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New technologies are opening up all kinds of possibilities for improving monitoring and evaluation. From on-going feedback and crowd-sourced input to more structured digital data collection, to access to large data sets and improved data visualization, the field is changing quickly.

On August 7, the Rockefeller Foundation and the Community Systems Foundation (CSF) joined up with the Technology Salon NYC for the first in a series of 3 Salons on the use of ICTs in monitoring and evaluating development outcomes. Our lead discussants were: Erica Kochi from UNICEF Innovations; Steven Davenport from Development Gateway and John Toner from CSF.

This particular Salon focused on the use of ICTs for social monitoring (a.k.a. ‘beneficiary feedback loops’) and accountability. Below is a summary of the key points that emerged at the Salon.

1) Monitoring and evaluation is changing

M&E is not only about formal data collection and indicators anymore, one discussant commented, “It’s free form, it contains sentiment.” New ICT tools can help donors and governments plan better. SMS and other social monitoring tools provide an additional element to more formal information sources and can help capture the pulse of the population. Combinations of official data sets with SMS data provide new ways of looking at cross-sections of information. Visualizations and trend analysis can offer combinations of information for decision making. Social monitoring, however, can be a scary thing for large institutions. It can seem too uncontrolled or potentially conflictive. One way to ease into it is through “bounded” crowd-sourcing (eg., working with a defined and more ‘trusted’ subset of the public) until there is comfort with these kinds of feedback mechanisms.

2) People need to be motivated to participate in social monitoring efforts

Building a platform or establishing an SMS response tool is not enough. One key to a successful social monitoring effort is working with existing networks, groups and organizations and doing well-planned and executed outreach, for example, in the newspaper, on the radio and on television. Social monitoring can and should go beyond producing information for a particular project or program. It should create an ongoing dialogue between and among people and institutions, expanding on traditional monitoring efforts and becoming a catalyst for organizations or government to better communicate and engage with the community. SMS feedback loops need to be thought of in terms of a dialogue or a series of questions rather than a one-question survey. “People get really engaged when they are involved in back and forth conversation.” Offering prizes or other kinds of external motivation can spike participation rates but also can create expectations that affect or skew programs in the long run. Sustainable approaches need to be identified early on. Rewards can also lead to false reports and re-registering, and need to be carefully managed.

3) Responsiveness to citizen/participant feedback is critical

One way to help motivate individuals to participate in social monitoring is for governments or institutions to show that citizen/participant feedback elicits a response (eg., better delivery of public services).  “Incentives are good,” said one discussant, “But at the core, if you get interactive with users, you will start to see the responses. Then you’ll have a targeted group that you can turn to.” Responsiveness can be an issue, however if there is limited government or institutional interest, resourcing or capacity, so it’s important to work on both sides of the equation so that demand does not outstrip response capacity. Monitoring the responsiveness to citizen/participant feedback is also important. “Was there a response promised? Did it happen? Has it been verified? What was the quality of it?”

4) Privacy and protection are always a concern

Salon participants brought up concerns about privacy and protection, especially for more sensitive issues that can put those who provide feedback at risk. There are a number of good practices in the IT world for keeping data itself private, for example presenting it in aggregate form, only releasing certain data, and setting up controls over who can access different levels of data. However with crowd-sourcing or incident mapping there can be serious concerns for those who report or provide feedback. Program managers need to have a very good handle on the potential risks involved or they can cause unintended harm to participants. Consulting with participants to better understand the context is a good idea.

5) Inclusion needs to be purposeful

Getting a representative response via SMS-based feedback or other social monitoring tools is not always easy. Mandatory ratios of male and female, age groups or other aspects can help ensure better representation. Different districts can be sampled in an effort to ensure overall response is representative. “If not,” commented one presenter, “you’ll just get data from urban males.” Barriers to participation also need consideration, such as language; however, working in multiple languages becomes very complicated very quickly. One participant noted that it is important to monitor whether people from different groups or geographic areas understand survey questions in the same way, and to be able to fine-tune the system as it goes along. A key concern is reaching and including the most vulnerable with these new technologies. “Donors want new technology as a default, but I cannot reach the most excluded with technology right now,” commented a participant.

6) Information should be useful to and used by the community

In addition to ensuring inclusion of individuals and groups, communities need to be involved in the entire process. “We need to be sure we are not just extracting information,” mentioned one participant. Organizations should be asking: What information does the community want? How can they get it themselves or from us? How can we help communities to collect the information they need on their own or provide them with local, sustainable support to do so?

7) Be sure to use the right tools for the job

Character limitation can be an issue with SMS. Decision tree models, where one question prompts another question that takes the user down a variety of paths, are one way around the character limit. SMS is not good for incredibly in-depth surveys however; it is good for breadth not depth. It’s important to use SMS and other digital tools for what they are good for. Paper can often be a better tool, and there is no shame in using it. Discussants emphasized that one shouldn’t underestimate the challenges in working with Telco operators and making short codes. Building the SMS network infrastructure takes months. Social media is on the rise, so how do you channel that into the M&E conversation?

8) Broader evaluative questions need to be established for these initiatives

The purpose of including ICT in different initiatives needs to be clear. Goals and evaluative questions need to be established. Teams need to work together because no one person is likely to have the programmatic, ICT and evaluation skills needed for a successfully implemented and well-documented project. Programs that include ICTs need better documentation and evaluation overall, including cost-benefit analyses and comparative analyses with other potential tools that could be used for these and similar processes.

9) Technology is not automatically cheaper and easier

These processes remain very iterative; they are not ‘automated’ processes. Initial surveys can only show patterns. What is more interesting is back-and-forth dialogue with participants. As one discussant noted, staff still spend a lot of time combing through data and responses to find patterns and nuances within the details. There is still a cost to these projects. In one instance, the major project budget went into a communication campaign that was launched and the work with existing physical networks to get people to participate. Compared to traditional ways of doing things (face-to-face, for example) the cost of outreach is not so expensive, but integrating SMS and other technologies does not automatically mean that money will be saved. The cost of SMS is also large in these kinds of projects because in order to ensure participation, representation, and inclusion, SMS usually needs to be free for participants. Even with bulk rates, if the program is at massive scale, it’s quite expensive. When assuming that governments or local organizations will take over these projects at some point, this is a real consideration.

10) Solutions at huge scale are not feasible for most organizations 

Some participants commented that the UN and the Red Cross and similarly sized organizations are the only ones who can work at the level of scale discussed at the Salon. Not many agencies have the weight to influence governments or mobile service providers, and these negotiations are difficult even for large-scale organizations. It’s important to look at solutions that react and respond to what development organizations and local NGOs can do. “And what about localized tools that can be used at district level or village level? For example, localized tools for participatory budgeting?” asked a participant. “There are ways to link high tech and SMS with low tech, radio outreach, working with journalists, working with other tools,” commented others. “We need to talk more about these ways of reaching everyone. We need to think more about the role of intermediaries in building capacity for beneficiaries and development partners to do this better.

11) New technology is not M&E magic

Even if you include new technology, successful initiatives require a team of people and need to be managed. There is no magic to doing translations or understanding the data – people are needed to put all this together, to understand it, to make it work. In addition, the tools covered at the Salon only collect one piece of the necessary information. “We have to be careful how we say things,” commented a discussant. We call it M&E, but it’s really ‘M’. We get confused with ourselves sometimes. What we are talking about today is monitoring results. Evaluation is how to take all that information then, and make an informed decision. It involves specialists and more information on top of this…” Another participant emphasized that SMS feedback can get at the symptoms but doesn’t seem to get at the root causes. Data needs to be triangulated and efforts made to address root causes and end users need to be involved.

12) Donors need to support adaptive design

Participants emphasized that those developing these programs, tools and systems need to be given space to try and to iterate, to use a process of adaptive design. Donors shouldn’t lock implementers into unsuitable design processes. A focused ‘ICT and Evaluation Fail Faire’ was suggested as a space for improving sharing and learning around ICTs and M&E. There is also learning to be shared from people involved in ICT projects that have scaled up. “We need to know what evidence is needed to scale up. There is excitement and investment, but not enough evidence,” it was concluded.

Our next Salon

Our next Salon in the series will take place on August 30th. It will focus on the role of intermediaries in building capacity for communities and development partners to use new technologies for monitoring and evaluation. We’ll be looking to discover good practices for advancing the use of ICTs in M&E in sustainable ways. Sign up for the Technology Salon mailing list here. [Update: A summary of the August 30 Salon is here.]

Salons run by Chatham House Rule, thus no attribution has been made. 

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

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

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

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

A few tweaks:

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

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

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

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

Related posts:

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

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

Revisiting the SMS violence reporting project in Benin

Tracking violence against children in Benin video

Community-based child protection

Tweaking: SMS violence reporting system in Benin

Finding some ICT answers in Benin

7 (or more) questions to ask before adding ICTs

Fostering a New Political Consciousness on Violence against Children

Related links:

Text messages to help protect children against violence

Plan International case study: Helping children report abuse in Benin


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

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

A succinct overview of this project:

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Related posts:

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

Revisiting the SMS violence reporting project in Benin

Tracking violence against children in Benin video

Community-based child protection

Tweaking: SMS violence reporting system in Benin

Finding some ICT answers in Benin

7 (or more) questions to ask before adding ICTs

Fostering a New Political Consciousness on Violence against Children

Related links:

Text messages to help protect children against violence

Plan International case study: Helping children report abuse in Benin

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

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

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

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

Related posts on Wait… What?

Fostering a new political consciousness on violence against children

7 (or more) questions to ask before adding ICTs

Finding some ICT answers in Benin

Tweaking SMS based violence reporting system in Benin

Community based child protection

New Plan report on ICT-enabled development

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Henri from Plan Benin training on SMS reporting.

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

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

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

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

Carmen the VAC project coordinator in Benin.

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

Issue:

  • Most people call instead of sending SMS

Hmmm….

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

Issue:

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

Hmmm….

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

Issue:

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

Hmmm….

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

Early draft of a poster promoting violence reporting by SMS

Issue:

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

Hmmm….

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

Issue:

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

Hmmm….

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

Issue:

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

Hmmm….

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

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


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

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

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

—————-

Related posts on Wait… What?

Breaking it down: violence against children

Fostering a new political consciousness on violence against children

Seven (or more) questions to ask before adding ICTs

Finding some ICT answers in Benin

Meeting in the middle

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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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Childline Kenya is about child protection. “We run at 24 hour children’s helpline which is both an emergency response service for abused children who need someone to help and an information line where children who have difficulties or questions that are bothering them can call us, we can talk to them, have a chat, do counseling on line, deal with abuse.” Irene Nyamu is the Deputy Director of Childline Kenya. She also worked at Plan for about 3 years before moving to her new post. Photo: Irene during a community visit in Kwale.

At Childline, Irene is constantly looking at new issues and situations because the field of child rights and child protection is vast. Childine works with everything from adoption issues to drug addiction to child abuse within the family and juvenile justice. “I wasn’t too versed in legislation, laws that relate to children and I’ve had to learn so much,” she says.

Before Childline, there was a government line, but it wasn’t a 24-hour line and it wasn’t free. If a child wanted help they had to have money to call. “What we’ve done as Childline is try very much to leverage support from the government’s Dept. of Children’s services.” For the last 3 years children have known that they can call to get the service. But Childline has involved government of Kenya along the way. “We’ve helped build government capacity and have proven that it’s possible to have a child helpline without a heavy cost. We’ve demonstrated its usefulness.”

When Childline first started, they had a fixed line with a free call number and got around 600 calls per month. “Since we’ve moved to mobiles, we get about 20,000 calls per month and we are still not meeting the needs of the population.” Childline Kenya’s has 9 counselors during the day and about 6 at night. To optimally operate, Irene estimates needing around 15 during day and 10 at night or more. “When we were on a landline, we had a long phone number that was difficult to remember, and most people don’t have access to fixed line. So now with the 116 short code, it’s quite easy to remember and very accessible on mobile.”

As for concerns that children cannot access a phone to report in, people should not assume children do not have access to phones. Childline confronted this and has proven that if the information is out there, children will find someone that is willing to help them make a call. “Many children now call us even without a fixed line. They have a teacher, an auntie, a big sister who will allow them to borrow the phone. I’ve seen that almost everybody in the community has a SIM card. They do not have a handset, but when they need to make a call they just borrow a handset for a few minutes and somehow they do it. We can’t make the argument that children can’t use technology. There are innovative ways of using the technology so let’s put the technology out there and stop assuming that people can’t access it.”

What about credit? This is a very important issue. “If organizations or institutions want to use SMS, then there is an investment cost unless you are able to acquire a short code.

Childline tracks how many people have dialed in and how many calls they actually receive, and they currently receive many more calls than they are able to manage. Irene thinks that one way of extending the service out to more children might be an increased use of SMS, which is extremely common and accessible in Kenya. “To meet the needs of our population, I think this FrontlineSMS training was really useful. We can now go in to explore how to use SMS for child helpline work in order to offer more alternatives to children. If you can’t call, can you SMS? And how do those numbers compare?” Photo: Learning to set up Frontline SMS for mobile data gathering, SMS outreach and auto-responses.

“I love working at Childline because every new day is different. Every new call that comes in, you can anticipate a new challenge.” One way to meet some of these challenges is via new technologies such as mobile outreach and mobile data gathering.

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