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Josh's FLSMS Ushahidi Diagram

Drawing by Josh Nesbit (Frontline SMS: Medic) and James Bon Tempo (Jhpiego) from an amazing brainstorming session in early Feb 2010.

When looking at integrating ICTs (Information and Communication Technology) into existing programs, or making an initiative go further or work better with ICTs, there is a lot to figure out before you even get started….

Over the past few months, I’ve been supporting the development of a mobile data gathering/ crowd sourcing and mapping workshop for youth in Benin.  The training is part of a broader initiative to reduce violence against children.  We’ve decided to use Frontline SMS and Ushahidi as tools in the project because we think (and want to test whether) mobile data collection/ crowd sourcing incidents of violence will allow for a better understanding of what is happening in this area.  We also think that geo-visualizing reports of violence against children may have an impact on decision makers and might allow them to better plan prevention and treatment programs and services.

At first I was most worried about whether we could get the technology itself set up and working, but as I started digging in, it was immediately apparent that the technology was the last thing to worry about.

The first thing to consider is probably:  Why are you doing this?

Well, we all have our different reasons…..  But even in a worst case scenario where someone wants you to use ICTs because they are cool or you have funding for them (*not the case in the project I’m writing about, but I’ve seen a lot of this going around) you might be able to salvage the project if you ask the right questions and get the right people involved in finding the answers.  Many of the questions I’m asking myself and my colleagues now will be asked again next week when we are all together on the ground with local staff, youth and community members. I expect there will be more questions added to this list, and that a lot of our current assumptions will change.  But here is the starting list that we’re working from (in no particular order, as answering one may alter answers to another one):

1) What are your specific information and communication needs and goals?

  • Why are you collecting the information?
  • What will be done with it?
  • Who will it be shared with and why?
  • What change will it contribute to?

For example: In our case, we want to gather information on the amount, types and location of violence happening in communities where we are working on a Violence against Children (VAC) project.  We want to know where the violence is happening most, and what kind of violence it is. The information will be used by the youth and project participants, staff, and relevant local or national authorities. We want to generate awareness, inform programmatic efforts, and advocate for more attention and services to prevent, respond to and treat violence against children.

2) Are you working within a particular framework or project/program already?

  • Do you have existing indicators that you want to meet or track using mobiles or mapping or specific information that needs to be gathered?  Does someone else have existing indicators or initiatives or information needs or formats that you should be linking in with/ following/ supporting?  If neither, you probably need to take a step back and think through your goals, purpose, and outline what your information needs are, and why you are gathering information or setting up a project in the first place.
  • Who are the target audiences/persons/decision makers/populations that you want to impact?
  • What information do you need to gather from and/or show to these groups in order to reach your established goals?

For example:  In our case, we are framing our whole project within the UN Study on Violence against Children (UNVAC).  The study identifies types of violence and contexts in which violence happens.  Our information gathering will be set up within that framework.  If possible, we’d also like to track the age and sex of those who experience violence, because that can help in designing prevention programs and services.

3) How is the issue you are working on currently dealt with?

  • Are there local structures that are involved or engaged with your topic/theme/project/initiative already?
  • What do they look like?
  • Who is involved in them?
  • Who currently provides solutions or responses?
  • How can they be involved/engaged?
  • What is the existing information and communications flow? Can you tap into it?
  • Will ICTs improve upon it? (if not, then stop here!)

For example:  In our case, we need to know more about the current community attitude towards violence. We need to know more about local mechanisms and whether they deal with violence as a crime or if those who are violent towards children are ever prosecuted (whether via local justice or national judicial systems)  We need to know which government services intervene or treat cases of violence.  Is there a Child Helpline that we can work with?  Who are the local allies?  How does this initiative fit into larger district or national initiatives and where are the connection points?  How can this initiative  enhance and/or improve what is already existing?  We will know more about this when we are on the ground next week.

4) What are the parameters for information collecting? What is the local use of ICTs?

  • Based on the broader framework of your project or initiative, what is the geographic range for information collecting? (1 community? One district? Nation-wide?)
  • Is there detailed geographical/map information for the area you want to work in? Do you actually need it?  If it doesn’t exist, what will you do about it?
  • How do people in the community use their phones? Are they individual phones? Family phones? Community phones? Who owns phones? Who has access to them?
  • Do people in the community have internet access? Who? How?
  • What is your set-up for collecting information and who will collect it/submit it?  Eg., do you expect a broad public to use SMS to send in information? Or will you do mobile data gathering where trained individuals go around collecting information using mobile based forms such as those on Frontline SMS Forms module?
  • How will people find out about your initiative?  How will you advertise the number to send information to — by radio, television, billboards, handmade posters, word of mouth, in schools?

For example:  In our case, we’ll work in only 2 districts to start.  Because we are concerned about privacy and protection (eg., retaliation against children who report violence) it may be OK to work without extremely detailed maps that could identify particular households or persons.  We are working with youth groups who are trained on violence, but we are afraid that they could be put at risk if they are going around collecting reports from individuals as a mobile survey.  We also feel that information might not be honestly shared if it were collected in survey form.  We assume that not all children own phones, but that phones are readily available.  We assume that if families own phones, they are controlled by one or the other parent.  In a school setting, we assume that children could borrow each other’s phones if some students have phones.

We are thinking that there will be adult allies, and that local community networks can spread the word that children can use SMS to send in violence reports.  We will need to get suggestions from youth and community members on how to ensure that SMSing information in doesn’t put children at further risk if they do not own their own phone.  We’ll have to find a way to remove/reduce the risk of being found out and retaliated against.  If we can’t do that, we won’t do the project.

5) What are the privacy and protection issues that you may run into? This is especially critical if you are collecting information from and/or about children under legal adult age or with sensitive or potentially dangerous areas such as conflicts, elections, health or human rights.

  • What are the risks to those who report information?
  • How can this be managed in the project structure/information gathering set up?
  • Will you have a private Ushahidi instance or public one? (eg. available to the public, or only available to those involved in the project?)  Who can access the RSS feed and the local alerts, and does this put anyone in particular at risk? If you have a public instance, who will have access to the information, and what will your parameters be for removing identifying information that could put people at risk.
  • How can you assure that information remains private both for individuals reporting and within the FLSMS/Ushahidi system once collected and that it’s treated confidentially by those managing the system?
  • Are you prepared to address any information/privacy breaches if they should happen? How? Who will be responsible?

For example:  In our case we are still concerned about privacy and protection, and potential retaliation against children who could be caught reporting violence.  We will discuss this in depth with staff and participating children and youth to be sure that they are aware of the implications of this type of project and information gathering.

Some potential risks that we are already aware of include: a child not deleting the SMS after reporting; a child reporting and expecting immediate help which may not be available; risk to the youth group that is promoting and leading this project; community rejection of the project.

Some possible ways of reducing risk include good promotion of how the project works and of how to delete an SMS after sending; not using an easily identifiable automatic text reply to those who report (eg., an auto reply SMS that says “thanks!” might be smarter than one that says “Thanks for reporting!”); openly raising awareness about the project and getting community support for it; ensuring adult allies and engaged adult decision makers; password protection for the website at first until we’re sure that privacy and protection are well managed and ensured.  Additional mechanisms will be discussed with local staff, local youth and engaged adult community members.

6) How will you close the circle and manage expectations?

  • Will there be a response to those that submit information? What? Who will respond? How? What is the plan?
  • How will you ensure that there are not expectations around the project or information gathering system that you cannot or are not set up to meet?
  • How will you return the information to the community/local district/those who provided so that they can use it for decision making or program intervention?
  • How will on-line/offline be managed and streamlined into an information gathering, communication and feedback system that works for the different levels of access of the populations you want to collect information from and share information with?
  • In your project design, how will you take into consideration and maximize local information sharing formats, customs, and opportunities?
  • And how will you ensure that the information remains in a protected/private state in order to avoid putting anyone at risk?

For example:  In our case, we are not sure yet what the local response mechanism is currently when violence is reported.  We will find out more when we are on the ground in the communities next week with local staff, and we see how we can link the initiative in with existing local systems.  However, we will likely not be able to provide any immediate support to those who report violence unless there is already a system in place that can be enhanced by better reporting through SMS.  We will probably need to be very clear that the point of the project is to collect information for future decisions, not for providing immediate help.  This may or may not have an effect on people’s interest and willingness to actually use an SMS based system to submit information.

We will discuss and agree with the community, youth, local staff and local organizations on how and when the information will available to the community in order to close the circle to be used for decision making and program design, etc.  Determining who has constant access to the information is also a part of this discussion.

7) What other questions come up based on the context of your initiative and your experience?

March 1:  Based on feedback to the post, I’ve added a couple more categories here:

7a)  How will you ensure that your project is sustainable?

  • What will the project look like in 5 years? Where will it be?
  • What happens when you leave? Who will manage and run the initiative? Will you or someone else be needed and available later on to support? How will this be managed?
  • What equipment are you basing your ICT system on? Who will own and care for it? How will it be maintained/upgraded and sustained? What capacities exist (or will you strengthen) at what levels to do this? What future costs are implied in maintaining the system? How will they be covered?
  • Who will own/manage any equipment? How will you ensure that it’s not commandeered by those with more power in the community?
  • What costs need to be considered for sustained functioning, and how will they be met?

7b)  What about scale? Is it something you are striving for and, if so, how will you get there?

  • Can the project set up/idea/initiative be replicated? Where and how?
  • Is scale something you are striving for? If so, is it do-able? How?
  • What sort of buy-in from local and/or national actors will you need to scale?  How will you involve those actors early on and get their input into the process?
  • How are you systematizing and sharing information and lessons learned?
  • How and when will you monitor and evaluate the project to know what outcomes, results, and impact you had?
  • How will you know you had an impact at all? And how will you measure the particular impact that your ICT tools or set up had in reaching those outcomes/results/impact?

**(would still love to hear other people’s key questions too – pls comment below….)

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So, now, after all that, finally…. What will your Frontline SMS, Ushahidi set up look like?

This part is very well covered by the different toolkits that have been developed (see links at the end of this post), but so as not to leave it hanging, here are some of our technology related tasks and questions that we will address when we arrive in Benin:

  • Setting up Frontline SMS and our Ushahidi page for the project
  • Setting up an automatic link between Frontline SMS and Ushahidi so that any SMS’s that come in will go automatically to Ushahidi for uploading onto our map
  • Determining how we will verify reports that come in
  • Determining how to manage auto-replies in a way that lets the person reporting an incident know that we received it, yet doesn’t put them at risk if the wrong person finds the auto-reply message on the phone.
  • Estimating budget for incoming text messages
  • Ensuring there are no legal issues around who is holding this type of data
  • Linking in with a local Child Helpline to involve them in the pilot and  see if we could integrate with them (and use their  short code eventually if they have one)
  • Reviewing on-going system management needs – verifying incidents, managing the back-end on Ushahidi; who will act as the local point person
  • Being sure that all the technology works on the ground….
    • Do we have the right equipment/phones?
    • Is the laptop/server working?
    • Are we able to connect with the phones?
    • Is the information linking back into Ushahidi properly?
    • Are key words / automated responses working?
    • Is verification working?
    • Can we export data?
    • Other things to consider?

Useful resources:

Ushahidi’s Community Resources for Non-Techies (including the Preliminary Practical Considerations guide, which is based on the above post!)

Mobiles for Development Guide by Hannah Beardon

Changemakers and Kiwanja collaboration:  SMS How To Guide

Frontline SMS:  Ning group for asking questions and learning and Frontline SMS site

RANET:  Utilizing Mobile: Installation and Use of Frontline SMS for basic data collection or outbound messaging (there are 3 parts to this series, and you can find it in French and Portuguese also)

Mobile Active: data about mobile use, mobile data communications costs, mobile coverage and operators by country and How to Set up an SMS System.

Mobiles-in-a-Box: Tools and Tactics for Mobile Advocacy

Ushahidi:  The Ushahidi Blog

iRevolution:  for broader discussions, thoughts, questions on crowdsourcing, crisis mapping, and the works.

New Tactics in Human Rights:  for practical tools and discussions around new technology in human rights work

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Ending violence is not as simple as some people (and some famous-journalists-from-the-New-York-Times) might think. It’s not as easy as telling some personal stories of child victims of violence and getting people in the “West” to pay attention and care.  Ending violence against children will involve some very deep and profound cultural shifts that need to be owned by local communities who have decided that they want to end violence. Violence needs to be addressed on multiple fronts over time, taking into consideration very localized contexts that frame violence against children as an accepted norm, and that allow those who commit violent acts against children to continue with impunity.  Violence is not something in isolation of other currents running through a society, and much (most? all?) violence is rooted in unequal power relationships.

Next Sunday, I’m heading to Benin for a couple weeks to work on a project aimed at ending violence against children.  I’ll be training colleagues from Benin and Togo on setting up an SMS based system of collecting incident reports on violence against children and mapping the incidents out. This information should allow for better tracking and understanding of what kind of violence is taking place, and for more informed thinking about sustainable solutions/responses to the violence.

My colleagues and I will then train youth in 2 communities in Benin to use the system.  We’ll also train youth to do some basic audio and video testimonies. Our Togo colleagues will return to Togo to replicate the training with some youth groups there.  This is all part of a larger Violence against Children (VAC) project that has been ongoing since 2008.

One thing that I like about this VAC project is that it trains and engages children and youth themselves as advocates and agents of change to end violence, together with adult community allies.  As those who are experiencing this violence, it’s vital that children and youth are prepared and able to take part in stopping the cycle – it’s in their own best interest.  They also need a critical mass of people locally who are aware of the negative impacts of violence, and a system that can apprehend and mete out consequences for those who commit acts of violence.

After its 4 year running period, the VAC project will have trained some 200 children and youth on the causes, manifestations and consequences of violence; ways to communicate effectively with different audiences to get the message of stopping violence across; the use of cartoons, comics, social media, radio and television to talk about issues of violence; and how to respectfully yet confidently lead intergenerational dialogue around the issue.  After my 2 weeks in Benin, the youth, project staff and other participating community adults will (I hope!) be able to use mobile phones to collect information, pictures, videos and audio testimonies about violence in their communities to share locally, nationally and globally to speak to publics and decision makers.

As part of the preparation for the upcoming workshop, I’ve been reading through some reports and documentation about the project.  One report stated that all children participating thus far in the project have said that there has been a concrete reduction of violence in their lives. They have consciously broken the cycle of violence themselves and have been able to talk to their families and peers, who now exercise less violence against them.  Most of the youth in the participating groups have themselves been victims of violence, sometimes severe, at home on a regular basis.

The pain, the marks on my skin, swelling and wounds are the consequences of violence against me…I lose my composure and all ability to complete a task. Then there’s also the doubt, fear, stress, not wanting to talk about it and shyness. –  female participant, Togo

They in turn they were often also violent towards their siblings and their peers.  Participating in the project has strengthened their “be the change you want to see” mentality around violence.

“The knowledge I have gained from the project has helped me put an end to the violence that I used to carry out against my sisters, brothers, and sometimes other children. My parents have also changed – they are no longer violent towards me.” female participant, Togo

In addition to the personal changes at the level of the participants, the VAC project has built a civil society of youth who engage politically with their peers, families, schools and communities around issues of violence.  The youth have also made violence against children part of the public agenda by partnering with media sources who feed their media into mainstream channels.

Participants are fostering a new political consciousness on violence against children by educating other children and youth about the UNVAC study and how violence compromises their rights. They’ve been able to create alliances between youth and adults to advance their cause and youth have been able to share their experiences and opinions with high-level policy makers, including government officials and the UN Special Representative on Violence against Children.

This project is a great example of how engaging with young people can begin to offer solutions to very complex problems, and how looking at youth, and at people in general, as participants and stakeholders and subjects of rights rather than victims, or beneficiaries, or objects of pity can have much better and more sustainable results.

The United Nations Violence against Children Study examined the violence that children around the world experience on a daily basis and documented children’s own experiences of violence in their homes, school, communities, workplace and institutions. A Child Friendly Version of the report is also available.

The VAC project is co-implemented by Plan and Save the Children in West Africa and takes place over 4 years (2008-2011) in seven countries: Togo, Ghana, Benin, Guinea, Mali, Côte d’Ivoire and Gambia in partnership with Curious Minds (Ghana), Child Protection Alliance of Gambia, youth and children’s clubs in all these countries, the African Movement for Working Children and Youth, and Planet Jeunes (a popular magazine for youth in West Africa).   Through the project’s work with children, youth, parents and communities, the achievements of the VAC project to combat violence against children are directly helping to realize the UN VAC Study’s recommendations. Several action plans developed by children and youth seek the support and commitment of the UN Special Representative on Violence against Children to continue lobbying governments for change. Young people engaged in the West African VAC project are a valuable resource for the UN Special Representative, ready to support her work in Africa and beyond.

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How do you break down a high level UN study and connect children and youth with the information so that they can use it for their own purposes, engage others and push for a change?  Through participatory arts and media, of course!

My colleague Anastasie (in the photo above) in Plan’s West Africa office is working on a project to stop Violence Against Children (VAC). “We want to make the content and follow up mechanisms of the United Nation’s VAC study widely known among children, youth and their caretakers in West Africa and mobilize a wide representation of children and youth in the region to prevent and respond to violence against children.” Anastasie told me.

“People need to know about the VAC study and its outcomes.  Children and youth especially need to know so that they can participate in finding solutions.  We are working to strengthen the capacities of existing children and youth organizations to play their full role in civil society.  We’re helping develop their capacities to communicate efficiently and effectively about this issue so that they can influence decision making processes.”

What does that actually mean, and what does the project look like?

“We work with the participating youth and children’s organizations and the adults that work with them to build their capacities through producing comic books, cartoons, information booklets, and radio and television programs that inform about the topic of violence against children,” Anastasie told me. “We have a website with a blog to give room to children, youth and adults to share opinions on violence.”  The participating groups have also formed a network and an action plan to focus them as they go forward.

For me, it’s clear that child/youth participatory media is again (disclaimer – I’m obviously passionate about this) an ideal method for both building individual level skills and capacities in children and youth, generating discussion, research and reflection among children and youth on the topic, and identifying real stories and messages that can have a strong impact on viewers and which can be used to share ideas, opinions and generate dialogue.  Social media tools open the project up even further to additional audiences and allow space for those not directly participating to also join in on the discussion. Photo: Youth in Ghana filming opinions about the topic of violence.

The cartoons (go about halfway down on the page click on ‘dessins animes’) and comics (click on ‘BD’) are drawn by the children and youth themselves with the support of partner organization Pictoons (amazing short feature video about Pictoons on Africa Open for Business!).  They are based on real life stories that the children and youth bring to the workshops. Once drawn and animated, adults do professional voiceovers. Currently the materials are only available in French, but they will be dubbed in additional languages to spread their impact further.  The website itself has a wealth of information about violence against children, including statistics, radio discussions, videos, comic books, and the cartoons mentioned above.

In the next phase of the project, additional tools will be incorporated.  “We plan to use SMS, blog and mobile reporting, and maybe Ushahidi and Frontline SMS,” said Anastasie.  “I heard about these tools in a workshop last December at Plan.  I thought these tools would be good for mobilization and monitoring/evaluating the project.”

The idea would be for the youth groups to collect and report on incidences of violence in their communities using SMS.  They would refer people who report violence to institutions that can provide support.  The incident reports would be visualized on maps to show the extent of the problem, and these maps would be used to advocate, along with the other communication materials, to local, district and national decision makers.  “We plan to begin this next phase of incorporating more social media and new technologies starting in January,” said Anastasie. Photo: youth learning to use the computer to share opinions on the VAC blog.

Check out some of the materials made by the youth at the Violence against Children site.  Really nice work!

The Violence Against Children project takes place in 7 countries: Benin, Ghana, Mali, Togo, Guinea Conakry, Cote d’Ivoire and Gambia in partnership with Save the ChildrenCurious Minds (Ghana), Child Protection Alliance of Gambia, youth and children’s clubs in all these countries, the African Movement for Working Children and Youth, and Planet Jeunes (a popular magazine for youth in West Africa).  The United Nations Violence against Children (UNVAC) studywas released in 2006.  It identified 5 specific places where children face violence: home, school, work, community and institutions. Recently a Special Representative on Violence Against Children (Marta Santos Pais) was appointed by the UN Secretary General to look specifically into this issues.

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