General

An Overview of Our Self-Help Group App Pilot

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Self-Help-Group-mobile-app-microcredit-microfinance-microsavings-codeinnovation.com This is the second article in our series about the Self-Help Group app project. In the first article, we explain a bit about the Self-Help Group as a model and explore "Why the Self-Help Group Program Model Is Ready for Mobile." If you'd like to receive our updates by email, subscribe here.

Appifying the Self-Help Group Model

In the summer of 2013, Code Innovation began speaking with development economist Courtenay Cabot-Venton about the exponential impact she had assessed in a Self-Help Group (SHG) project funded and implemented by Tearfund Ethiopia. As we talked about the potential of using mobile to adapt the approach and help take it to scale, Courtenay became Director of International Programs for the U.S.-based the financial literacy and microfinance educators at One Hen, Inc. We worked together with Tearfund Ethiopia to create a project plan for an early iteration of the app in Phase 1. The goal was to develop, test and iterate a Self-Help Group app that trains facilitators how to start and lead a strong and self-reliant SHG, because we see mobile as being the best way to take this innovative and impactful approach to scale.

Once we had secured funding and agreed on an implementation plan, the next steps were to begin the process of user-driven design with Tearfund's expert facilitators and program team. Through extensive Skype and email conversations, we began to understand the existing ecosystem that Tearfund, their partners and the SHG model work within. We also began gathering all of Tearfund Ethiopia's SHG content: everything from facilitator training materials and trust-building games to the sample passbooks each SHG members carries to keep track of her savings and loans. Tearfund already had a project model with a cost-benefit ratio of 1:100 that grew steadily at 20-30% per year -- it was up to us to build on what was already working and to adapt their approach for m-learning. Over months of collaboration, we developed a mobile curriculum that mirrored the basics of the SHG process with modular content for self-guided group development and a basic structure for each meeting.

We worked with a group of application developers and technology educators in an organization called eMobilis based in Nairobi, Kenya. Because the app would be tested in East Africa, we chose capable developers from the region who were able to input around user interface and user experience (UI/UX) with confidence because they had a clear understanding of our target market and user base.

We believe that the open source standard is a game-changer for international development and humanitarian aid, and should be mandatory in all innovations and ICT4D projects, so the Self-Help Group app is built on an open source platform and released under a GNU General Public License. We are publishing our open source code on GitHub in a couple of months. We also made our content material free and open under the Creative Commons. Some of our partners were not familiar with the open standards of ICT4D, and we took the opportunity to share about the importance of the aid and development community building around the open source ethic. We found that communicating the value of open source helped to align our partners around a similar vision for the end-product of our collaboration: a free open source Self-Help Group app that trains facilitators to seed and lead the SHG process.

Phase 1 of the Self-Help Group App

You can find the Self-Help Group App free on the Google Play store here -- but please note that although this is the latest version, it is not intended for use by untrained or unsupported facilitators yet. If you are interested in using it and testing it out, please contact us at info@codeinnovation.com so we can advise you when we'll have a version that's ready for that use case.

Here are the core areas we created for Phase 1 of the SHG app:

Modules, Lessons and Steps: The basic content for the SHG process, from a group's first meeting to when they are ready to give their first loan, happens here. We divided our content into three Units that mirror basic group formation, from setting out structures for participatory decision-making to deciding on bylaws and what to do if a member taking out a loan is delinquent in paying it back.

Each SHG meeting has a series of steps. To make the basic structure of meetings easy to follow, we created a Meeting Checklist screen that helps facilitators to ensure that the group has covered everything for that week before the meeting adjourns. Although our facilitators were extremely experienced, they found the Meeting Checklist helpful to guide the SHG meetings, using it as a memory aide when they needed it.

By the way, we're changing the language of the content sections to Units, Modules and Steps in Phase 2 in order to move away from overly school-based curricular language. We wanted to ensure that the facilitators don't feel the need to lead or "teach" the content, but rather to participate collaboratively without hierarchy in the process; this was just one of many ways we sought to do that.

Facilitator Preparation: Becoming a skilled facilitator is not something you can learn from reading material in an app; it takes attention, focus and lots of practice. All the same, we seek to create a strong training for facilitators who want to create and catalyze their own SHGs. In Phase 1, this material was very basic and in some places, non-existent, as we were focused on getting the basic content of SHGs covered and not yet on facilitator support.

Supplementary Materials: We wanted to be sure that the SHG app didn't replace or substitute for any of the paper-based bookkeeping and accounting practices of the SHGs. To ensure that they were maintaining a paper-based analog system for their savings and loans, we uploaded versions of forms and tables that they might find helpful in their bookkeeping process. There can be a temptation to use technology for everything that it is capable of; but if we had encouraged groups to share their sensitive financial data with the app, we would be decreasing the transparency of their current process, decreasing the number of people in the group who gain financial literacy through practice and exposing it to risk (via lost or malfunctioning hardware) and potentially exposing their data to theft as well.

Community: This is the social section of the app, the place where groups can add some text about who they are and upload a photo to share with other SHGs. This section also included a section for the SHGs to record audio and video stories.

Resources: This includes training material, a list of good games to use during SHG meetings, a loan calculator and a list of the financial forms and templates references within the app content as "Supplementary Material."

We designed the app with a simple UI/UX because our primary users are not smart phone literate and we knew that the majority of them would be using smart phones for the first time. Tearfund Ethiopia provided the smart phones, Vodafone Smart II’s that had been donated by Vodafone. We built the content so that no data connection was required, and because the app wasn't on the Google Play store yet, facilitators had to learn how to use a free APK Installer to manage their versions. Luckily, because our facilitator cohort was so small, this did not prove the technical hurdle that it could have been.

Field testing of the app's content within SHG groups lasted 12 weeks, or three months, with three experienced facilitators (two women and one man) each leading two groups of 15-20 young people, some in-school and some out-of-school. A project coordinator, hired and supervised by Tearfund, trained and supported the facilitators and served as an intermediary between Code Innovation's team and the implementers on the ground. The coordinator sent weekly written feedback reports to the group that the Code team would follow-up on via email. Weekly, each facilitator filled out an Amharic feedback forms for each group she facilitated. These were then translated by an external translator with no connection to the project, to minimize the potential of editorializing our primary source data. At the end of the pilot, we collected information from the youth in the SHG groups personally, finding out what they enjoyed and what they didn't about using a smart phone in the SHG process.

The feedback schedule was heavy during Phase 1 because we did not have an ICT4D specialist on the ground to input on how things were working and where we were failing. We needed regular feedback to be as detailed and real-time as possible, so that we could make decisions on project implementation to fix any issues in-process and before they became distracting to the process.

After the pilot, we debriefed the facilitators screen by screen, ensuring that our Amharic translations were up to scratch and also that the flow and content of the UI/UX mirrored the expertise of how facilitators preferred to lead the formation and growth of an SHG. We were most surprised by the overwhelmingly positive feedback from our facilitators. Aside from some content adjustments, Amharic translation issues and technical issues here and there, they were happy with what we had created and considered it a useful, valuable tool in their work.

What We Learned from our Self-Help Group Pilot in Phase 1

Overall, the Phase 1 of testing the SHG app was a success, in that the app worked reasonably well at doing what we wanted it to do, namely to help facilitators move through the process of forming a new SHG. However, we also had numerous failures that we've learned from that are strengthening the next iteration in Phase 2.

Here is a snapshot of the biggest lessons learned. We're happy to share in more detail about any of them -- just email elie@codeinnovation.com.

ICT4D Lessons Learned

These are the lessons learned that pertain directly to ICT4D's Principles of Digital Development and that we think might be most relevant to the ICT4D community.

Group learning with a one-to-many approach: At Code, we like to up-end the industrial assumption that technology should be one-to-one, especially in low-resource environments. If even one person in a community has a smart phone, it can be used as a powerful tool for change. The SHG app leveraged this same model, relying on a facilitator with access to a smart phone or tablet, as a way to impact the entire group or groups with information and guidance on how to establish and strengthen an SHG.

Facilitators determine when to use the app in SHG meetings. Our Project Coordinator was right to encourage the facilitators to use the app as they saw fit and to decide for themselves whether to use it actively in a meeting. The experienced facilitators working with us on the pilot rarely needed the detailed content prompts, but did use them as a tool to prepare for meetings and to check in and make sure they'd covered everything. This was a good move, as it avoided the technology taking center stage and distracting the group from the content and purpose, namely the creation of strong SHGs. As we start using the app with less experienced facilitators we’ll keep a close eye on how it alters the normal dynamic of meetings.

Translations done as locally as possible: It was challenging to work in Amharic for Phase 1 and our developers in Kenya hired Amharic translators whose language didn't meet the criteria of our partners at Tearfund Ethiopia. Because of this, we spent a lot of time and energy tracking and fixing text line by line that would've been better focused on quality activities like improving UI/UX and content. Next time around, we will source our translations with the input of our implementing partners.

Amharic script on Android phones: In our Community sections, where we expected the groups to create a brief introductory profile, we hadn't thought to enable the smart phone keyboards for Amharic typing. This was an oversight, but because we didn't discover the issue until the debrief session after the pilot, we weren't able to fix it during field testing. Where different scripts and alphabets are involved, we cannot assume that an appropriate keyboard will be integrated automatically.

Poor speaker quality for audio materials: Several times within the content of the app, we relied on audio case studies that the groups would listen to. However, speaker quality on the donated Android phones wasn't good enough for the groups to understand what was being said. In Phase 2, we are supplementing audio case studies with written transcripts and our partners are eager to improve the quality of the locally-purchased hardware to include better speaker quality.

Social: Our social sections were embedded within the content of the app in Phase 1, but didn't take into adequate account the privacy and security issues of our users. This is an area we'll build out and test more in Phase 2. One Hen in particular seeks future features where youth SHGs share their stories, challenges and best practices with each other, so this is something we're building slowly with each phase. We noticed, also, that it’s difficult to anticipate when a social (outward facing) activity will seem appropriate within the normally internal and private process of a group. Our efforts to guess at the right moments were not successful; so we are moving the social content out of the core curriculum and into its own area. In this way, groups that identify an eagerness to try out a social function can navigate to the appropriate section and find structure for their experience when they are ready.

Internet connectivity: We meant to build the app so that it did not require any data or connectivity to operate, but users who navigate to certain social sections found their phones trying to connect—or worse, using data. Version two will include tight controls around the phone’s appetite for data so that no user costs are incurred in its routine use. Because facilitators will have periodic access to free wifi to send their data and download new versions as we scale in Phase 2, the latest version of the SHG App will be available on the Google Play store for our facilitators to automatically download, so they don't have to learn how to manually install APKs.

Self-Help Group Content Lessons Learned

This section explores the content of the app as it follows the standard SHG process. It includes how well we were able to adapt the analog process into a digital experience, and places that we're already building out for Phase 2.

Time before first loan: After our document discovery process, we were able to draft basic materials that help a facilitator establish an SHG. Over the 12 weeks of our pilot project, we were able to test the entirety of this content, but in reality a group takes much longer to establish. Group members need time to develop and explore business ideas and to save enough capital to be ready to give their first loans. In reality, the app needs to stretch to about a year of content, although there will be a range in how fast or slow some facilitators might like to explore the content modules. This means that our field testing is going to run longer in Phase 2, for a minimum of six months, and we'll be getting weekly feedback on the filler content we develop and how it works in the field.

Cash box vs. banking vs. mobile money: Most groups in rural areas use a cash box to hold their savings and develop a consensus-based protocol to establish trust and transparency around who holds the money and how they secure it. In urban and semi-urban areas where banks are available, groups are encouraged to start their own bank account. In the future, we see SHGs electing to use mobile money as a way to hold and manage their group savings. This was content detail we didn't focus on in Phase 1, but that will be increasingly relevant as we scale and move to two-country implementation in Phase 2.

How to show impact for in-school SHGs? We realized in our pilot debrief that parents of in-school SHGs are very eager that the groups not encourage small business loans to individual members because they want their children to have extra incentive to stay in school. Because the standard metric of success for SHGs, on a group and a community level, are the small businesses that are created by its members, we are focusing on finding new ways to measure impact and success for these young people, including group income-generating activities (IGAs) that could raise the capital holdings of the group without creating distractions from school and also ways of encouraging in-school youth to support their own further education and training.

Implementation Lessons Learned

These are things we learned about how to be more effective and efficient in our working process. It's great when ICT4D projects can test and iterate quickly, and we saw areas to improve around these specific points.

Coordinator buy in to ICT4D: We realized midway through the process that our Project Coordinator was not supportive of the ICT4D process and did not think that technology should be used in resource-poor contexts because it created needless attention towards disparities. This meant that we were often having philosophical discussions about the value of our pilot and the SHG app with the person we were looking to coordinate the implementation of testing the app in the field. A project coordinator position is regularly difficult to hire for as it requires cross-cutting ICT4D and content-specific skills, and to make things a layer more political, it is usually done by the partner organization so we do not have direct supervisory control over the person who plays the largest role in determining the quality of the process. Perhaps we will write more about this in a separate article in the future, as our lessons learned about how to hire for ICDT4 projects with partners may be useful to the wider community.

Facilitator feedback: We asked for detailed feedback from facilitators after each of their two weekly SHG meetings. Despite training them on the need for and importance of high-quality detailed feedback, it was difficult to get answers from them about specific areas where they relied on their own expertise to fill in the gaps that the app didn't cover. It was also difficult to avoid duplication of their reports across both meetings; in most cases, the content was almost entirely identical. Facilitators only spoke Amharic so conversations around quality feedback had to be mediated by our Project Coordinator, who was not entirely bought in to the process. All the same, we received enough quality feedback to make important changes for our Phase 2 iteration.

We hope that this in-depth look at Phase 1 of our SHG app project is useful to ICT4D practitioners and to those working on similar m-learning projects. We are currently in process with Phase 2, scaling 1,000% in Ethiopia and Tanzania over 2015 . We'll be posting updates here and continuing to document our work for the community.

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Thanks for reading! For more information about our work with mobile education, ICT4D and the Self-Help Group app, email info@codeinnovation.com. You can subscribe to future updates from Code Innovation here.

How Mobile is Disrupting Development

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mobile-is-disrupting-international-development-and-humanitarian-aid-code-innovation-codeinnovation.com A few weeks ago, best-selling author and Singularity University co-founder, Peter Diamandis, sent out an email newsletter titled, “Mobile is eating the world,” where he calculated that an estimated three to five billion people will connect to the Internet via smartphones in the next five years, effectively democratizing access to the Internet. (You can see the presentation by venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz that inspired the post here.)

What does this mean for international development and humanitarian aid? Well, for starters, it means that projects can now be designed with the direct input of beneficiaries. Real-time monitoring will let us adjust approaches when things aren’t working and open source standards will lead to more people creating more solutions, solving what have seemed like intractable problems in record time.

At the end of 2014, it was estimated that there was one mobile connection for every person on the planet. In June 2014, mobile Internet penetration in sub-Saharan Africa was at 38% and growing at 7% a year. By 2020, half of all mobile connections in the region will be using data; mobile traffic in sub-Saharan Africa is increasing at double the global rate.

This means that development, like mobile, is democratizing – a shift that will disrupt the organizations that are heavy on international staff and a shift that will favor smaller non-profit and social business start-ups that respond to people’s changing needs more quickly. So get ready for the status quo of foreign experts to shift towards DIY development – and it’s going to happen fast.

For the last year and half, in anticipation of this trend, we’ve been working on how to take a very successful analog development onto a mobile platform. It started with a conversation with a friend, development economist, Courtenay Cabot Venton who is the International Director at a US non-profit called One Hen. She’d just finished evaluating a microcredit program run by Tearfund in Ethiopia and was deeply impressed by the results, which showed benefits worth over $100 to the community for every $1 spent running the program. We started talking together about how to take the approach to scale using mobile and put a proposal together that quickly got support to pilot the idea.

The idea of taking a successful program and adapting it to mobile is one way to answer the persistent challenge of scaling in development projects. What if we could create a version of the program that could be run entirely by smartphones? What if facilitators could be trained on their mobile devices and assisted in running meetings and collecting data for monitoring and evaluation? Easier said than done, of course – but that’s the point of the ICT4D principles: build with your users, test, get feedback, improve and repeat. Soon, we’ll have a tool to seed microsavings groups from scratch anywhere in the world – no outside support, capital or programming required.

This is what is so powerful about mobile: it puts the tools of development directly into the hands of the people who need them, allowing them to decide their own priorities and make their own choices about the kind of community they want to build and the kind of local improvements and initiatives they want to undertake. It’s not about creating new technologies, but about giving people free and open access to what we already have – and what we already know works. This is the potential of mobile, as we see it – to reach where traditional projects have not been able to go, easier, quicker and for a fraction of the cost. With mobile, development finally has a chance to scale where it’s needed most.

Thanks for reading! For more information about our work with mobile education, ICT4D and the Self-Help Group app, email info@codeinnovation.com. You can subscribe to future updates from Code Innovation here.

Why Our Ebola Hackathon Index is Very Sad

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About the Ebola Hackathon Index (www.codeinnovation.com) A few weeks ago, Code Innovation was approached and asked to contribute a short video on content and challenges to an Ebola hackathon.

Hackathons, if you’re not familiar with them, are short, focused events where coders, makers and innovators of all kinds come together to create solutions around a given problem or challenge. In this case, they are a great way for those of us far removed from the Ebola virus outbreak in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone to imagine ways of contributing to the ongoing response.

We declined this request because we’re too far removed from the emergency response at this point to be able to provide anything but the most basic of context. We sent them this article on Tech Crunch, “How the Tech Sector Can Help Stop Ebola,” and told them to read every story that Buzzfeed’s Jina Moore has filed from Liberia.

But we reached out to a few of our friends in Monrovia to see if they’d be keen to contribute. “How many Ebola hackathons are there?” one asked. We wondered too.

A quick Google search lead to 10 Ebola hackathons that had happened or were planned for the imminent future, and we started to get curious. Were these groups aware of and coordinating with each other? Were they sharing valuable resources from the field, so that people on the ground weren’t besieged with constant requests for videos and other material?

Two weeks ago, we cataloged the list and wrote to each and every one of them. We sent them this:

"We are a West Africa-based technology company that works in countries now facing the Ebola virus outbreak. We are working on mobile behavior change communications and other responses, and in the last few weeks we have been approached by different ‘Ebola Hackathons’ and asked to share information about context and challenges.

"After consultation with our colleagues who are working directly on the Ebola response in the field, we learned that many of us have been approached by many different Hackathons, and as a group we wondered if the Hackathons were sharing information with each other, both in terms of information they were getting from the field and in terms of outcomes.

"So, at Code, since we’re not as busy as our colleagues who are in Monrovia right now, we thought we’d ask on behalf of our colleagues and friends. And, to make things easier on everyone, we thought we’d create a place where different Ebola Hackathons can learn about other Ebola Hackathons and post outcomes of their work. Even better, maybe some of the groups will find others interested by the same outcomes and start to work together, making their efforts that much more effective and likely to impact the situation on the ground.

"We made this: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1K1E-82Fy5k9jbI_2FfRnIDjK7knUqXvM6s53TvMbTn0/edit?usp=sharing

"Please feel free to create yourself a worksheet and add outcomes, contact details, and whatever else you would like to share about the process. We will be sharing this document with our colleagues in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone.

"Thanks in advance for the collaboration and cooperation."

Two weeks ago, we got a handful of replies. “We’ll use the spreadsheet — great idea!” one group responded. Another asked us if we could make them a video and we told them to ask other Hackathons for materials they could share and use.

Since then, not one of the hackathons have posted in the spreadsheet. No one has posted materials to share amongst the group. No one has shared outcomes or listed a point of contact where other hackathon hosts — or people wanting to support and work on solutions together — can learn more.

I don’t know what to tell myself about why this is. I work in international development and I’ve lived in Liberia. I care intensely about the place and am deeply proud of my friends and colleagues who are working on the response. I know they’ve been inundated with “please send our hackathon a video” requests, and I know from experience that many of them wanted to respond. Unfortunately, whatever responses were offered to these different events have not been shared in the way that we in the open source community like to see.

I’m sharing this here in a hope that other Hackathons take the document and use it to coordinate amongst themselves—or replace it with a collaborative environment of their own creation that we can promote on their behalf. I don’t see the ones on the list paying any attention to the basic tenants of collaborative cooperation and open source. But here’s hoping this changes their minds and that we can actually work together — instead of just saying we are.

Here is our open Ebola Hackathon Index: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1K1E-82Fy5k9jbI_2FfRnIDjK7knUqXvM6s53TvMbTn0/edit#gid=0

Near and Medium Term Unemployment Stresses

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Unemployment because of technology and the future stresses of economic recession (www.codeinnovation.com)Global trends for youth employment look worrying. We already have 1 billion working age young people classified as unemployed or underemployed. We know that 48% of all working people are in vulnerable employment and recent research suggests that nearly half of the careers that exist today are threatened by robots and automation. This situation is not a modern parallel to what we saw at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution when the Luddites were making a name for themselves. Data-driven analysis and a close look at the global economy make it clear that income earning opportunities are disappearing faster than they are being created. Watch this if you need convincing:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Pq-S557XQU

The end of jobs could turn out to be a wonderful thing. Many of us find labor tedious and limiting. Many people dream of spending their time however they see fit. But we cannot transition magically from an earnings-based economy to an abundance or gift-based economy.

Huge portions of society are vulnerable now. Large numbers of people are joining their ranks every year. (Check out Guy Standing’s thought-provoking books about the “precariat” to understand these trends better.) For them, difficulty finding work means difficulty providing for their basic needs and perhaps the needs of their family.

With optimism about the medium term future, Code focuses on the immediate and urgent need to build self-sufficiency in vulnerable communities. When we cannot identify job opportunities for certain populations, we can still take a look at their expenses and spending habits and systematically eliminate their dependence on food, water and energy that they do not produce and control.

PRESS RELEASE: Update on our Free "About Ebola" App

7 October 2014: As the spread of Ebola virus continues to accelerate, Code Innovation has continued to update the free "About Ebola" app to educate smart phone users and their networks about the virus. This app is a complement to traditional and wider-reaching public health information efforts to educate the general public and health care responders (including home caregivers) about the virus and how to prevent its transmission. Mobile phone use exploded in Africa over the last decade, driven by the durability and low cost of simple phones. As smart phones drop in price and become available secondhand a steadily growing segment of the population is shifting over to this more versatile digital platform. The strengthening and expansion of mobile and data signals encourage this trend.

Code Innovation sees the mobile space as being the dominant technological platform for Africa in the coming decade, and we focused our innovations efforts in the mobile space around Ebola because nothing existed in late March and April of 2014, and we saw an opportunity to make a difference.

In our years of field experience in West Africa, we have noted that smart phone users enjoy increased social capital, influence and prestige in their families and communities. Because many areas affected by the virus also exhibit distrust of traditional authority figures, including government and national health workers, and also distrust of outside actors including foreign aid workers, we believe that smart phone owners have an important part to play as educators about Ebola virus in their families, social networks and wider communities.

The mobile app is just one component of a wider and far-reaching health systems response from all levels, including national government, international organizations, non-profits and NGOs. We created the app because we saw mobile technology as missing from the initial response of more traditional communications efforts such as radio outreach, print media and posters, as well as television spots.

The app is now published on Android and Apple platforms in five African languages: Jola, Sierra Leonian Krio, Liberian English, Swahili and Wolof. In addition, the app is in English and French. Because the Google Play store does not acknowledge African languages, with the exception of Swahili, the app must be searched for in French or English. Once it is downloaded, the African language of choice can be selected from the Main Menu. The iTunes store does not list any of these African languages as a category, not even Swahili, a regional language spoken by upwards of 140 million people.

Code Innovation has repeatedly approached Google and Apple to request that these African languages be included as language categories on their respective app platforms and app stores. To date, we have received no response. However, we continue to believe that local language content is pivotal in public health outreach and efforts, and we hope to influence these technology companies in this regard.

"About Ebola" empowers and encourages every one of us to educate ourselves and others about what we can to do contain the Ebola response and prevent the dangerous spread of Ebola rumors and misinformation. National health systems and medical caregivers are just one part of the bigger picture. We all have a part to play.

We continue to be open to receiving relevant language translations from volunteers, so if you'd like to help out, please get in touch.

For media and translation inquiries please contact Elie Calhoun at elie@codeinnovation.com.

How Senegalese Agricultural NGOs Are Adapting Mobile Technologies: Part 2

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Welcome back. This is the second post in a two-part series: “How Senegalese Agricultural NGOs Are Adapting Mobile Technologies,” based on a follow up of over 50 Senegalese agricultural NGOs who attended the U.S. Embassy’s TechCamp Dakar. The first provided background and context on mobile technology in rural Senegal. Here, we explore the results of our follow-up survey to find out how NGOs are using mobile technology in their agricultural programming.

Three months after TechCamp Dakar, CODE surveyed 30 participants to learn whether and how Senegalese agricultural NGOs were actively incorporating mobile innovations into their agricultural programming. Most organizations have more than one agriculture-related focus, with the highest concentration of work being in the following areas (see Fig. 1):

  • Working with women (83.3%);
  • Training and education (75%);
  • Building the capacity of farmers to maximize crop sales (70.8%);
  • Market access and commercial issues (70.8%);
  • Supplying seeds, tools, fertilizer, et cetera (62.5%).

Fig. 1:

Graph: What Are The Agricultural Areas that Your Organization Focuses On?
Graph: What Are The Agricultural Areas that Your Organization Focuses On?

We were also curious as to how organizations are using ICT and mobile technologies in the workplace to coordinate programs and communicate with partners. Most organizations already use computer technology in the workplace, mostly for data collection, sharing, reporting, and communication.

As you can see in Fig. 2, within organizations, most communication happens via e-mail (all organizations use e-mail), telephone, and in-person conversation. SMS, Facebook, and Twitter are used much less, which represents an opportunity for these NGOs to communicate with and reach a wider base of beneficiaries and supporters.

Fig. 2:

Graph: How Do You Communicate Within Your Organization?
Graph: How Do You Communicate Within Your Organization?

We found that organizations already use technology to communicate with those who benefit from their projects -- beneficiaries from urban citizens in Dakar to rural, smallholder farmers living across the country.

Fig. 3 shows that most communication between organizations and beneficiaries is via telephone. In fact, all the organizations we interviewed use telephone to communicate with their beneficiaries. In-person communication and email were also common outreach tools, but SMS and Facebook barely made this list.

Fig. 3:

Graph: How Do You Communicate with Beneficiaries and Receive Field Data?
Graph: How Do You Communicate with Beneficiaries and Receive Field Data?

Currently, most organizations communicate with beneficiaries several times a month (see Fig. 4), but an overwhelming majority (56.5%) wish to communicate with beneficiaries every day.

Fig. 4:

Graph: Actual and Desire Beneficiary Communication
Graph: Actual and Desire Beneficiary Communication

These results show that mobile technologies do play a part in current agricultural programming, although we found that the application of new mobile technologies is limited so far. It seems that NGO staff fieldworkers may use computer and phone technology at their office, but there is a lack of agriculture-based projects that rely on the use of mobile technology at the very local (for example, village) level.

Since TechCamp, about half the organizations have begun to explore new technologies, such as low-cost video, Frontline SMS, Mobile Money, GoogleApps, and mapping technologies, and find that learning such technologies on their own is often a complicated and confusing task.

“We used computers before TechCamp, just for administration, but not as a tool for amplifying work. TechCamp has allowed us to have a large vision, but we struggle to implement this.” - Mandiaye Pety Badj, Community Manager at Enda Graf Sahel.

Mandiaye exemplifies the experience of most of the interviewed NGOs in regards to their experience implementing new TechCamp technologies.

For those who haven’t begun to use TechCamp technologies yet, all plan to integrate them into programming to a higher degree in 2013 or after receiving further training in methods of application for each technology.

All organizations expressed the need for further training before they can successfully implement new TechCamp technologies. However, all organizations surveyed express a desire to implement mobile technologies in their workplace and agriculture programming in the future.

There is a general consensus amongst Senegalese NGOs that TechCamp was beneficial in that it brought like-minded organizations together and started the dialogue as to what these new technologies are and how they can be used. NGOs stated that the new technologies most relevant to agricultural programming are, in order of most to least (see Fig. 5): Frontline SMS, low-cost video, GoogleApps, and OpenStreetMap.

Fig. 5:

Graph: Which TechCamp Technologies Are Most Likely To Be Useful For Your Projects?
Graph: Which TechCamp Technologies Are Most Likely To Be Useful For Your Projects?

As you see in Fig. 6, most organizations expressed interest in applying mobile technologies to more than one area of agricultural focus, with the highest interest being in: sending information to project beneficiaries, communication within the organization, receiving data and comments from project beneficiaries, using SMS to follow market prices and supply, and supporting education and training.

Fig. 6:

Graph: In What Areas Would You Use Mobile Technologies?
Graph: In What Areas Would You Use Mobile Technologies?

All organizations replied that they are ready now for further training on the implementation of mobile technologies, with an emphasis on technical support and training in new technologies, networking opportunities with other organizations, and provision of mobile and technological materials.

In general, Senegalese NGOs already use computer, Internet, and mobile phone technologies in the workplace, and to a more limited extent, on agriculture-related projects. Organizations expressed interested in future TechCamps, training workshops, and access to video trainings as possible methods to master mobile technologies.

Although mobile technology plays only a limited role in agricultural programming, this is changing. The challenge? Getting up to speed on how to use the technologies in the first place.

The majority of NGOs requested follow-up video trainings on the mobile technologies presented, which Code will facilitate and share on the Facebook group. Of course, being able to access an online video posted on a social networking site assumes a high level of digital literacy, but we were assured by participants that they could access these platforms through office computers.

Thanks for reading!

LOOKING FOR PARTICIPANT RESOURCES? CLICK HERE.

How Senegalese Agricultural NGOs Are Adapting Mobile Technologies: Part 1

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This is the first post in a two-part series: “How Senegalese Agricultural NGOs Are Adapting Mobile Technologies,” based on a follow up of over 50 Senegalese agricultural NGOs who attended the U.S. Embassy’s TechCamp Dakar. Here, we provide background and context on mobile technology and agricultural NGOs working in Senegal. In Part 2, we will explore the results of our follow-up survey to find out how NGOs are using mobile technology in their agricultural programming. TechCamp Dakar was a great entry point for Senegalese NGOs to capitalize on one of the major development paradoxes of rural Africa—while many people do not have regular access to electricity or running water, the vast majority has access to mobile phones.

I spent two years as a Peace Corps volunteer working on agricultural projects in a small village of 300 people in a remote area of Senegal, with no electricity or running water. However, I rarely lacked access to communication via my mobile phone.

The villagers around me, like the majority of Senegalese citizens, rely on mobile phones as a main mode of communication. While not all individuals own phones, there is always the ability to borrow one from a family member or friend.

In Senegal, where over 75% of the workforce is dedicated to agriculture, and over 50% of the population lives in rural areas, TechCamp Dakar demonstrated the great potential for NGOs to use mobile technologies in agriculture projects to increase their impact and presence in remote communities.

Most Senegalese farmers work at the subsistence level—they eat most of what they grow—but some grains and garden crops are sold at local markets. Products are transported from rural areas to more urban centers and sold at open air stalls. Prices vary depending on season and supply.

Some farmers do currently use mobile technology to determine current market prices and when to sell crops, but in my experience, this is limited and takes the form of informal networks in which farmers call acquaintances in larger towns and cities to check current prices and decide when to sell crops. This is sporadic and often occurs within days of crops spoiling, thus there is no real option to delay sales for better profit, and most current farming practices do not incorporate informed harvest planning for maximizing profit.

Many of the technologies presented at TechCamp Dakar may offer opportunities for NGOs to address these issues by leveraging mobile technologies in order to tailor agricultural programming to the communities in which they work. By taking advantage of the more efficient and timely means of reaching beneficiaries in remote areas that mobile technology offers, the information gap that farmers, like those in my Peace Corps village, face could be mediated.

How connected are Senegalese NGOs to Internet and mobile technology?

As in much of the developing world, Senegal’s technical know-how is concentrated in the capital city, outside of which there is limited (and expensive) access to the Internet, with most people relying on basic mobile phone services to communicate.

Capital city offices have reasonably reliable access to electricity and the Internet, but as you move farther from the capital to regional and department-level offices, organizations face many challenges when relying on technology to implement work. In cities and towns where local offices are based, there may be frequent electricity blackouts, so a lot of professional communication that NGOs have with their beneficiaries relies on face-to-face contact.

Most attendees at TechCamp were from main offices either based in Dakar or other regional capitals, which oversee operations at more local level offices. The majority of these NGO offices already use technology to some extent in the workplace, although some respondents reported that they did not feel entirely confident using mobile phones and computers during their workdays.

We were interested to learn whether and how the NGO participants choose to apply mobile innovations to their agricultural programming, now and in the future.

LOOKING FOR PARTICIPANT RESOURCES? CLICK HERE.

3 Steps to Surviving Slow Internet

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dolapo via Compfight cc When I first became a professional writer, I lived thirty kilometers outside Arusha, in northern Tanzania.

I had a DSL dial-up Internet connection at the time and the number would constantly drop because I was too far in the bush. Regular outages made responding to deadlines and time-sensitive emails so stressful that I contracted a local ISP to build me my own Internet tower in the back garden.

Yes, you read that correctly. I built my own Internet tower -- and then I sold my neighbors bandwidth on my tower, like a true African entrepreneur. What can I say? It was a big tower.

After almost five years of working location independently, I've come to value speedy Internet as more important to my quality of life than regular electricity and running water.

I can handle long power outages, no hot water, no running water, spiders, less-than-optimal squat toilets, and long bus rides.

Give me Internet fast enough to stream the Pipeline Masters Surf Contest, do my tech4dev work online, and talk to my mum and dad face-to-face on Skype, and I'm a happy woman.

I bring this up because, having returned to Senegal from a few weeks of travel, I arrived back at the home office to find the quality of our Internet greatly compromised.

Emails and exchanges with my Dakar-based colleagues went something like this, (and I quote anonymously), " Internet is sooo slow, though, it's ridiculous, … it felt like I spent most of the day waiting for pages to load."

I became so impatient at the slow connection (Skype would not even acknowledge I was online!) that I lost my temper, threw the toys out of my pram and threatened to leave the country. Yes, how embarrassing. When I calmed down, I decided on a better solution.

I'm not yet convinced that the worldwide web is a human right, but it's certainly up there on my quality of life priorities.

So, in the interest of your own health and happiness, here's what I've learned about how to optimize and thrive with really slow Internet. Here you have it:

3 Steps to Survive Slow Internet

1. Define Your Limit

Very simply, how slow is slow? Do you need to torrent two movies a day, stream music and keep your files on the Cloud? Or are you happy with fast Gmail and less-than-5-minute downloads from iTunes? Even if you're just Skyping with your mum, where do you draw the line?

I know I need to take action to improve my slow Internet when:

  • I find myself multitasking because the page I'm working on won't load.
  • I find myself staring at a screen that has trouble loading email.
  • My voice Skype calls are inaudible.

That's where I draw the line. Your line is up to you.

2. Research the Market

This turns out to be crucial, since the Internet you want is often elusive and requires you to understand basic concepts about mobile technology in developing countries.

Quite simply, it's on the way up. A lot.

So, there are basically two reasons behind Internet suddenly getting slow:

1. Physical interferences like storms, floods, earthquakes, bad wires, bad signal, and so on.

2. Rapid scale-up by an Internet Service Provider (ISP) that means that more people are trying to get a piece of a limited amount of bandwidth available from a tower.

Now that most ISPs are also Mobile Network Operators, and that smart phones are replacing laptops as our preferred way to get online, you see the infrastructure challenge signaled by your bandwidth grinding to a halt.

I have recently come to accept that having a part-time assistant is a fantastic lifestyle hack for expats living in developing countries. I've had a local personal assistant since 2009, and it has given me up to 30% more free time and freedom from monotonous and time-consuming errands.

You can do this market research yourself or (and this would be my choice) have your assistant do it for you. Either way, you want to know:

  • The top five ISPs, and the type of Internet connections they offer. Prioritize USB key connections, as these are mobile and much cheaper than fixed routers -- they're also easier to bring into the office to fix.
  • How much their biggest, fastest, most unlimited Internet package is per month. Ideally, your ISP will offer you a VIP package that gets you additional bandwidth at a fixed monthly rate. If there are tiers of service offered, learn about them and pick what's right for you.
  • What kind of customer support do these ISPs offer? Is there a helpline? Often there will be a phone number to call, but no one will answer. Test the customer support out to see how helpful and proactive they are at problem-solving. I like to select ISPs who have a cheerful staff focused on solving my problems. Ideally, this is easy to find.

3. Cover Your Bases

At this point, go out and purchase the hardware that the top two or three ISPs offer and that meets your needs. You want options here. You want to be able to switch between different networks operated by the ISPs whenever one gets too slow.

A word of warning: now that Huawei seems to make most USB Internet keys, the software that will operate one network's key will likely interfere with your Internet alternative until you uninstall the old ISP's program.

In other words, if I'm using a Vodafone USB key for an MTN USB key, I'll probably have to uninstall the Vodafone Internet software before the MTN USB key will work on my computer.

Another thing: If you have a Mac (and in that case, you probably know this already), you might need to physically take your computer to the ISP to get them to install the software that allows your USB key to connect to the Internet. I've not yet found a way around this, but I'm trying.

One thing that can help as you're covering your bases is to cultivate a personal contact at your preferred ISP. You want to be able to pick up the phone and call someone when $20 of credit disappears off of your account and have someone tell you "problem solved." This might take time, but it's worth it.

There you have it: the "3 Steps to Surviving Slow Internet."

Use them to optimize your time online so you can get things done faster and use that extra time to relax and enjoy.

May you never have to suffer slow connection speed again.

Got a secret quick-fix to improve your Internet connection? Let us know in the comments!

Teach Yourself mHealth, Part 1

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This post is the first of a three-part series, 'Teach Yourself mHealth.' Here, we focus on what mHealth is and what mHealth projects look like. In Part 2, we'll map out in detail how mHealth can strengthen health information systems. In Part 3, we'll explore some common design challenges that mHealth projects face and review the best online resources for keeping your mHealth knowledge up to speed.

Subscribe by email to get Parts 2 and 3 delivered straight to your Inbox.

Early last year, I became interested in the intersection of mobile phone technology and health information systems, or 'mHealth,' which is short for 'mobile health.' A project I was working on required a high degree of mHealth knowledge in addition to my public health expertise, so I put my time in. I spoke with experts and friends who design and implement mHealth projects in sub-Saharan Africa. I spoke with government ministers who were eager to improve existing health management information systems and NGO coordinators who want to include mHealth in their program scope.

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Throughout my discussions, mHealth's mystique as the next big thing gave me the feeling that people want an mHealth project the same way you might want a new hand bag--because it looks good and everyone else has one. To many program people I spoke with, the specifics of what mHealth is--and what it is not--were often unclear.

Without doubt, mHealth and eHealth projects are now a part of the international health landscape. mHealth's ability to strengthen systems is increasingly quantified in peer-reviewed literature and best practices are becoming more standardized by the month.

Despite the ability of technology-based projects to become intimidatingly technical, mHealth knowledge is straightforward and easy to learn. If you work in international health, it's smart to acquaint yourself with the basics, even if you're not interested in including mHealth components in your current project portfolio just yet.

 

Starting with the Big Picture

Before

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straight and explore what we mean by mHealth in the first place.

eHealth refers to electronic technology that improves or automates a health system. It's the broader category under which mHealth falls.

mHealth refers to health systems that include a mobile component, most often the use of mobile phones. The mobile phone can be the basic indestructible Nokia or a higher-end smart phone. Smart phones and tablets are becoming increasingly available in sub-Saharan Africa, where I work, and so the hardware landscape is constantly changing.

Basic mobile phones send and receive data through SMS text messages, usually sent to a specific number, or shortcode, that the project team arranges with a mobile network provider. Usually, project participants already have mobile phones and there is sufficient mobile network coverage in or near their area to allow them to send and receive text messages on a consistent basis.

It's worth noting that many mHealth project stakeholders--by which I mean the people the project is created to serve--may not be fully literate, may not know how to send and receive SMS, may not be able to charge their phones easily, and may not

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have good enough eyesight to read the small screen even if everything else is working (this last lesson from a pilot project in rural Liberia). Using a Human Centered Design approach and some solid common sense can encourage mHealth teams to anticipate these hurdles in the design phase and to keep adjusting and improving during project implementation.

mHealth projects that use smart phones have the distinct advantage of being able to use phone-based applications, or apps, that can gather, send and process mHealth data, behaving like a very small computer. Smart phones that run on open source operating systems, like Android, encourage software developers to create customized mHealth applications that operate from the phone.

Whatever phone is being used ultimately connects to a central server. Some SMS platforms, like EpiSurveyor, have a server online that you access from an Internet browser. Others, like Medic Mobile, run off of a mobile phone connected to a computer. Others are physically installed and need 24-hour electricity and a cool, dry environment. Setting up these servers can be tricky and, depending on the

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platform, can require technical expertise. Key mHealth Project Areas

For now, mHealth projects are often communications or information based, used for behavior change communications or to gather health information. Diagnostic applications for mHealth are very cool, like the mobile phone that could scan a blood slide to

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test for malaria, but still in pilot phases for the moment and not ready for field use.

Let's look for a moment at these two program focuses of current mHealth projects: communications and information. Obviously, mobile phones are great communication tools and using text messages to send targeted behavior change communications is an obvious application of the technology. Reproductive health messages and other potentially sensitive health messages can be easily adapted to the anonymity of text messages. These projects work especially well when there is two-way communication between the person receiving the message and the system sending it.

Information systems stand to gain a lot from mHealth applications, gathering data for accurate and timely decision-making that can save lives. Community health workers or primary health facilities have huge opportunities, using mHealth technology, to collect information that helps health officials make day-to-day decisions, especially around stock management and disease surveillance. Conversely, mHealth information systems can prompt primary care providers and assist with patient tracking, providing an automated structure for supportive supervision.

 

Key Players in mHealth Teams

Bringing together a good team, assembled from a diverse range of stakeholders, is key to a mHealth project's long-term success. Including the right people on the project team can help to ensure that the mHealth project meets the needs of its stakeholders and improves, rather than duplicates, existing systems. In addition to a good project coordinator, the following stakeholders are important to include in a mHealth team:

The Ministry of Health is the key stakeholder in mHealth projects, and early buy-in and ongoing Ministry guidance is essential to ensure that the project is owned and operated by Ministry staff in the long-term future.

The mobile network operator, or mobile phone company, is a key player in mHealth projects, especially as they attempt to scale. Demonstrating the value of a private-public partnership to a for-profit company demands both strategy and patience, with a long-term vision of how the mHealth system will go to scale.

Having a good software developer customize and install the SMS platform is obviously crucial, and if at all possible, hiring local developers builds technical capacity in-country and improves sustainability down the road, since you won't need to fly in technical help from someplace else. If you do bring someone in from outside, try to pair them with a local developer who can learn how to maintain the system.

Innovations projects can often feel competitive, and implementing organizations may be reluctant to involve or include sister organizations or NGOs in their design and implementation. I always feel this is a shame, as successful projects require a diverse team, and local NGOs in particular have a lot to offer in terms of specialized local or regional knowledge and of the cultural attitudes that can influence appropriate project design.

When you get right down to it, designing and implementing mHealth projects are no different than designing and implementing good aid projects. The basics, like designing for and with your stakeholders, and planning for long-term sustainability, remain the same no matter what hardware or technological innovations we apply.

In the next post, we'll map

out in detail how mHealth can strengthen communications and information systems. Subscribe by email to get Parts 2 and 3 delivered straight to your Inbox.