Code Innovation

Supporting Self Help Group Facilitators with our Digital Platform

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facilitator trainings are an important part of leading SHGs Over the next year, we will be actively building the ecosystem around our Self Help Group Digital platform.

Our free digital app helps SHG facilitators mentor new Self Help Groups that mobilize the poorest of the poor to save and loan to each other.

SHGs are self-governing and by saving with and lending to each other for microenterprise projects, they create social bonds that signficantly improve their family's economic situation.

The net benefit of SHGs is not just in the financial empowerment experienced by its mostly women members, but the social networks of empowerment and lasting bonds that they create for women in underserved areas.

The use case for our Self Help Group app is SHG facilitators who, through the digital platform, have access to a job aid for the functioning of SHGs and supportive supervision by a network of their peers.

SHG facilitators use the meeting guide as a job aide

Objective of the SHG Platform

With our early adapter partners, we built the Self Help Group app with the support of expert SHG facilitators and program coordinators.

The hypothesis was that a digital guide for SHG facilitators would help to scale the self help group model and raise the quality of the group's experience by providing the very best learning content to groups.

As the SHG facilitator uses our app to prepare meeting content and lead members through the basics of forming a thriving self help group, they grow their professional skills as social sector leaders in their communities.

 

 

Experiments in Collaboration

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proportional piling helped us visualize what indicators were the most important to capture in the app Early this month, we invited nearly 50 people to join us in Nairobi for a two day “Co-Creation Workshop” in order to help us determine development and partnership priorities for our Self Help Group Digital Platform.

This mobile app began as a simple directory of content, tailored to the cultural context and organizational needs of Tearfund in Ethiopia (who have great expertise with the program model). But we built for scale and our app is becoming a multi-lingual, content-rich digital platform capable of meeting the needs of a much wider partner ecosystem.

There are hundreds of millions of people around the world who participate in savings groups and self-help groups. And there are scores of organizations who devote time and money to founding and supporting these groups because of the transformational impact such groups have demonstrated in vulnerable communities.

There is a diverse and fast growing ecosystem of technologies being built for these groups, often focused on digital bookkeeping, mobile money transfers or enabling monitoring and evaluation protocols to provide transparency into group health and function.

We’re focused on providing a content-rich, field-tested volume of curricula specifically crafted for facilitators to use during group meetings, along with curricula that helps facilitators to develop their skills outside of the meeting context.

The organizations that joined us in Nairobi included large international organizations that are already household names, to smaller national NGOs that may be focused on spreading just a few hundred groups per year. A few donors, technologists and government organizations rounded out the field.

Nathaniel Calhoun leading a discussion on development priorities for the next version of the app

Different NGOs have different thematic priorities like improving conditions around water and sanitation, for example, or improving maternal and neonatal child health. They also run different varieties of group, for different durations and with different norms and expectations around interest and “pay-outs” or “graduation.” On top of that diversity, organizations operate in a variety of linguistic and cultural contexts.

When we received funding late last year, we made it clear that we’d need to gather together our potential partners in order to take direction from their needs and perspectives. That’s what this workshop was all about: bringing organizations together to look for areas of consensus that can determine where we invest and develop.

In advance of the workshop, there was trepidation among organizers and participants. After all, in other contexts, these organizations can emphasize their differences and their special ways of modifying the basic programmatic nugget: people saving small amounts of money together each week for their mutual benefit.

Although 90% of the people in the room focus many of their working hours on promoting and supporting self help or savings groups, when we asked people to raise their hands if they knew five or more people in the room, only a handful could do so.

We thought it would be helpful for these different organizations to learn about one another's (sometimes competing) priorities for (at least) two reasons: first, it will help our user community to understand that our development priorities are not set at random and that things which might not be immediately helpful within one organization’s context might be critical to another; second, we hoped to see priorities converge.

Our sessions focused on a few key areas:

* The front-end of the application—what you can see if you download the app from the play store (link)—which is what our facilitators and group members see;

* The back-end of the application—what you see if you have a password-protected coordinator login. Dashboards and panels that give you an indication of how your groups are functioning and what sort of data has been gathered from them.

* Different methods for monitoring and evaluating the groups, whether to validate the program model in general by surfacing increased resilience and prosperity, or whether to track aspects of the impact of our involving technologies in particular.

* What sort of thematic content is most urgent for these groups? What is most live-saving? What brings the greatest prosperity and health?

We assigned seating so that people from the same organizations and countries were rarely together and relied heavily upon table discussions to fill out worksheets that would then be presented to the larger group. We’re still chewing through roughly 150 pages of concrete and quality suggestions and perspective from the event.

And one of our favorite event innovations was to leave the last two and half hours relatively free on the second day, a Friday. We asked each organization to sit with one of our team members for 15 minutes at a pre-agreed time and provided a table of 15 minute time slots—all the rest of which were open. We encouraged participants, throughout the event, to make meetings with one another and to use those two and half hours to connect with one another.

But this was a Friday afternoon after the formal closing session of the event; so there was, understandably, some worry that people might pull a vanishing act. Instead, organizations sat together in all sorts of combinations even past the time we’d allotted for the meetings.

Having been at a ton of conferences that generate momentum and then end with some calls to collaborate afterwards, it felt great to move the “end” forward by a few hours and actually give that collaboration a chance to develop.

We’re grateful to all those who attended and to the Foundation support that it made it possible for us to hose this event. Stay tuned to hear what development priorities float to the top and which organizations join us soonest to continue improving upon this powerful open source tool for development.

Diverse partners implementing self help and savings groups came together to inform our app development process

PRESS RELEASE: Self Help Group Platform to be Further Developed as a Digital Financial Resource for the Poor

Self Help Group app in food insecure regions of Tanzania (www.codeinnovation.com) 11 November, 2016 – Code Innovation is pleased to announce that it has received a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to further develop our Self Help Group digital platform. The grant will help to improve the free and open source Self Help Group mobile application while increasing its accessibility and partner ecosystem, with an initial focus in reaching women and girls in South Asia and Africa.

“Self Help Groups have a unique ability to teach business and financial literacy and to seed new ventures while reducing risk to the individual,” says Nathaniel Calhoun, Director of Strategy at Code Innovation. “In the process of improving the platform, we anticipate growing our global coalition of participating organizations from the NGO community, the donor community and also from relevant private and financial sector entities. We aim to build momentum behind this coalition of beneficiaries and benefactors who see value in lowering the barriers to scaling and spreading the Self Help Group model to reach more women and girls. We look forward to developing this into a key platform for the low-risk, scalable and cost-effective delivery of digital and financial services to populations that have not previously benefited from financial services or digital technologies.”

Over the course of the 18-month grant, improvements will focus on building out tools that support Self Help Group processes, as well as incorporating additional thematic content around financial inclusion, women’s and girls’ empowerment, family planning, HIV and other risk reduction behaviors, maternal, newborn and child health, agricultural practices and other areas based on users’ expressed needs. Development priorities will be informed by the Principles for Digital Development and determined by our growing coalition of global partners who are seeding and supporting Self Help and similar groups in an effort to help vulnerable populations lift themselves out of poverty.

The platform, originally built as a simple content app for guiding Self Help Group facilitators through the process of forming new groups, has evolved to support wider facilitation needs. The Self Help Group app is currently reaching over one thousand English, Kiswahili and Amharic-speaking users, and new language versions will be added so that a wider range of communities can access and use the tool.

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To download the app on Android devices, visit: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.self_help_group_code_innovation_one_hen&hl=en

For more updates on the Self Help Group digital platform, visit http://codeinnovation.com/blog/.

About Code Innovation: Code Innovation digitizes and scales programs that help vulnerable populations. We create educational materials and social innovations that strengthen communities and enable them to lift themselves out of poverty. We’ve had projects in more than a dozen countries and specialize in challenging, low-resource environments.

For more information, please contact: Elie Calhoun, Director of Operations, Code Innovation, Tel. +64-27-460-8994, email: elie@codeinnovation.com

NZ Herald Interviews Code Founder on Tech Innovations

The New Zealand Herald interviewed Code Innovation Founder, Nathaniel Calhoun for a lengthy piece in the weekend's Business Section available here. The questions focused primarily on how New Zealand could exercise greater positive impact in the world via their citizenry, their business community and their approach to international development.

This country, in particular, is already leading in two particular regards: first with novel and trend-setting approaches to building the commons; and second, with regards to innovating on cooperative business models and the technological tools to support them. New Zealand granted legal personhood to a disputed natural area earlier this year.

This bold precedent has already drawn the attention of foreign governments who are seeking to learn more about NZ's approach. Meanwhile, the folks at Enspiral Collective in Wellington have been leading edge thinkers about the 21st Century Cooperative for several years. Their products like Loomio and Cobudget are sturdy, market-proven resources that change the way that people cooperate and collaborate.

Nathaniel Calhoun will elaborate on some of the points in this article at his opening address to the people gathered in Christchurch, New Zealand next week at the Singularity University Summit.

What the Data Tells Us About our Self Help Group App Community

Over the two and a half years that our Self Help Group (SHG) app has supported facilitators of this high-impact program model, we have seen our user community grow to almost one thousand users. As we look to the future to plan how to further improve the resource, we wanted to share and summarize how and where the app has been used to date.

The Self-Help Group app is a digital resource for facilitators who are actively learning facilitation skills and mobilizing and mentoring active SHGs. If you’re not familiar with the SHG model, we’ve summarized it briefly below before exploring what the data tells us about our community of users.

A Quick Introduction to Self Help Groups

Self-Help Groups are microsavings and microcredit groups who voluntarily come together, both for social support and to provide the group with savings and access to credit for their businesses or income-generating activities.

They usually comprise about 15 members who meet weekly, buying shares in a joint savings pool that grows substantially over time and is used to give business loans to members with interest. Members also typically pay into a social fund that is used to give emergency loans to members for personal reasons, interest free.

SHGs differ from another savings and credit group model called Volunteer Savings and Loan Associations (VSLAs), most significantly because the group stays together over many years and does not pay out the join savings pool, but rather allows it to accumulate into what can become sizable capital.

When we first started to digitize the SHG program model, we did so because we found this approach to social and economic empowerment to be among the most effective and long-term that we’d seen, both for individual members and the larger community.

Our Reach to Date

So far, thanks to the support of private donors and the UK Department for International Development (DfID), we have been able to introduce the SHG app to both Tearfund and World Vision International, for their SHG and their VSLA programs respectively. Although the app’s curriculum for groups follows the SHG, and not the VSLA, model, we have heard from VSLA facilitators that it remains an effective resource for facilitators.

To date, the community of SHG members whose groups are using the app numbers approximately 1,000, at around 75 installs for groups of about 15 members each, taking into account the devices that Code and our developers use for testing, and that prospective partners are exploring to see if the app is a good fit for their savings and credit group programs.

Between Phase 1 (Ethiopia only, 2014) and Phase 2 (Ethiopia and Tanzania, 2015-16), our user base has grown by a factor of ten. It is our goal in future iterations to double our community base, and a stretch goal to multiply our numbers by another factor of ten, in this case to reach 10,000 total SHG members. Our three to five-year goal is to reach one million SHG members with this resource, although clearly we have a long way to go to get there.

Our Geographical User Base of Supported and Unsupported Users

self help group app platform graph of installs by country
self help group app platform graph of installs by country

When we look at the data about where the app is being downloaded, we see something interested and unexpected for this stage of our app’s development. We are still in progress building and testing the app, and collaborating actively with our facilitators and user community as we do so, to co-design and truly create a useful product for our clients, i.e. SHG facilitators supported by organizations and governments all over the world.

Even though the app is not finished, we see that only 35% of our installs are from facilitators supported by partner organizations in Ethiopia and Tanzania. The rest of the installs are from groups or facilitators that are unsupported by our team directly, and we see from our administrative back-end that many of these installs are active, i.e. they are hosting groups with names, who meet regularly and move through the curriculum, and even answer our in-app evaluation questions to provide us with valuable member data.

This observation is particularly interesting because of 27% of our total installs come from unsupported groups in India, where the Self Help Group model originated and where the government has institutionalized the SHG model as an effective poverty alleviation strategy.

This remains unexpected and will be an interesting metric to track over the coming months and years. In future app versions, we hope to add a data field when new groups register that encourages them to provide contact information, so that we can learn more about what is happening.

Hardware Connectivity Challenges for Self Help Groups

self help group app platform graph of installs by app version
self help group app platform graph of installs by app version

We built the SHG app to be used without mobile data or wifi connectively, once the device has been installed and the language options selected by the user. In the areas where our facilitators work, the cost of data connectivity can be prohibitive, even when there is signal available – and usually, a data signal can be hard to find.

This poses a challenge when we release new versions of the app, because if facilitators cannot access the new version wirelessly by using their data – and most of them cannot, nor do we expect them to – a program coordinator is responsible for physically visiting the facilitators and installing an APK by hand onto their device from their laptop.

This is rather arduous and time consuming, so we attempt to limit new versions to only one per quarter, and to coordinate with our partners so that they are confident of how to perform and troubleshoot an APK install of the app onto multiple different devices.

About 50% of our installs are currently running the latest version of the SHG app, while approximately 35% of the rest are running quite recent versions that include notable user experience and user interface improvements from our initial app. This leaves approximately 15% of users who are likely running a very old version of the app that has not had an opportunity to connect to any network or update itself.

Whether this is because of connectivity issues or attributable to other things, we understand the importance of having facilitators use the most recent app version and of working with coordinators to ensure that they have an opportunity to update the app on their program hardware, whenever possible.

Hardware Availability where SHGs Operate

self help group app platform graph of installs by app device
self help group app platform graph of installs by app device

Another important area for us to focus what type of Android device is being used to access the app. The majority (62%) of our users are on unknown devices and less than 10% are using the program-provided Tecno tablets purchased locally in Ethiopia and Tanzania.

This is promising, as we chose to purchase hardware for partners who were eager to pilot the app within their program models as an incentive to reduce the risk of them joining our user community. However, we understand that providing hardware is neither sustainable nor advisable as we move from our initial pilot towards a more mature product and are already bridging away from this model.

Already, we have partners who do not rely on us to support the costs of hardware, but as we scale we anticipate potentially continuing to cover the cost of a small portion of devices upfront, as we have seen it reduces the risk for new communities who want to use the app as a digital resource but who do not yet have the wider organizational buy-in to pursue large-scale hardware purchases.

As smart phone penetration continues to increase, and we believe strongly that these trends will continue, we anticipate the need to purchase hardware for new partners to rapidly diminish. We have already observed that Android handsets, rather than tablets, are owned by a growing portion of SHG facilitators and even by some SHG members. In addition, to further decrease barriers to using the resource, we hope to make a feature phone-accessible version of the app for users who are on older and more affordable devices as well.

Mobile Network Operators Serving the Digital Self Help Group Community

self help group app platform graph of installs by app carrier
self help group app platform graph of installs by app carrier

Although almost half (44%) of our installs do not have carrier information to share with us, we can see the major East African mobile network operators (MNOs) are represented by our community: MTN, Safaricom and Airtel. At the moment, this data is not particularly useful, however, if we were to create a feature phone version of the SHG app and want to use shortcodes, knowing which MNOs are most accessed by our community in any given country would help us chose the correct carrier or carriers to partner with.

In Summary

We are at an important juncture in our SHG app project, and it’s important for us to share where our community is, what devices, networks and app versions they’re using, as this data can help us as we look to the future, where we hope to finish our app build and further grow our user community.

We hope that this overview has been useful to the ICT4D community and are eager to learn from others doing similar work and facing similar challenges. If you’d like to get in touch about using the SHG app in your programs, or you’d like to learn more about the project and our plans for the future, please get in touch by emailing info@codeinnovation.com.

Our Rape Crisis Counseling App is 100% Funded!

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Crowdfunding our Rape Crisis Counseling app for survivors of gender-based violence to receive emergency medical care (www.codeinnovation.com)

Code is happy to announce that our Rape Crisis Counseling app project is now 100% funded, thanks to support from the Imago Dei Fund after our crowdfunding campaign ended.

During the campaign, we saw support come from many sides and perspectives. We heard from colleagues that news had spread about the project from West Africa to Geneva, from the Philippines to Washington DC.

Rape Crisis Counseling App Social Media Update - Gloria Steinem posts about our project on Twitter (www.codeinnovation.com)One highlight of the campaign? When we received a Monday morning email from the "Office of Gloria Steinem," sharing that she would post a project endorsement on Twitter. This email was one of the most exciting that we received.

We're very proud to have the support of the important advocacy and research organization Report the Abuse, AWID and, since the campaign ended, we have also been joined by a national US sorority and several more women's rights and anti-violence organizations in sub-Saharan Africa.

Rape Crisis Counseling App Social Media Update - Gloria Steinem posts about our project on Twitter (www.codeinnovation.com)

Code created an extensive African-language mobile app, "About Ebola," with Snapp.cc, and we welcome partners who would like to see the basic content of the Rape Crisis Counseling app in their own languages.

Interested in joining us? Get in touch with me (elie@codeinnovation.com) to introduce yourself.

We are looking for women's rights organizations, anti-violence organizations and communities who would like to use our Rape Crisis Counseling app curriculum for training their own volunteers in crisis centers and health programs.

Also, we are designing the resource to provide in-hand support to rape survivors and their advocates, to help them navigate through the health system.

Next Step: Mobile Curriculum

Right now, the Code Innovation team is hard at work on a first version of our mobile app's content and curriculum. This is a big process, and we're taking our time to get primary training materials from partners including the Pittsburgh Action against Rape coalition, the Washington DC Rape Crisis Center and the Victim Assistance Training from the US Department of Justice.

Sign-up HERE for Updates on our progress!

Thank you for supporting the Rape Crisis Counseling app and spreading the word.

 

 

PRESS RELEASE: Global Partnership is Crowdfunding to Create Digital Resource for Volunteer Rape Crisis Counselors

Indonesia, 22 February 2016 –  Code Innovation is leading a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo to create a Rape Crisis Counseling mobile app to support rape survivors and their advocates as they access medical care anywhere in the world. “One in five women will be raped in her lifetime,” says Elie Calhoun, Director at Code Innovation. “Where rape crisis centers and their volunteer counselors exist, they provide a vital resource to survivors and their communities. But rape crisis counseling isn’t a luxury – it should be available to everyone who needs it, regardless of where they live. And anyone who wants to become a volunteer rape crisis counselor should be able to access the basic training they need to support survivors as they access critical health services.”

“DCRCC is pleased to be collaborating on this important global initiative,” says the DC Rape Crisis Center, the oldest rape crisis center in the U.S. “It is important that the International Community come together to not only address gender based-violence, but create resources and tools to enable self –determination and freedom for all. This mobile app does just that, it is a game changer for being able to educate and access resources for sexual assault survivors in a timely manner.”

The Rape Crisis Counseling app will digitize information and training for volunteer rape crisis counselors, who accompany and advocate for sexual assault survivors in emergency rooms as they access crucial medical services to prevent pregnancy, HIV and STIs. The app will also serve as an in-hand resource for family, friends or colleagues who accompany a rape survivor to the health center, and for survivors accessing medical care alone, to help navigate the medical system and to get the care they need to begin the journey to healing.

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To support the campaign, visit: https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/rape-crisis-counseling-app/x/3176191#/story

For updates, visit http://codeinnovation.com/blog/.

About the DC Rape Crisis Center

Since 1972, the DC Rape Crisis Center has been making a significant contribution to the health, economic, social and cultural well-being of society. Dedicated to creating a world free of sexual violence through conscience and action, DCRCC’s call to action obliges us to build the capacity to respond to survivors of sexual assault with compassion, dignity and respect, regardless of race, class, gender identity or expression, sexual orientation, immigration status, ability, age or religious affiliation.

About Code Innovation

Code Innovation digitizes and scales programs that help vulnerable populations. We create educational materials and social innovations that strengthen communities and enable them to lift themselves out of poverty. We've had projects in more than a dozen countries and specialize in challenging, low-resource environments.

For more information, please contact:

Elie Calhoun, Code Innovation, Tel. +62-812-3802-3425, email: elie@codeinnovation.com

PRESS RELEASE: Code Innovation Launches a Crowdfunding Campaign for Rape Crisis Counseling App to Help Survivors Get Medical Care

Crowdfunding our Rape Crisis Counseling app for survivors of gender-based violence to receive emergency medical care (www.codeinnovation.com)Indonesia, 14 February 2016 - To celebrate V-Day today, a global day of action to end violence against women, Code Innovation launched our Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign to build a Rape Crisis Counseling mobile app. The resource will digitize the training that rape crisis counselors receive to become volunteer emergency room advocates for sexual violence survivors. A coalition of U.S. rape crisis centers, gender-based violence experts and women's rights defenders and non-profits are partnering with Code to adapt and create the content so that it's relevant and applicable for the international community. A network of experts and non-profits eager to use the free, Creative Commons resource in their own communities are ready to translate the content into Arabic, Farsi, French and Spanish. One of the crowdfunding campaign's perks is to allow a supporter to determine which language we add next.

"One in five women will be raped in her lifetime. That's more than 700 million women and girls. We're launching the campaign on V-Day to join our efforts with the global day of action to end violence against women. The Rape Crisis Counseling app will put advocacy resources directly into the hands of rape survivors, their family and friends, and would-be volunteers. Anyone who wants to be of service to survivors of sexual violence should have access to the information and training resources they need, wherever they are in the world," says Elie Calhoun, a Principal at Code Innovation.

Since the 1970's, rape crisis centers have provided advocacy and support services to survivors of sexual violence in their local communities. These non-profits train networks of volunteers to become Rape Crisis Counselors, who accompany sexual violence survivors through the process of getting life-saving emergency medical care, including services to prevent pregnancy, HIV and sexually-transmitted infections.

"Even in industrialized countries with well-resourced hospitals, a rape survivor isn't guaranteed to receive the medical care they need," says Calhoun. "In any context, health care providers can let their cultural beliefs and personal opinions about rape and sexual violence interfere. Even in the U.S., there are numerous cases of doctors and nurses being unwilling to provide full emergency services. This is why Rape Crisis Counselors are so important.”

"In other countries, health systems may be under-resourced and health care providers may be unaware or unable to provide a survivor with the services they need. In those cases, it's up to the survivor and whoever accompanies her to the health center to understand and advocate for her needs. Right now, there's no mobile resource that helps them do that,” says Calhoun.

Smartphone ownership and adoption is growing rapidly around the world. According to GSMA Intelligence’s most recent Global Inclusion report, “an additional 1.6 billion citizens worldwide will become mobile internet users over the next six years, bringing the total number of 3.8 billion, or around half of the world’s expected population in 2020.”

"We see smartphones as an essential tool to empower rape survivors, their family and friends, and the wider community to help ensure that survivors get the emergency health care they need,” says Calhoun. “Even if just one person in a community is able to access the Rape Crisis Counseling app in their language, they can share about the resources and help to educate others."

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#rapecrisiscounseling

To support the campaign, visit: https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/rape-crisis-counseling-app/x/3176191#/story

For updates, visit: http://codeinnovation.com/blog/

About Code Innovation

Code Innovation digitizes and scales programs that help vulnerable populations. We create educational materials and social innovations that strengthen communities and enable them to lift themselves out of poverty. We've had projects in more than a dozen countries and specialize in challenging, low income environments. For more information about our work, visit http://www.codeinnovation.com.

For more information, please contact:

Elie Calhoun, Code Innovation, Tel. +62-812-3802-3425, email: elie@codeinnovation.com

 

Design for Scale vs. Bootstrapping: Reflections on Digital Development Principal #3 (Design for Scale)

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Tanzanian villagers with Self-Help Group facilitator and our savings and credit group Android mobile app (www.codeinnovation.com) We are eagerly anticipating the first time that Code Innovation receives the funding to design a technological tool that is optimized for scale from the moment of its official launch. Building for scale, as a fantasy, in my head, sounds something like this: We could incorporate a customized content management system that enables us to add new activities and modify our material painlessly in real time across a variety of languages. We could incorporate an unobtrusive yet unavoidable monitoring and evaluation protocol that feeds data into a back end that is easy to sort and clean, one that produces donor and media-relevant reports at the click of a button. We could bake in critical APKs for our social media strategy and optimize our design for the ten most common screen dimensions and the thirty most used Android devices—incorporating modular design elements to enable seamless re-branding that sweetens the deal for donors and partners hungry for visibility. We could have a big team, content gardeners, bug support in local languages . . .

Most of the innovations that we hear about in the ICT4D space do not enjoy circumstances like this. Instead, we are often bootstrapping minimum viable products through multiple too-brief program cycles each called a “pilot” phase—kicking down the road the choices about when to spend real money and hoping to transform our hacked together little tool into something robust and versatile enough to be picked up and used by the development community at large . . . and hoping, lastly, that this makes our code stylish and widespread enough to be maintained by the open source community out of love.

The Constraints of Scale with Limited Resources

Code Innovation is hitting an inflection point with one of our favorite projects that is forcing us to consider how to optimize our code for scale, but with highly limited resources. The project: an Android application that supports the facilitation of small groups that come together on a weekly basis, saving tiny sums of money, learning about businesses, starting businesses and then loaning to one another, thereby lifting one another out of poverty (take a peek at our free and open source Self-Help Group app here. Early versions of this application needed to function in Amharic and English. They needed to digitize about 70 pages of existing facilitator guides and meeting curricula and they needed to present these materials in an orderly, device-optimized way that technological novices could grasp after, at most, one quick training. Other requests piled on: social media component (sigh), interoperability with a pre-existing, ODK-based M&E app (gulp), report generating back end for funders and partners and so on and so forth.

But, at the beginning we had at most 30% of the money that it would cost to build a sufficiently rugged content app and it would mean contributing weeks of pro bono time to get our alpha version into the hands of vulnerable populations in Ethiopia. It didn’t feel like building for scale. It felt like proof of concept.

Then the usual thing happened: new partners came along with just enough money to add exactly what they want the most (a new language, perhaps, or some modules about disaster risk reduction); but not enough money to conduct a proper build. Not enough for us to build for scale. And sure, we apply a few times for large pots of Gates Foundation-type money, hoping to up-level our technology, to bring on new countries and hit our stride; but our reality continues to be bootstrapping from one version to the next, giving exceptional weight to the feature and content requests that come from whichever funder is willing to support our development next. There’s often a gentle tension between the requests of a short-term donor and the interests of our imagined, global, future customer base.

But suppose we have some promising leads? Suppose we allow ourselves to imagine building for scale just as a thought experiment? What would that look like? Or, more interestingly, what it would it look like if it were done in hefty stages rather than all at once? What if we had to prioritize the that would bring us to scale and scalability?

We admire all of the RapidSMS-based systems that our colleagues and friends have built and rolled-out through national ministries or with the paid-support of well-distributed program officers and we’re entirely aware of the benefits of short codes, dumb phones and standards. But our content and use case has driven us onto a more troublesome format (smartphones) and into an arena that is not as cut and dry or hierarchical and organized as Ministries of Health. In fact, the different partners who are most likely to adopt and scale our product do not agree about content or program models—quite apart from the fact that they often speak different languages.

So how do we articulate and prioritize the different investments into our content and technology that would help transform a narrow, bespoke application into a robust open source tool that is best in class?

Tanzanian women with Self-Help Group facilitator and our savings and credit group Android mobile app (www.codeinnovation.com)

Our primary considerations for taking an open source Android app to scale:

* Connectivity Management:

This isn’t a feature. It’s a constant high level development consideration until free Internet rains down from the heavens. Whenever we forget this variable, we open ourselves up to unnecessary failure. We need to ensure that our app respects the hyper-low and infrequent connectivity of our users by refusing to incorporate any commands or experiences that rely upon wifi or data signals. We must also anticipate database-device conflicts that result from infrequent connectivity, for instance groups naming themselves identically when offline that might become confused when they first connect. Building for low to zero connectivity is our primary constraint; it means we can’t rely on user logins or passwords, it complicates things and it makes it harder to use out-of-the-box chunks of open source code.

* Inbuilt Monitoring and Evaluation with administrative back end:

In early phases, it’s feasible to conduct monitoring and evaluation personally and to rely on Skype calls or emails as a fallback in case user information from the App is sparse or unreliable. But as we scale, our technology must gather and sort this information for us more dependably and we need to ensure that this information is visible and actionable for backend administrators who are not also our coders and developers.

* Support more Devices:

We will need to optimize our code for a growing number of devices and screen sizes. At first we could control what hardware was used with our product. But going to scale will mean the loss of this control and a bunch of design work will be required to keep content legible and navigation pathways obvious. We also have to set funds aside for keeping up with changes to the Android operating system. (For others operating in Africa, we’ve found that Tecno tablets are good for our purposes. They are widely available, robust and not big targets for theft. There are some quirks that make them a bit difficult to code for; but they’ve been hassle free in the field.) Sometimes affluent allies to our project bemoan the unavailability of our app on the Apple Store. The only justification we can see for coding this for iOS is that it might be useful for fundraising and visibility at some point when money is not an object.

* Social & Sharing:

Because we have partners who are committed to creating a social media component: we need to build out a way for groups to “share stories.” This will ultimately require an interface for reviewing, moderating and even editing the content that is uploaded to our system. (We also need to build out trainings for our end-users about the privacy considerations of sharing stories about themselves and their businesses.) We anticipate eventual requests for APKs with locally relevant social networks for cross-promoting stories and insights and can see the utility of this when begin to pursue unstructured growth amongst individual users.

* Solid Content Management System:

We will need a better content management system. Our current system was the cheapest and most familiar thing our developers could find; but it isn’t suitable for the use of our program officers because the interface requires use of html and is tiny and hard to search. Adding new languages and changing content should be easy enough in the future that relatively low-skilled, non-technical team members can do it. Our future CMS should also make it easy to change pop-ups, buttons and navigation prompts.

* Inbuilt bug Tracking:

Crash reports are great; but we need to adopt and move onto a formal issue-tracking system like Redmine and incorporate into the app some way for our users to let this system know when they encounter inclarities with content or problems with usability.

* Branching Curriculum:

Because we want to create one application that is sufficiently useful for a number of similar but different program models, we need to invest considerable time (and consensus building) into the maintenance of a one-size-fits all curriculum that will probably soon require a new user interface feature for when content branches. So, for example, the activities about supplying loans would have to branch to accommodate Islam’s prohibition of interest-charging or an activity about group milestones would have to split to address Volunteer Savings and Loans Association (VSLA) program models that pay-out from the communal kitty. The Self-Help Group model that inspired our work seems the most impactful of these initiatives and has drawn the attention and support of Melinda Gates. But it isn’t the most widespread model—in order to increase its reach, we’ll want to accommodate the needs and interests of closely aligned programs.

* New Content & Content Architecture:

We need to expand the scope and functionalities of our resources and supplementary materials. At the beginning it was fine to create a little directory of hard-to-see pdfs to satisfy an unanticipated partner request. But the quantity of high-quality material that we are now hosting deserves a whole ecosystem, complete with loads of new instructional language and the option for users to email themselves forms and templates that they find helpful.

* Finance Tracking:

Hovering in the future is the expectation that the app itself start to track the savings and money-usage of the groups, perhaps synching up with mobile money or sources of external capital. We’ve had good reason to postpone this so far; but it will be requested or required of us sooner or later. Here also we anticipate some healthy tension between a digital development principle six, which encourages us to use Open Data and principle eight which reminds us to address privacy and security concerns.

* Inbuilt Trainings:

To move away from conducting trainings during field visits, we should create some digital tutorials that help tech novices understand how to use the app—and these will have to be in a variety of languages, with a directory of audio files (optimally). From our point of view, the chief rationale for digitizing a successful development work initiative is to remove the cost of scale created by field visits, workshops and trainings. Where these Self-Help Groups are growing traditionally, organizations strain to raise funds for facilitators who require transport, accommodation, connectivity, benefits and so forth. So even though building dynamic trainings into an app can feel like an extravagance, it pales in comparison to the cost of field visits—especially from senior staff who command hefty day rates.

What We Have So Far

There’s more. But these represent some considerable investments of time and money. In an ideal scenario, we get a war chest and we build the seventh wonder of ICT4D in the next three months, our product wows our implementing partners who want it in the hands of ten thousand facilitators ASAP and program officers around the world begin inviting us to collaborate with their field workers.

But I suspect we’ll be juggling this list of priorities and I suspect we’ll be juggling them along with heavily-weighted surprise requests from partners that we can’t anticipate. For example, we’ll probably have to persuade a new partner that instead of paying us to adapt and incorporate new modules about their favorite Sustainable Development Goal, they should pay us to update our content management system. Or we’ll learn that they’re only interested in the possibility of upgrading our underlying code after they field-test a version of that has been slightly modified to include their urgent priorities. In such cases, the implementing organization may be building our app for scale within their ecosystem, even as, from a technical standpoint, they are encouraging us to make it less appropriate or robust for a wider, general scale up.

There are heuristics to help us make sensible decisions about what to develop when funds for tech improvement are scarce. Investing in structural or systemic modifications that facilitate additions of content and upgrades is better than making ad hoc additions and upgrades. From a programmatic standpoint, we need to prioritize helping our users with their primary duties before we create new ones for them (such as becoming story-tellers or youth journalists). We also must do what we can to assist with data gathering and monitoring and evaluation so as to capture, quantitatively, the results of our tinkering.

There’s often a slight tension with the Digital Development Principles, too, in the area of being collaborative. Because making the decisions that truly build a technology for scale can mean behaving inflexibly in the face of stakeholder and beneficiary requests. If we figure out any magic tricks, we’ll definitely let you know. Stay-tuned to our blog at Codeinnovation.com to follow the noble struggle between bootstrapping and building for scale!