this gap analysis on the last day after having had more hands-on use of the different tools and turned the gap analysis into an action plan.

ICT integration for child protection programs

Management buy-in and leadership

While the 2 groups worked on local action plans for integrating ICTs into their work, senior management from Plan’s Kenya office created their own action plan for how to build on the workshop experience, engage mid-level managers and other key staff in ICT integration, further develop partnerships and solidify cross-cutting incorporation of ICTs into Plan’s work in Kenya. The Kwale and Kilifi program units have been innovators within Plan for several years. Learning from, supporting and building on concrete work that they are doing on the ground allows for a solid and feasible country strategy based on reality. Having a strategy built from the ground up and with solid support and buy-in from national management means that there is less risk of donor led ICT funding, and more probability that new resources mobilized for ICT work go towards real needs and have better results.

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