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Posts Tagged ‘mobile and technology’

Yesterday my colleague Mika Valitalo at Plan Finland sent some information about mGeos, a cool project that Pajat Management (a Finnish company), Plan Kenya, Plan Finland, Helsinki University of Technology and University of Nairobi have been collaborating on for the past year. Note: Mika and Pertti Lounamaa from Pajat gave me written permission to share this info.

The idea? To develop easy-to-use GPS-based mapping software that runs on low-cost mobile phones.

Detailed map information is missing from most of the 'developing' world

What needs is mGeos responding to? Being efficiently able to provide health, education and humanitarian aid or even most industrial services is critically dependent on knowing where to provide these services. Basic location information about points-of-interest (POIs), routes to them and areas to service are missing from the countries in most need of public service improvement. In ‘developing’ countries especially, critical map and location information is largely incomplete, outdated or missing. For example, in the image here, you can see small town map details available for Finland (left image) vs for those for Kenya (right image).

Earlier experiences in a few program countries as well as responses to a questionnaire conducted with Plan Kenya staff showed a desire and clear need to use location data more effectively. There is also a need to make it available on low-cost phones that are more accessible.

Stefanie Conrad (my awesome boss) for example, sees it like this:

“Geographic analysis of the distribution of social services such as wells, hospitals, telecommunication facilities, broadcast services, schools, etc. is essential for Plan’s program work in order to have a sound understanding of the best way to provide access to those services. In reality, most of our country offices work with non-geographical systems, for example, lists of communities. In many countries, the government itself does not have sufficient mapping of communities in place. Decisions on where to put something to guarantee access to populations often becomes a thing based on best guess.

Mobile phones with GPS could support more equitable and technically sound placement of basic services. Digital pictures and maps could be used with communities in order to facilitate discussions about where to best place a well, for example. This can often be a difficult process, as usually community leaders try to get these types of services to be conveniently placed as close as possible to their own homes….  Many of our offices also have difficulties producing the maps needed for corporate communications (area overviews, local area maps, etc) – this would become possible with GPS.”

The mGeos project aims to respond to these identified needs. A 3-month field pilot is planned to take place in Kilifi, Kenya, in July.  I’ll be in Kenya in July and if the pilot goes forward then, I am hoping to be able to see personally how mGeos works!

What are mGeos’ key features?

  • mGeos service platform

    Supports collection of structured data as numbers, text, exclusive and multiple choice and images; and also location data including points of interest, routes and areas

  • Multiple front ends:  standard internet browsing for laptops and large screen smart phones and mobile browsing (xHTML/WAP)
  • Dedicated application for GPS enabled mobile phones
  • Authoring tool for defining forms and corresponding database model for storing the collected data
  • Open API for accessing stored data
  • Based on a SaaS (software as services) model

What does the mGeos system consist of?

  • client software which runs on low-cost S40 GPS enabled mobile phones (eg. Nokia 2710)
  • server running a database where all the collected information is stored and accessed
  • portal i.e. webpages which show the collected Points of Interest (POIs) on Google maps (or other maps) and allow browsing, exporting and sorting of the collected data.

What would mGeos look like in action?

Say a field worker named Victoria arrives to the Kilifi District Program Unit in the morning. She’s planning to visit Kujemudo community. Before leaving for the day trip, she takes a GPS enabled mobile phone from the office and downloads the latest updated ‘Points of Interest’ (POI) list from the computer to her phone.  The POI list has been created by Victoria and her colleagues by gathering location data while visiting different communities during the past couple of months.  Today Victoria also wants to map important POIs in the communities, among many other tasks.

After arriving to Kujemudu and having a meeting with the local community based organization, Victoria rides her motorbike over to a school building in Ezamoyo village, takes her GPS enabled mobile phone in hand, and starts the mapping application.  The she chooses ‘add POI’ from the menu, selects the POI category of ‘school’ and adds the name of the school. After that she also types in the additional information such as the number of pupils and teachers, ownership of the school, etc.  Finally she takes a photo of the school, attaches it to this record and saves the information to the phone memory to be transferred later to the computer server.

Next Victoria visits Mkombe village where the location and information of the school has already been entered into the database by her colleague Peter a few weeks earlier.  Victoria uses the POI browsing feature to find the right school (browse by POI category).  When she finds the existing data record, she chooses ‘edit’ in order to update the information. Because part of the school has been reconstructed, she takes a new photo of the school and replaces the outdated one. Also, since the number of students has increased, she edits the ‘school population’ field to match the current number. Finally she saves the record.

While visiting Mabirikani village the next day, Victoria checks one of the wells, because she has heard that it has collapsed due to recent floods.  Since this is clearly the case, Victoria takes the mobile, searches the well from the data base and marks the record as deleted.

mGeos web screen shot

The next day, Victoria arrives to the Kilifi District Program Unit, connects the phone to her computer, and uploads all the new records and changes. Then she sends them to the mGeos webpage, which gets updated (i.e., now all the users can see the Ezamoyo school building, the updated information from Mkombe, and will notice that the well in Mabrikani is no longer in use).

When Victoria sees the new information in the system, she notices that she has mistyped the number of pupils in Mkombe school.  Since she is the author of the information, she can also edit the record in the mGeos webpage to correct the information. After checking that all the other information is OK, she leaves the phone in the office and continues with other work tasks.

When will it be tested? We plan to fully test the application in Kenya in July. Plan Kenya/Kilifi District Program Unit has identified a number of  POIs ( schools, health facilities, water points, trading centers etc.) they would like to map. They have also listed additional information each POI should have. For example, for schools they would collect information on: name, type (special, integrated, non-integrated), level (primary, secondary…), numbers of pupils, availability of water and sanitation services, etc. etc.  This information would be entered into mobile phones running mGeos software and later transferred to the server for sharing, analysis, editing, reporting and exporting.

Once the pilot has run, and user input is collected, the system will be adjusted and improved so that it can be fully launched.  I’ll keep following the mGeos story and post more as it’s tested and rolled out!

Update:  For more information see these later posts:

mGESA: Mobile GEographical Services for Africa

Mobile Date Collection through Points of Interest in Kenya (on Mobile Active)

The final application is called PoiMapper (see www.pajatman.com). Give it a try by downloading it and installing it on your mobile!

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the road to Wa

I’m in Ghana this week for a workshop in Wa, the district capital of the Upper West Region.  I wasn’t too excited about the trip from Accra (the capital of Ghana) to Wa when I heard it was a 10-12 hour drive. I figured it took so long because the road was in bad condition, but I was wrong, it’s just a long trip and there is a lot of traffic. The road to Wa is paved.  Not with gold. Not with good intentions, just paved.  And what a difference that makes.

All kinds of vehicles and travelers use the road. Motorcycles, cars, taxis, 4x4s, Land Cruisers, big trucks, small trucks, semi trucks with trailers.  People walk and bike alongside the road.  I even saw an adolescent boy trying to rollerblade – he wasn’t getting too far in the gravel but was pretty determined regardless.

All kinds of people move in and about and around all the shops and businesses along the road… people making purchases, moving supplies, carrying firewood and water, socializing, flirting, arguing.  Vendors sell fruits, clothing, electronics, car parts, prepared food, plastics, new clothing, used t-shirts.  There are tons of stalls selling airtime  for mobile phones and entire buildings painted bright red with the white Vodafone logo on the side, not to mention doorways, sides and fronts of buildings, market stalls and taxis similarly painted.  Tigo, Glo and MTN also have their noses in the business with signs, billboards, stalls, buildings and such – obviously a lot of competition for mobile phone customers.

collision

The road holds both opportunities and dangers. Some people go very fast and others crawl along, creating accident potential as drivers try to pass them on curves and hills.  As in many countries, a good number of crashed vehicles dot the roadside; though unlike past road trips, this time I didn’t see anyone get hit or observe any bodies lying on the road after being hit, a small crowd around them, fresh blood pooling around their head and twisted frame.   Every so often on this road to Wa, there are toll booths and customs check points.  Speed bumps slow you down as you enter towns.  Police officers stop you for no reason wanting bribes. The road is really happening.

Aside from the rich and fertile rolling hills in between the towns as we got further north, the most striking thing to me was the image of the funeral crowds. You see large groups of people on both sides of the road dressed in very fine black West African clothing with accents of red: black for mourning and red if the person who passed away was strong and in their prime; sometimes white if the person was very old.  Stunning. My colleague Stephen said that funerals happen on Saturdays and that is partly why the road is so busy on weekends.  He also said that politics paved the road, because the current vice president lives in the north and made this road a priority, helping him win the elections.

While driving, we listened to a lot of political talk radio.  Obama’s honeymoon is definitely over if those who were talking are any indication. “We thought there would be a change with Obama, but his foreign policy continues along the lines of Bush.” The commentators argued for nationalization and control of Ghana and Ghana’s resources without foreign intervention and without selling off resources to foreigners, a shaking off of old colonialism.  They heavily criticized the US’s current strategy of opening military bases in West Africa and the US’s failed and reckless policies in the Middle East. References to Chile, Castro and the CIA reminded me of the kinds of conversations you hear in Latin America.  I need to read up more on this, and find out who Kosmos (Cosmos?) is, and what their relationship is with Bush, Exxon Mobile and Ghana’s oil.  [Update: here’s some background on that: Ghana blocks Exxon Oil-Field Deal.] I miss being in Central America where I knew the history of all the politicians and movements, and could read beyond fiery words to interpret motives; where I could read my own truth into things.

As we drove along I thought about the road, and all the activity that it enables. Before my flight to Accra, I visited the  Museum of Modern Art in New York with my brother who studies biology, and we saw an exhibit about Design through the Ages.  Some of the modern pieces showed graphics or moving visualizations of communication networks and systems.  One piece tracked and visualized the movement of taxis in New York City.  Another showed internet connections across the world.  My brother and I talked about our fascination with micro and macro networks and systems… synapses in the human brain, the flow of blood in the body, the New York subways, sewers.

dusk settles on the long drive north

Looking out the window of the car on our seemingly endless drive north, I thought about the similarities between this highway and the internet — road networks and communication networks.  All the people traveling down and alongside the road to Wa. The communication among and between them.  The small and large businesses that have sprung up and are prospering because the road is there allowing access.  The opportunities and dangers, the police and the periodic barriers to speed.

I’m sitting here, 12 hours north of the capital city, uploading this post, with photos even, using 3G wireless internet. Not long ago that wouldn’t have been within my capacity to imagine.

I know there is nothing new in comparing communications infrastructure and networks to a road system. But I am struck today, after the drive to Wa, with the similarities — and the vital need for both. I’m convinced that, just like the roads that provide a basis for connection, communication and commerce; Internet, via undersea cable or mobile or whatever, is essential infrastructure for development.

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courtesy of bioweb.uwlax.edu

One of the best things about the Great Tshirt Debate has been the variety of voices and perspectives that are weighing in.  This one potentially misguided project was able to catalyze a huge discussion on the nature of ‘aid’.  Once again the power of social media to engage people in debate and dialogue was demonstrated.

There are a lot of angles to follow up on from last week’s blow up. There’s a lot to unpack and it goes much deeper than a conversation about t-shirts.  One thread I find particularly interesting is the use of social media and ICTs (information and communication technologies) for bringing greater accountability and generating input and dialogue around ideas for aid and development.

Christopher FabianOwen Barder and @Morealtitude wrote about this specifically in relation to the Tshirt Debate; and Duncan GreeneOwen Barder, Aidwatch,  Tim Ogden, and others in a broader debate about accountability, aid and development. Certainly there are many posts and discussions out there on this topic.

Some things that stand out for me in the aftermath of the tshirt discussion:

Broadening perspectives.

It’s easy to forget that we all mean something different when we use the terms ‘aid’ and ‘development.’ There is a big difference between emergency aid and longer-term development.  And there are countless theories and approaches and understandings of both of those terms  (Alanna Shaikh and Talesfromthehood have both written on that).  This was really apparent throughout the discussion last week and in the on-going commentary.

I’m still trying to sort out in my own mind the difference between the various aid and development theories, the perspectives of the ‘aid bloggers’ that I follow, and the frameworks of other people who were involved in the Tshirt Debate. People’s views are intimately linked with cultural, political, economic and religious worldviews, and varying levels of snark (which I have to say can be very intimidating) making it even more interesting.  Before Twitter and the blogosphere, I certainly didn’t have daily exposure and access to such an array of thoughts.  Score one for social media.

The elephant in the room.

All this access to all these perspectives and on-line debate and open participation is great for me. And for you. Because we read English and have access to the internet.

But there is a really big elephant in the room.  One that was lurking on the global conference call hosted by Mobile Active on April 30 and that is still standing around quietly as the discussions continue.  I’m talking about the voices and perspectives of the people that the 1millionshirts project was aimed at helping.

I would bet money that some of those voices would have said “I want a tshirt.”

There are a lot of possible outcomes when ‘beneficiaries’ and ‘donors’ actually talk to each other.  Like donors wanting to give t-shirts and people wanting to receive them.  Then what?  Most of those involved in aid and development and work with local economies can and have listed a myriad of reasons why handouts are not a good idea, but most also believe in listening to voices of ‘beneficiaries.’   It seems paternalistic to say that NGOs or businesspeople know best what people need.  What will happen when more donors and beneficiaries are using social media to talk to one another?  And what if NGOs or governments or business people trying to improve ‘developing country’ economies don’t agree?  Then what?  That’s going to be pretty interesting. For a taste of this can of worms, read this post and related comments.

Development education.

This brings me to thinking about the educational processes that contribute to good development results.  Around the world, people have been presented with hand-out and silver bullet ideas around development and aid for a long time. Donors need to be educated about effective aid and development, but communities do also.  People have been trained to gravitate towards one-off donations and charity mentalities, and need to learn why that isn’t actually very helpful in the long term. They’ve been taught that there is a silver bullet we just need to find. People have also been trained to take hand outs and see themselves as victims and need to re-learn how to take the reins and do for themselves.  This is true everywhere – people look for the easy way out. Consider how many people in the US for example prefer to get plastic surgery or take miracle diet pills and medications over adopting healthier lifestyles involving a good diet and exercise.  Complicated situations require integrated approaches and often need cultural shifts and behavior changes.  Those take time and effort and are hard to explain.  How does social media impact on or shift this in terms of aid and development, and in which direction is it shifting?

Barriers to social media participation.

Both #1millionshirts and Kiva were held up to a huge amount of scrutiny online via social media.  But again, who was scrutinizing, and who had access to the tools and means to participate in these widespread discussions?  It was not the people getting loans from Kiva or the eventual t-shirt wearers.  It was donors and ‘experts’.  I would hope that there are plenty of discussions happening about Kiva programs at local levels, in person, in meetings and in local media or newspapers. But these don’t normally make their way to the internet.

I don’t know Kiva’s programs well, but I would also hope that Kiva staff and/or partners, for example, are listening to that local input and using it to improve their programs on the ground to make them more useful to participants.  And I would hope that those discussions take place within a longer term education, training and relationship building process as with many NGOs.  This kind of input from and dialogue with program participants is every bit as important for adapting and improving programs and initiatives, and maybe more important, than all the public discussions on the internet…. as long as it’s being listened to and responded to, and as long as local offices are taking these messages up the chain within the organization, and as long as local offices also are being listened to and carry weight within the organization. What might be the role of social media there to move those offline discussions further within organizations and to educate, inform and engage the broader public and ensure that responses and changes are forthcoming and everyone learns from it?

There are still huge barriers to social media participation for many people in communities all over the world… not having electricity, computers, smart phones and internet, to start with. There are also barriers like language, literacy, age and gender based discrimination, hierarchies and cultural norms that limit participation in general by particular groups in discussions and decision making.  When working face-to-face, good organizations are in tune with the barriers and find ways to gather input from those typically left out of the discussion.  How can organizations use what they know about engaging more marginalized populations and apply it to a more creative use of social media to ensure that all voices are heard?  What resources and ICT tools would be needed to do that effectively?

Offline to Online to Offline

And how could more of the discussions that happen on the ground with communities, when programs are being designed, implemented, evaluated and re-designed; be shared in the open by those who are involved – whether participants, local bloggers, citizen journalists, NGO workers or others?  And how can the debates happening online make their way back to communities that are not connected? It would be amazing if more program staff and community workers were blogging and sharing their work and their challenges and accomplishments.  And if more organizational decision makers were listening to what their community workers or other staff who are blogging and tweeting are saying. And if more people participating in programs could share their viewpoints via the internet.  This would be useful to the global commons and would also help the fields of aid and development to improve.

How can we support more communities to have access to social media and ICTs as tools to participate more broadly? And how can community members be the owners and drivers of this discussion and input. How can we help bring voices from the grassroots to a broader public and also bring these broader public debates back to communities.  How can the access, language, literacy and cultural barriers be addressed?  There are some programs out there doing this, for example Global Voices Rising, MIT’s Department of Play at the Center for Future Civic Media, and the Maneno platform, but we really need more of it.

Youth.

I think as connectivity becomes less of a challenge, we will see the younger generation claiming spaces in this way. More organizations should be working to engage more young people in the development process and supporting them to access ICTs and social media.  When a consultation with children and youth was done after the Haiti earthquakes, for example, young people did not say that they wanted hand outs.  They said that they wanted to participate. They wanted to play a stronger role in the recovery and the reconstruction.  They said they wanted education, a voice in how things were to be done, decentralization.

Staff that I’ve worked with on youth and ICT programs in several countries have said that ICTs and community media are excellent tools for engaging youth in the development process and maintaining their interest, for supporting youth-led research and collecting opinions about community processes.  With advances in technology, these voices can reach a much broader and public audience and can be pulled into donor communications as well as used as input in the resource and problem analysis, program design,  program monitoring and evaluation processes.  Youth can access information previously unavailable to them which broadens their own views and helps in their education processes. They can also contribute information and images of themselves and their communities to the online pool of resources so that they are portraying themselves to the world in their own image as opposed to being shown by and through the eyes of outsiders.

In addition to the Tshirt Debate stirring up questions about good donorship, I really hope it stirs up the debate about the value of more local ‘beneficiary’ voices in aid and development discussions, and that it fuels more efforts to use, adapt, and develop social media tools and ICTs to support these voices to join the debate.

What about you?  What do you think?

Related posts on Wait… What?

Children and young people’s vision for a new Haiti

It’s not a black and white photo

Meeting in the Middle

Mind the gap

Putting Cumbana on the map: with ethics


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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.

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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

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Yesterday I inadvertently clicked on a link to the first blog post by Talesfromthehood that I think I ever read. The post starts by saying ‘There is just no way around the critique that aid is ultimately about imposing change from outside….you’ve got to make your peace with that reality.’  (Not what I like to hear).  Tales goes on to say that we need to better define the term ‘bottom up‘ development and concludes that we may really not be talking about ‘bottom up‘ development at all, but more about ‘meeting in the middle‘.

The idea of imposing change from the outside is a little uncomfortable sounding when you normally think of your work as ‘bottom up‘, and you have seen the countless problems that ‘top down‘ approaches create.  But funny that Tales happened to include a link to that particular post in the more recent post that I was reading, because I was in the process of writing up some notes about a community development approach that I believe is quite good.  And looking more closely, it actually sounds a lot more like ‘meeting in the middle‘ than ‘bottom up‘….

I spent this past week in a workshop with colleagues from Cameroon, Mozambique and Kenya discussing a program we’re all working on at different levels. The initiative (Youth Empowerment through Technology, Arts and Media -YETAM) aims to build skills in youth from rural areas to claim space at community, district, national and global levels to bring forth their agendas. It looks to create an environment where peers, adults, decision makers, partners, schools, and our own organization are more open and supportive to young people’s participation and ideas.  It uses arts and ICTs (both new and traditional ones) as tools for youth to examine their lives and their communities; identify assets, strengths and challenges; build skills; share their agendas; and lead actions to bring about long term and positive change.

It is clear from listening to my colleagues that ICTs in this case have been effective catalysts, tools and motivators for youth participation and voice in their communities and beyond, but that other elements were just as critical to the program’s successes.  Throughout the meeting they kept saying things like ‘we are adopting the YETAM approach for our disaster risk reduction work’ or ‘we are incorporating the YETAM approach into our strategic plans’ and ‘we are going to use the YETAM approach with new communities’.  So I asked them if they could put into words exactly what they considered ‘the YETAM approach‘ to be so that we could document it.

I furiously typed away as they discussed how they are working, and what they consider to be the elements and benefits of the ‘YETAM approach.’ And it’s probably a pretty good example of what is normally called a ‘bottom up approach‘ but which might actually be a ‘meeting in the middle approach.’  And I’m definitely OK with that.

I like the approach because it builds on good community development practices that we’ve endorsed as an organization for quite awhile. It brings in new ideas, new tools and new ways of thinking about things at the community level, but it doesn’t do so in a top-down way.  It doesn’t encourage youth to abruptly raise controversial issues and then leave them to deal with the consequences.  It thinks about implications of actions and ownership.  It addresses the ‘what’s in it for me?’ questions but doesn’t turn the answer into unsustainable handouts.  It looks to instill a sense of accountability across the board.  On top of all that, it incorporates ICT tools in an integrated way that gets youth excited about engaging and participating and helps them take a lead role in advocating for themselves.

YETAM Point Persons: Mballa (Cameroon partner), Anthony (Plan Kenya), Pedro (Plan Mozambique), Lauren (Mozambique Peace Corps Volunteer teacher), Nordino (Plan Mozambique) and Judith (Plan Cameroon)

So, ‘bottom up’, or ‘meeting in the middle’ or whatever, here’s ‘the YETAM approach’:

Meetings…. Lots of them. We meet with men, with women, with children, with youth, with local authorities and district officials and relevant ministries, with partner organizations and community based organization, in short, with all those who have a stake in the initiative, to get their input.  This is an opportunity to understand what everyone wants to get out of the project, what value it adds to what they are doing or what they aspire to do, and what role everyone will play.  Then we meet with everyone all together at a community assembly. Once we pull together what everyone’s interests and contributions are, we can go forward.  This means a lot of time and a lot of meetings, which can be tiresome, but in the end it is worth doing for the long term success of the initiative.

Partnerships. Everyone brings something to the table – communities, local partners, young people, schools, teachers, local leaders, and us.  So we work to ensure that the contributions of each entity are clear and detailed, and that all sides are accountable if they don’t hold up their end of the deal. The community might contribute time or food or labor or a training space or some other resources that they have. We might contribute funds or technical advice or facilitators or the like.  Local partners might bring in technical expertise; schools or governments something else. Youth are putting in time and efforts also. To ensure that the project holds up and succeeds, we negotiate with all involved partners to see what they can contribute. If you see that people are not willing to put something into the initiative, it means that it is not of value to them.  If you push the project on people, and move it forward without it having value for them, it will be a constant struggle and a headache.  Seeing the level of commitment and interest in different community members can tell you if the initiative is a good thing for the community or not, so that you can adjust it and be sure it’s worth doing, not pursue it, or continue to work on buy in if some parts of the community are interested, but others are not.

Accountability. We set up agreements with all partners in the initiative, detailing what everyone will contribute and what they will get out of it, establishing everyone’s roles.  This is critical for accountability on all sides, and gives everyone involved a common basis for any future discussions or disputes, including if the community wants to hold us or a local partner accountable for not fulfilling our promises.

Buy-in. We don’t pay people to participate in projects or for sitting in workshops.  If you pay people to participate in a project once, you will have to pay them forever and it becomes a weak project without any real buy-in.  Our particular role in community development is not creating short term jobs, but contributing to long term sustainable improvements.  So what we do is to sit with the community and any participating partners or individuals from the very beginning and fully discuss the project with them. Then those who participate do so with a clear understanding of the set up, the longer term goals, the value to the community, and they have decided whether they want to be involved, and what is their level of commitment.

Some NGOs find that paying people to participate is an easy way to move budgets. This may help get things done in the short term, but for the type of programming that we do, it doesn’t work in the long term. It takes away people’s ownership of their community’s development if you pay them a fee to participate in their own project. So to avoid misunderstandings, everything needs to be clear before the project activities even start. We spend time with the community and all those who would be involved.  In the very first meetings with the community before concrete activities even get started, we address the issue of payment.  It’s not our project for the community and they are not working for us – it’s the community’s project.  We do negotiate with them to cover additional expenses that they may incur for participation in a workshop or event, for example, transport, food, etc.

What’s in it for me? Many NGOs have come around before, just giving hand outs, and people are used to seeing an NGO come in paternalistically to give them things.  They imagine that you have a lot of money and you’ll arrive to just start handing things out.  This is not how we want to work.  But people want to know – well, I’m not making any money from this, and I’m going above and beyond, so what do I personally get out of it? What’s in it for me? They even ask this directly, and that is normal. There’s a need to help people think beyond the immediate project. What value does this project add to people’s lives in the long term, to what they do on a daily basis?  If they are not thinking in the long-term, it may be hard for them to see value in the project. If during this discussion with them it’s clear that people don’t see any value in an initiative, then you should be aware that they are not really going to participate.  And that is also logical – if there’s really nothing in it for them, why should they do it? So you need to listen to people and be prepared to discuss and redesign and renegotiate the project so that they are really getting something of value for themselves and the community out of it.  If you come in with an idea from the outside and people don’t see value for themselves, and you go the easy route and pay people to participate in the project, you will see the whole thing fall apart and the efforts will have been for nothing, you will see no impact. So we take the time and discuss and co-design with the community to make it all work. That way it becomes a catalyst for long term positive changes.

Understanding local culture and how your government works. We work to involve local governments and ministries in this work as well as other kinds of decision makers. It’s important to understand how local culture works and what the hierarchies and protocols are in order to do this successfully. It’s critical to know what your government is like and how they work.  If you are not aware of this, it will create problems.  You need to know how to engage teachers, district officials, school directors.  We follow local protocols so that we can ensure good participation and involvement, especially when we need support from the government or ministries in order to move forward with something.  We involve people at these levels also because they are the duty bearers who have the ultimate responsibility here in our countries.  If you leave them out of the equation, you are really harming the initiative and its sustainability as well as losing out on an opportunity to make sustainable changes happen at that higher level.

Respecting community schedules. Communities are not sitting around, waiting for NGOs to show up so that they can participate in NGO activities and projects.  They have their own lives, their own other projects, their own work and their own goals that we need to harmonize with.  Projects that we are supporting are just one part of what community members are doing in their lives.  So we need to be flexible and let the community dictate the pace.  Sometimes partners, colleagues from other parts of the organization and outside donors do not understand this, which can cause conflicts and misunderstandings with the community.  In our case, for example, we are working with youth. They are in school.  We can’t interrupt their primary responsibility, which is getting their education, so we work with them during school holidays or after school.  Often parents want them to work during their school holidays. So again those meetings with parents, community leaders and so on become very important so that they see that their children are participating in a broader initiative and they see the value in it.

Gradual processes.  In this particular project, we are working with youth to have more of a voice.  This can be threatening to some adults in the community, and can go against local norms and culture, just like working with women to overcome gender discrimination can.  If youth are not used to voicing their opinions, they may be fearful of reprisals.  We don’t want to show up, give young people the tools and means to speak out, create conflict in the community, and leave.  This can be very counterproductive and even dangerous. This is where those meetings and building those relationships with different parts of the community again become very critical. We’ve adapted a methodology of intergenerational dialogue.  We sit with the elders, with the community leaders who hold elective positions, and share the project idea and what might come out of it, sit with women, sit with youth. This is like a focus group.  You don’t go in accusing people either. You ask them – what issues do you think youth are facing in the community? They will tell you, and when you’ve heard from everyone, you triangulate the information. Then you find a way to bring everyone together to find common points to start from.  The shift cannot come so strong and fast.  You need to take a slow process.

Listening to children and youth. The strongest point of reference will be what children and youth have talked about, because that is our focus. And for a child to tell you something, it’s taken a lot of work inside themselves to say something.  We had one case where a child decided to stand up and raise the issue of incest at an inter-generational dialogue meeting. A man stood up and said ‘you are lying, this doesn’t happen here’.  But there had been an on-going community process already, and there were other people in the community who were aware and were prepared to stand up and support the child.  In that case, a man stood behind the boy and said, ‘in our community we don’t talk about this, and it takes courage.  Let’s listen to the boy.’ This community process and work is really important to give confidence to the children to be able to speak.  If you are not yet at the point where children can stand up publicly and speak out, then ICTs can also be a good tool.  We’ve found that children’s radio is an excellent place to speak out anonymously about a sensitive community issue.  Children can call in to raise an issue and others can call in to confirm it if it’s happening in the community.  Theater, cartooning and other media area also good ways to raise issues.  Making a drama video on a sensitive topic and sharing it with the community can also be a way to raise an issue without directly accusing someone or implicating a child or youth for having raised it.

Expecting yourself to be held to task too. If there is a track record in the community with children speaking out but nothing happening or changing, then that will deter them from saying anything. So if you want to go down that road, of encouraging children and youth to speak out, you need to be prepared to take it through to the end, to support them. You have to be prepared to really take children and youth voices seriously, to follow things through to the end.  This is actually also true if they raise an area where your own organization has failed, that you yourself have not done something that you promised.  If we encourage them to use their voices, we have to expect that they will hold us accountable too.  We raise funds in the name of these children and communities, so we need to be accountable to them.  We need to be open to children, youth and the community also calling us out.  And have no doubt that they will. It’s happened before and will happen again. So we encourage them to challenge us as an organization, to be honest and to hold us to task.

Change and growth from within. As part of the whole community process, we do mapping, problem tree analysis, assets analysis with the youth and accompanying adults, and they learn much more about themselves. They think about where they are coming from and where they are going, and what local resources they have. This offers perpetuity, especially for the children and youth.  Because of knowing where you come from, you can know where you are going. Where you dream to be.  Using this kind of documentation and these tools actually helps a community to be open to absorbing new things, to be open to change and growth. But not external change and growth, change and growth coming from within the community.

Addressing gender discrimination. As part of the process of mapping and prioritizing issues, there is a lot of discussion.  Very often this brings up issues that are closely linked with gender discrimination.  We see this over and over again. Because we are working in a safe space and using different tools, the issues come up in a way that is not so threatening. Boys also are at a stage where they are more adaptable. They see their sisters and mothers being victims of discrimination and they are more open to hearing out their female peers.  So, we are able then to build a shared agenda that is favorable to girls, and which both boys and girls are then acting on and working to address.  Issues like child marriage, early pregnancy, girls’ schooling come up, but there is a way to look at them and do something.  We also open opportunities for youth leadership roles within the project, and we’ve seen girls start to fight to have a space there, whereas before they would not have thought that they could play an executive role.

Opening space for youth. We work to build new skills in youth to manage new technology, new media, and to do research in their communities.  Through this, youth claim a space that they didn’t have before and can influence certain things, advocate on certain issues they feel are important to them. You see them start taking ownership in communities and in leadership, they want to pick up new things for this role.  We used to invite youth to community meetings. We would start with 20 youth, then it would go down to 10, to 4, to 3 to none. They got bored with it because they didn’t see any relation to themselves. But with this integration of technology and arts, youth have a high interest. It’s really bringing in their opinions, their thoughts and ideas to join their voices with their parents. Now they use arts and media to promote communication, dialogue on their issues and look for ways to resolve them. Before they were totally missing. We tried to come in with programs for youth but they never worked before. With this new way of working, they have become more responsible because they  are not waiting for adults to come in with something and invite them in to ‘help’. Now they are designing strategies and solutions themselves and bringing these to the table.  It’s less easy for politicians and parties to manipulate them and incite them to violence.  Arts and media are effective in this way to share ideas, issues and to use in generating dialogue and solutions in their communities.

ICTs providing reach, motivation and skills. In addition to using ICTs to generate interest in young people and for them to take actions in their communities, we also use ICTs as a cost-efficient way of actually advocating at different levels. You can use video at the local level but also at the national, regional and global level. That is cost effective and has a real impact. You can use videos in invited spaces, for example, where governments, schools, other communities, or our organization itself invite children’s and youth’s voices in.  But we also support youth to use these tools to claim spaces, to fight for space and to get their voices heard there.  We give youth the tools, and you see their brains rewiring. They learn better hand-eye coordination by using a mouse and a computer, and you see then that in class, they can copy from the board without looking at their paper. They learn organizational skills by creating folders and sub folders. They learn structure from filming a video and making a time line while editing it.  They learn to speak with adults and decision makers from talking on the radio, using a recorder or a camera.  They become more motivated to complete school.  All this makes them more effective leaders and advocates for themselves and their agenda.  They also know that they’ve learnt a skill that puts them at the top of the pile in their community for jobs now. They are plugged into something that would never have existed for them before.

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As part of our ongoing work around using ICTs (information and communication technology) in our programs and general operations, 10 staff in Plan Uganda did a 2-day workshop in March, 2010.  The workshop was based on a distance learning pack that my colleague Mika Valitalo (Plan Finland), Hannah Beardon (Mobiles for Development report) and I put together. It includes some narrated slide shows, short videos, and a series of questions and exercises to guide discussion around strategically incorporating ICTs into our work where and when it is appropriate and feasible.  So far the workshops have been conducted in 6 countries with 2 still to come.

Anthony Makumbi, from our Regional Office for Eastern and Southern Africa, facilitated this Uganda workshop (and credit for the information below goes to him). Anthony is the Regional Community ICT Advisor and has a long experience working on ICTs and ICT4D in the region.  He’s also just written up a pretty impressive draft document which will guide Plan’s ICT strategies in Eastern and Southern Africa.

“We initially thought that when you talked about ICT you were referring to the computer guys, but our minds have now been opened further on the topic. We’ve learned that ‘ICT’ does not equal ‘computers’. Instead, the term ICT encompasses any technology tool that enables information flow and communication.”  (participant)

This always seems to come up in these trainings – people realize that thinking about and using ICTs is not something that is limited to technicians, geeks, network specialists, programmers, the IT Department, etc.  Demystifying this term is so important in order to get people interested and to open up to thinking about how ICTs can support their every day work.

Staff also said that they needed more exposure to new ICTs and innovations. “People need to be informed of something in order to be able to seek further information about it.  If we know about available technologies and what they can offer, we will further explore them.”

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Below is a summary of the Uganda team’s general reflections from the workshop:

Multi stakeholder approaches are necessary to promote innovation and a favorable climate for integration of ICTs.  It is vital to work with governments as the main regulators, the private sector to effectively explore the use of technology, and civil society to ensure that the services are accessible to the population. (For example, the Seacom cable was meant to reduce the Internet costs yet there has not been a notable reduction in costs for the general population – what is the role of civil society in making sure this happens?)

Participatory community assessment around trusted information sources. Before embarking on a community ICT initiative, it’s critical to do a participatory assessment of what the trusted information sources are at the community level. This is important especially if you plan on building awareness on particular issues within a community and would like this information to reach as many people as possible.  A participatory assessment can help gain a better understanding of how people communicate and what communication tools  are most effective to reach a particular goal.

Access for women and girls. Cultural practices, the availability or cost of acquiring a tool, and access to that tool or source of information need to be taken into consideration.  Women in many areas are excluded from accessing ICT tools because they do not handle money. A key focus in ICT programs in Uganda should be to strengthen access to information sources, including programs that mitigate women’s and girls’ barriers to use and access. Another tactic might be programs that promote access to basic information for women so that they are also informed and able to utilize information for their own purposes: eg., nutritional information for their children, the need for girls to go to school or avoid early marriages; programs that share information from other sources that influence women’s decisions.

Building on what is available.  Organizations should look at what is around them and leverage available opportunities. In Plan Uganda’s case, for example, this could mean looking at mobile money transfer services linked to Village Savings and Loans Associations (VSLA); closed user group (CUG) services that define private networks and allow calls made within the private network at large discounts; and services such as the Pakalast promotion on Warid Telecom, which gives users access to each other on the same network for 24hrs for about 80 cents. Awareness should also be built about tools that can provide radio signals apart from a radio, such as a phone with radio access.

Literacy levels and local language. In Uganda, literacy levels are low.  Many people do not manage English. Technologies need to be made available in local languages. Fast track learning could also be considered, such as the development of an integrated education program to address technology and literacy. A close look at mobiles phones — which have taken off at their own pace with the existing literacy levels – could help us to think about how other technologies might fare similarly well.

Electricity.  Solar power should be built into all of our initiatives.

Mobile tools. Mobile data collection could be used instead of paper systems that are currently in place and very laborious. Services like use of SMS for accessing national exam results could serve as a stimulus to further expose communities on what these technologies can do for them.  SMS services could also be used to acquire basic quantitative data in, for example, VSLAs to collect information about group portfolios, or gender ratios or youth participation by age. This can then be vital for designing further programming.

GPS. This could be a useful tool in a program like Community Lead Total Sanitation (CLTS). Latrine coverage could be mapped at the start of a CLTS project in a community and after the project has been implemented over time. This could be linked to health programs that could track a reduction in diarrhea cases in the community, and then this information could be linked to home improvement campaigns as evidence based approach.

ICTs in Governance. ICTs can give communities a platform to provide feedback on services rendered and also know of services available to them.

New ICTs or ICT applications that staff found most interesting:  SMS and mobile data gathering, platforms such as Village Diary for managing confidential legal services and potentially HIV/AIDs program information, blogging to open up channels for discussion on issues and bringing together social movements and organizations working on similar issues, wikis for writing reports, podcasting which could be used in capacity building interventions for multiple groups.

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Plan Uganda staff felt that this type of training on ICTs should be expanded to more people in the organization, and to partner organizations, to build more buy in. They recognized the importance of organizational commitment to moving forward in this area, and asked for continuous training on new ICT tools and innovations.  Ongoing evaluation was suggested to measure the value added by ICTs to program activities, and a follow-up workshop was requested to check progress on the ideas that were generated.

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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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