UNICEF and Text to Change: how they are using technology in different ways

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Donorland has been littered with pilot projects over the last ten years that took interesting technology and ideas and sought to make them work in the unforgiving African context. All too often they had little idea of what potential users actually wanted and once the funding ended, the water closed over them and that was that. There is now a second generation of ICT4D projects that seem to have learnt the lessons of these early failures. Russell Southwood spoke to Terra Weikel and Sean Blaschke of UNICEF and Bas Hoefman of Text to Change about how they are using technology in different ways.

In 2007 UN childrens’ organisation UNICEF set up an Innovation Unit that initially encompassed its Communications Unit but eventually drew in other parts of the organisation. Its Director of Communications Dr Sharad Sapra had begun to ask questions about how mobile phones and networks might change the way development work is done and the Innovation Unit was set up to address these questions.

It was a small team dedicated to finding tech innovations that could improve how the organisation’s programmes, services and communications might be delivered. It sought to combine various technologies – mobiles, radio, Internet, computer hardware and paper – to do this. The purpose of all this was to give people new ways to change their lives, “while creating demand for better service delivery and accountability.”

In Uganda where UNICEF has several Innovation Unit members, it has chosen to focus on a range of initiatives including: data collection using Rapid SMS; mapping data; connecting rural and remote constituencies that are off-grid; and “digital doorways” to give villagers Internet access. With the data collection, there is an emphasis on “action-oriented” data, figures that make you do something about them.

It has carried out data collection using Rapid SMS in 20 different communities. One of the data sets gathered was baby weights and this was used to identify problems like malnourishment. Instead of paper returns being laboriously gathered by messenger and post, travelling through several organisational layers, the data ended up in one place at the speed at which the SMS messages were sent. Higher data returns were also achieved.

It has also been used to report medicine stock levels in hospitals in order to identify corruption and the “leakage” of stock. By comparing patient and stock levels, it’s possible to see where things are disappearing.

The team have also created a dashboard that can be used with Google maps to plot the data geographically by location so that anyone looking at the map can easily see the story the data is telling by location.

Many of the places where UNICEF wanted to do work were off-grid, both in terms of electricity and Internet. Using what it calls its BOSCO model, UNICEF has been installing Point-to-Point Wi-Fi grid to create a “local, low bandwidth Intranet structure.” Using high structures like village water towers, it has been able to create basic connectivity for a wider number of communities.

Once basic connectivity has been established, it will provide village access points. UNICEF is pioneering two different approaches. The first of these approaches has been to buy ruggedized, stand-up computer units from the Meraki Institute in South Africa. These are steel cased computers with rugged keyboards and toughened glass screens at which the user stands up to access the Internet.

However, the team felt that it would be better to build a local version and are currently prototyping one that uses a couple of welded oil drums as the container and stand for the unit.

One of the suppliers working with UNICEF is Bas Hoefman’s Text to Change, which although based in Kampala, works across the continent. It has run a programme for pregnant mothers reminding them to go for their check-ups: through SMS reminders, mothers now attend 2-4 times during pregnancy rather than the more usual once.

It makes things easier for donor organisations by having developed an SMS software (with local company Yo Uganda) to gather data and by having “short codes” with almost all of the mobile operators. The software allows messages to be sent in local languages. Sending the SMS is not free for Text to Change but is for the user but the donor client covers these costs. 70-80% of Ugandan mobile users know how to send SMS messages.

Hoefman has a sophisticated approach to building databases of users (with their permission) that is not always shared by the operators themselves:”Mobile companies miss a huge opportunity by not knowing who is behind the telephone number. The future in mobile is in profiling and segmenting (users). We always try to ask for age and gender and keep that on our database.”

It has sent out quiz about HIV/AIDS and has persuaded Zain to send it (as part of its Corporate Responsibility Programme, first to its 600 employees in Kenya (with a 40% response rate) and then to employees in several of its other African operations starting with Madagascar. It is running a similar quiz on reproductive health for Family International in Kenya and Tanzania.

In some ways this use of SMS by UNICEF and Text to Change is far more sophisticated than local private sector FMCG and service companies approaches to similar forms of marketing. Maybe they have something to learn from this very African approach to using ICT to involve people in helping themselves.