capacity building

African Tech Hubs: eMobilis in Nairobi, Kenya

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computer teaching training a young woman at eMobilis technology institute in Nairobi, Kenya African tech hubs and innovations labs train the next generation of African leaders and entrepreneurs who will use technology to solve challenges faced by their countries and communities.

In order to help bridge their work and make connections between African tech leaders and Silicon Valley, where we spend the summer teaching at Singularity University’s Graduate Studies Program, we’re profiling a handful of African tech hubs and innovations labs.

In this ongoing series at Code Innovation, we’ll be asking tech leaders from across Africa how they work, what their business model looks like, what challenges they face and how those with capital and resources can support them.

Our intention is to encourage connections and collaboration between the African tech scene and Silicon Valley.

In our first interview in the African Tech Hubs series, we’re profiling Ken Mwenda, co-founder and Managing Director of eMobilis Technology Institute, based in Nairobi, Kenya.

Code: Hi Ken. Welcome to our interview series! Would you share a little bit about who you are and how you got started in technology?

Ken Mwenda: Hi. I’d be happy to. eMobilis is a software development training institution and incubation hub based in Nairobi, Kenya that has been in operation for the past five years.

We train youth and develop custom mobile applications for organizations both locally and globally – everything from e-learning mobile apps to business apps designed to streamline operations.

Our organization was founded at a time when Safaricom, the creator of Mpesa, overtook East African Breweries as the most profitable company in East Africa. That, and the entry of four new telecom companies into Kenya, marked the advent of a boom in the telecommunications sector and the dire need for more talent to avoid the rampant poaching of network engineers and mobile product developers.

When we opened our doors to students, we were the first of our kind in sub-Saharan Africa. It was necessary to pioneer this kind of training to respond to digital opportunities in a focused way, as no other colleges or universities were doing so at the time. From courses on network infrastructure, GSM, the evolution of 3G and radio propagation, we then progressed to launch programs on Java, PHP, mySQL, HTML5, Android and Windows Phone. As the industry evolved, it become clear that there were also phenomenal freelance and entrepreneurship opportunities presented in the exploding mobile software development space, as a result of global app stores and the low barriers of entry for developers with a globally appealing software product.

eMobilis is accredited through the Government of Kenya and has trained over 2,200 students to date, 65% of these on scholarships funded through industry collaborations.

Our vision is to empower local youth to tap into the myriad opportunities that the mobile and software development industry offers so that they can innovate, create and improve their situation in life through use of digital tools.

student learning mobile programming at emobilis mobie technology institute in Nairobi, Kenya

Code: How did your organization get founded and how is it being run now?

Ken: eMobilis was founded by 3 directors who pooled together capital and resources from personal savings. We set up in an area known as Westlands within Nairobi’s core and now have 3 fully-equipped labs and an incubation room. Each of the three labs has a capacity of 30 students at any given time and part of our commitment to students is to offer high-speed internet, high performance PC’s and a conducive environment for learning that includes test devices and a test server.

It took us one and a half years to get government accreditation through the local Ministry of Education, Science and Technology. This rigorous process vetted our teaching staff, and included inspecting our premises and also scrutinizing the curriculum.

Typical courses run between 1 month and 3 months and all require creation of a mobile app as part of the hands-on methodology. We expose students to the publishing process and give them some ideas on how to monetize their skills.

We also offer off-site Boot Camps and have partnered with top universities in Kenya to conduct certain trainings at their campuses. Over the years, we have worked with the University of Nairobi, JKUAT and Africa Nazarene to train their students in mobile programming.

eMobilis has been engaged by both Google and Microsoft (Nokia) to conduct specialized training programs. In the case of Google, it involved a series of workshops to assist small and medium sized businesses to set up their own websites using the GKBO (Getting Kenyan Businesses Online) tool.

Our software development division is 2 years old and sprung from the numerous requests we were getting from companies that wanted a specific, custom mobile app created and the whole project managed by a vendor. Having expertise and a reasonable amount of experience and accumulated research on mobile apps, we ventured into creating apps for companies on contract.

Code: What is your business model?

Ken: Our business model is multi-pronged. We run some programs where students pay full tuition while other programs are on full scholarship.

For instance, in the mlab East Africa program, where the mandate was to grow and develop the mobile technology ecosystem, the best and brightest students were shortlisted competitively and given full scholarships for a 4-month training program. Many have gone on to form start-ups, some work on a freelance basis and another 60% have been absorbed into employment by banks, IT companies, small businesses and multinationals, typically in their IT departments. Funding from Infodev, a division of the World Bank, enabled us to offer full, merit based scholarships at the mlab facility with our lecturers and curriculum.

eMobilis is also a co-founder of mlab East Africa, a World Bank initiative consisting of 5 regional mobile laboratories around the world tasked with incubating start-ups, hosting a major developer pitching conference, training, mentoring start-ups and supporting the growth of the mobile tech ecosystem. The consortium hosting the lab consists of iHub, University of Nairobi and eMobilis.

We seek out partnerships with corporations to offer custom tailored programs. One such partnership was with Nokia before they were bought out by Microsoft. Their goal was to promote local content on their devices through relevant and exciting mobile applications that helped them sell more phones. Nokia would fully fund a program for students that helped up-skill and expose strong developers who create useful and appealing mobile applications.

We have partnered with organizations such as Google, Microsoft, Safaricom, Salesforce and KEMRI to offer youth trainings on Android, website development through HTML5, Windows Phone and USSD mobile software development programs.

On the software development division, we have worked with different international organizations including Code Innovation and One Hen Inc. to develop a ground-breaking, multilingual mobile app that enables facilitators of Self Help Groups in Ethiopia and Tanzania to effectively learn and manage groups through mobile tools, resources and the app’s user-friendly interface.

Our model is also to seek out partnerships to create amazing apps for private as well as for non-profit organizations that want to leverage the power of mobile and to extend their reach and effectiveness with their customers or constituents.

computer lab at emobilis mobie technology institute in Nairobi, Kenya

Code: Do you work in open source? What is your experience with the open source community?

Ken: We do. When we run programs on Android, HTML5, and others we build on curriculum and resources openly available through the open source community. We also direct our students to developer forums and communities so that they can contribute and also further their research as they code.

We consider the open source community an amazing place to share ideas and learn best practices from each other.

Code: What has been most challenging?

Ken: There are numerous challenges, many of them that come with the territory when you decide to pioneer a concept as novel as mobile software development training in Africa. Code schools and academies are still fairly uncommon. In the early days there was very low awareness on this area of training. Traditional education and institutions did not teach mobile software development and so we had to spend heavily on marketing and awareness building so that potential students could get excited about the opportunities afforded by the mobile space and how they could learn through us.

As a start-up, we had cash flow issues and lack of bank financing as software related businesses in Kenya typically do not qualify for bank loans and are considered high risk. Expenses spanning rent, salaries, quality equipment and marketing proved quite high as we raced to ramp up and attract solid student numbers to cover operating costs.

Being in the Education sector, we also needed to get accredited by the Government and that took a great deal of time and effort to help the Quality Assurance department at the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology understand our curriculum, process and the outcomes of the training. This was long and rigorous but important to us since as an organization, we wanted to be compliant and to be able to assure parents and students about the quality and value of what we offer.

Additionally, there was the challenge of both finding highly qualified and passionate lecturers who understood this relatively new field, had developed their own apps and could communicate effectively to train students and motivate them as developers.

Another challenge to contend with is adapting to the rapidly changing technology landscape where technology companies fold, new programming languages emerge, standards compete, equipment becomes obsolete and staying on top of all this to remain relevant is not entirely painless.

graduating students at emobilis mobie technology institute in Nairobi, Kenya

Code: What are your organization’s specific areas of expertise?

Ken: Software development training – Android, Salesforce, HTML5 and so forth, youth capacity building, and mobile software development for private firms and non-profits.

Code: What are the issues or problems that you care most about?

Ken: Solving the unacceptably high rate of unemployment in Kenya, which stands at 40%; ensuring that globalization does not leave our youth behind as the world rapidly goes digital and we lose out on opportunities for work; facilitating creativity and unleashing the potential of our youth to innovate; establishing Kenya as a hub of excellence for software development globally and to ensure we train top-notch talent; building the tech ecosystem, including attracting venture capitalists to invest in African start-ups to solve the funding issue and to provide mentorship; and growing as an organization and escalating our impact.

Code: What projects are you most excited to be working on?

Ken: Mobile software development projects with partners who can pilot, who have the reach and ability to roll out our mobile apps across Africa and have the desire to collaborate with us to iterate and grow together on various projects with proven social impact potential.

Code: What are your plans for the next few years and what sort of help do you need to achieve them?

Ken: To open 4 more centers with fully equipped labs across Kenya, form 10 key partnerships with mobile value added services companies, hire 2 dedicated staff for business development and to secure software projects, expand the range of programs and courses that we offer as technology evolves, work on 8 innovative and meaningful mobile app projects by Dec 2016, secure a $70,000 grant to allow us to offer scholarships to approximately 100 bright youth from East Africa over the next 12 months, and hire for an Alumni and Jobs Manager to strengthen our job placement office.

Code: What companies or organizations would do you most like to be connected to and why?

Ken: We would like to be connected to organizations that fund scholarships and those that want to outsource software development work and are willing to form a partnership either for knowledge transfer or collaborative social impact projects. We would also like to connect to Singularity, Stanford and MIT for exchange programs and teaching partnerships.

Code: This has been great, Ken. Thanks for the interview! How can people get in touch with you?

Ken: Karibu! They can visit our website, like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, or get in touch with me directly by email at ken@emobilis.org.

Global Gardener: Mobile Learning for Food Security

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Global Gardener mobile learning for food security (www.codeinnovation.com) In the context of food production and the world’s poor, it can seem like the data and the money are moving in two very different directions. Even as a steady stream of reports conclude that empowering small scale farmers with the skills to produce food sustainably is essential to poverty alleviation in Africa, technology for agriculture interventions designed for large, industrial farmers and cash crops seem to soak up all the money.

The glitzy, future-tech of hands-free and vertical farming needs no assistance to develop—enthusiasm for this sort of tech is frothy and the market is full of incentives and funds to support it. Poor farmers in vulnerable communities, meanwhile, need assistance immediately and they need it optimized for their real world circumstances.

We’re currently building a coalition of knowledge partners, technologists and implementing partners to create an open source mobile application that can help to spread agro-ecological design practices where they are most needed. We want to help farmers to visualize the medium and long term implications of different strategies and interventions on their land and then to connect them to a supportive community of practice that can guide them through the implementation of whatever strategies they select.

By making careful use of the data that we collect through this undertaking, we intend to build algorithms that can help to provide free, real-time guidance for farmers, taking into account all of the subtleties of their growing circumstances and their economic situation. Ultimately, this means putting artificial intelligence at the service of small scale food producers, helping them figure out the free (or lowest cost) interventions for strengthening the resilience, diversity and nutritional prospects of the land at their disposal. But for now, we just need to connect the agro-ecological designers, permaculture specialists, water and sanitation experts and related mentors with the fast expanding demographic of the rural poor, newly connected to cellular coverage and using basic, low cost smartphones.

Naturally, we understand that this needs to be designed along with the food producers that we are targeting and we will follow the ICT4D Principles that have come from our experience and that of our colleagues.

If you’re interested in joining up or helping out, please feel free to email us at info@codeinnovation.com.

Debating the Future of Education on Singularity Hub

At the end of 2015, I contributed an article to the Singularity Hub that spurred a provocative and sustained debate about the role of technological education. While some organizations and politicians have recently suggested that programming (of computer code) should be taught to everybody, I argued that there are many circumstances in which this is a poor idea. It's encouraging that so many people are thinking critically about how to re-imagine education and we hope that the particular needs of vulnerable populations are given particular weight.

Check out the article here: http://singularityhub.com/2014/12/28/future-of-work-part-ii-why-teaching-everyone-to-code-is-delusional/

Workforce Development and Mobile Learning: Our Dakar Survey

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Reports about global poverty often start with grim statistics about youth unemployment. While such statistics routinely fail to capture the mitigating influence of the informal economy, the fact remains that young people in developing countries struggle to find stable employment—let alone employment that actually interests them personally.

For decades, educational institutions have shown themselves rather unimaginative when it comes to workforce development and career education: Career Day, anyone? Most people learn about jobs from their friends, their family members and, if they’re lucky, from their employers. In developing countries, where many young people work (if at all) as petty merchants or manual laborers, the particular culture of the office workplace—as dominated by western-educated management level employees—can seem completely inscrutable, if not downright unwelcoming.

Code Innovation is committed to decoding the norms and expectations of the workplace for the aspiring young would-be-professionals who currently fill the ranks of the world’s unemployed. We are keen to leverage mobile technologies to help prepare young people to surmount the barriers to entry level positions in organizations and enterprises that will allow them to grow and become more prosperous.

For years now, we've been thinking about and working on workforce development with at-risk and low-income youth. A few years ago, we started a youth workforce survey in and around Dakar, Senegal. We had the guidance of a Peace Corps Volunteer who was working with us for the year, and the almost full-time attention of our young Senegalese assistant. From the survey, we learned a great deal about youth, mobile education and workforce development and we are excited to inform our new projects with the perspective that these findings gave us (more on that in the future).

We found that doing firsthand market research in our African, urban context provided rich data for decision-making around our innovations and education work. We hope that others can use this write-up of how we put together our survey useful in their own technology for education work.

About the Survey

We sought to interview 2,000 young people in and around Dakar about their use of technology in preparing for and finding a job. Because of confusion about interview responses that could've been solved with closer supervision, we ended up with 500 interviews in French from university and vocational students, out-of-work youth and entry-level professionals. We surveyed both men and women from around West Africa who are living, working or studying in and around the greater Dakar metropolitan area.

Our research assistant asked each survey respondent 35 questions. Some of the questions were open-ended, but the majority were yes/no answers. Because we hadn't codified "prefer not to answer" and "don't know/haven't thought about it," we found our data wasn't as rich as we had wanted it to be.

All the same, we shared our data sets with our research partners at a U.S. business university in the northeast of the country, where PhD students are running independent analysis. We'll publish what we found in the future, but for now, we want to tell the story of the survey. We hope that others hear our story and decide to use this stakeholder analysis method too.

How We Did Our Youth Workforce Development and Mobile Learning Survey in Senegal:

1. We had a compelling reason for young people to participate.

When our research assistant was still very new to his job, he felt shy approaching and interviewing respondents because he was not telling them what we were doing and why it was important to them.

This is a classic case of the "features vs. benefits" sales mistake that goes something like this. Our research assistant would approach a young person in the late afternoon outside the university and tell them about our survey. "It was 35 questions and I'm from Code Innovation, a local tech company," he would say. "Can I interview you?" Most people would look at him blankly and, when learning that they weren't going to be compensated directly in any way, say no. This happened a lot and he began to get discouraged. Our assistant was focused on the "features" of the thing he was doing, in other words, what it was and how it worked.

When we began to work with him on the "why" of the story, people started to respond. By focusing on the benefits to them, people had a clear reason to say "yes" and get involved.

"Hi," our assistant would say, usually in Wolof, before asking the questions in French, "I'm working with a company that is building a free mobile app to help young people get a job. Would you answer some questions to help us with our project?"

The clearer our assistant was about communicating that benefit to respondents, the better things went.

2. What kind of data did we need to build our product?

Our idea for this survey was based on an observable and measurable need. As African economies and African cities grow over the next decades, young people need to know how to identify jobs that suit them and get the skills they need to negotiate their careers.

In our other start-up businesses, we'd seen the skill gap between where we wanted our new hires to be and where they actually were. The first few months of any new project would involve extensive step-by-step training and norming around professional and organization culture. This isn't something that's taught in career workshops, university or secondary school, but as an employer in Africa, it's a big 'X' factor in building a team and hiring.

We wanted to solve for it with an app that taught young African professionals how to enter the workplace and negotiate their careers.

3. What were we trying to build in the first place?

When we started the survey in 2012, most of Code's experience was in computer and Internet projects around e-mentoring and e-learning with at-risk and low-income secondary students around the world. We did not have experience building mobile apps, but we saw their potential for our demographic of young, urban, educated Africans.

We wanted to get enough data to know the following:

1) How were young people already using technology in their searches and along their career paths?

2) Were their strategies working or not working in terms of moving them towards their career goals?

4. What did the survey look like?

You can see a copy of the survey we used here in English and here in French. We had our Peace Corps Volunteer with a background in social science develop the questions with us, and train our research assistant in his first round of interviews.

What We Learned from Doing the Survey on Youth and Mobile Workforce Development:

1. This was easier to do than we thought and provided a good way of getting data for decision-making before we developed our project.

2. We didn't need as many respondents as we thought. Even though we only surveyed a quarter of the people we initially thought we would, we still had more than enough data for our analysis. In retrospect, we could've stopped at around 100, as long as those respondents were exactly within the required demographic and gender-balanced.

3. Inviting U.S. research universities to do our data analysis took the work off our hands and made our analysis verifiably independent. Also, we like to think that it was interesting for the students involved to learn a bit about African research contexts. We found the partnership to be very rewarding and highly recommend that other teams like us reach out to and work more closely with universities.

Thanks for reading this far! If you're interested in learning more about this, please feel free to get in touch (info@codeinnovation.com). We love to have conversations about technology for education and with others building in the African tech space.

Attention: We Want to Mentor Teachers

African teachers need mentoring and support to transform and disrupt old paradigms of education (www.codeinnovation.omc)While it is praise-worthy to provide young people with mentoring experiences, the quantity of young people in need is staggering. Bringing professional mentoring to teachers offers a way to impact hundreds of young people with each mentoring relationship. Practitioners of education innovations have repeatedly found that targeting teachers with innovations is a higher impact strategy than engaging with young learners directly. When CODE first decided to explore ways of bringing mentoring opportunities to teachers, we started by exploring the availability and willingness of qualified mentors. We reached out to associations of Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) teachers—especially those already experienced in educating in different countries and cultures. In short order we were able to drum up scores of volunteers willing to commit at least an academic year’s worth of digital mentoring.

The idea is to pair these experienced educators with younger and less experienced teachers (within their same fields) and then to structure an interchange between the senior and the junior teachers over an academic year with a focus on teaching methodologies more than content. Mentors would be trained to share their experience and resources relevant to teamwork, games, community engagement, immersive learning and activities designed to bolster critical thinking. Mentees (or protégées) could be in routine feedback with the pilot facilitator’s to help improve content and focus.

We spent a few months engaging with education sections at various large development organizations, receiving plenty of encouragement and interest; but little actionable commitment. To build a reasonably secure and open source environment to support these interactions would be a relatively easy process. With the mentors and the environment taken care, Mentor Teach requires a partner with field access to a body of educators (or to a teacher training college/facility) and the leverage necessary to extract meaningful commitment to a pilot project of this variety.

If anyone is interested in moving forward with a project of this variety, please let us know. We’re happy to share the documents that we’ve put together in explanation of this approach and we’re happy to support any team that is willing to put in the work to realize this vision.

Notes from TechCamp Dakar

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Last week I had the good fortune to attend TechCamp Dakar, the first of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's "Civil Society 2.0" initiatives to be held on the continent. The two-day gathering focused on mobile technologies in agriculture. Given the recurring food crises in the Sahel, examining how Senegalese NGOs can leverage technology for better programming, advocacy and coordination was a good one and over 50 organizations working in agriculture were in attendance, supported by local technology leaders, including us. Check out some of the photos here.

Here's a look at the technologies presented and a few of the applications the NGOs found for those technologies in their agricultural programming:

  • Social media: Marieme Jamme of SpotOne Global Solutions and Apps4Africa presented on the importance of using social media to gain visibility, credibility and funding. She compared social media to the traditional African "arbre a palabre," or palaver tree, to remind participants that the concept of sharing and debating about issues is a familiar one. Some participants later created a Facebook group "L'arbre à palabre des acteurs agricole du Sénégal" to better reach local agriculturalists and include them in online discussion.
  • Community mapping: Open Street Map was in attendance, showing participants the usefulness of visualizing data when planning a program or community outreach. I later participated in a small group session that sought to apply Open Street Maps to community water management of drylands areas.
  • Group networking sites: MeetUp was in attendance, although their paid service model received less enthusiastic support from Senegalese who weren't likely to have a credit card set up to create a group online. At Code Innovation, we like free and open source group networking sites like Crabgrass, as they provide the fewest barriers to entry.
  • Low-cost video: FHI 360 presented a strong case for the ease of use and scalability of low-cost video as a training and communication technology alongside the more traditional agricultural extension agents, field days and demonstration plots. FHI 360 brought along several relatively low-cost cameras and a USB-chargeable mini pico projector for video screenings. Many NGOs saw the potential for low-cost video to aid their agricultural trainings, especially in communicating about new methods and creating the motivation to try them.
  • Mobile money: A private sector organization, E-Amarante, presented Mobile Cash, a local interpretation of the East African service MPesa that's still in development. Although the system is interoperable across mobile networks, participants baulked at the 3-5% fees levied on mobile transfers and transactions. All the same, mobile money has a bright future on the continent, and the leading mobile network operators here in Senegal already have their own programs and versions--with a similar fee structure.
  • SMS: FrontlineSMS was in attendance with a simple demo of how SMS could be used for data collection and crowdsourcing, and showed briefly how to link the system with Ushahidi for data visualization on a map. In my small group, participants saw the relevance for communicating within agricultural cooperatives and about market prices, but would likely need some technical support to set up the system.
  • Google Apps: Presented by People Input, the Google Suite of programs were well presented and enthusiastically received. File-sharing and keeping easily accessible versions of current documents seemed to be major coordination challenges for the NGOs present, and most of the larger group work focused on integrating Google Apps tools into communications protocols to make partnering and information sharing more effective.
  • Mobile phone market information: Africa Market Price, another project by E-Amarante, seeks to communicate local market prices to rural farmers by SMS, as similar projects across the continent have done.
  • Webcasting: CarRapide TV presented its YouTube channel of citizen reporting and spoke about the benefits of web broadcasting to reach large audiences of agricultural producers.

After they'd had a chance to learn about specific technologies more in-depth, participants worked together in small groups to brainstorm major problems they encounter in their day-to-day work, and then examined how a selected technology could help them meet those challenges. There was intense work in small groups around issues including managing water, communicating market prices, and inter-organizational collaboration. As a final exercise, small groups were tasked with creating next steps on how to work together to put these technological tools into practice. The results will be shared internally on the TechCamp Dakar Facebook group and on the public TechCamp Dakar wiki.

One of the best parts of TechCamp, for me, was seeing how focused the NGOs were on solving their challenges through technology together. For many of them, technology was a tool that enabled wider partnership and clearer, more precise communication around their program objectives. They were keenly focused on problem-solving and highly motivated to work together. It will be interesting to see how collaboration continues now that the intensity of TechCamp has passed.

It was also great to meet fellow technology people working in Senegal, including Karim Sy of JokkoLabs in Dakar and the team from Bantalabs up in St. Louis, who have programming expertise and can help to put teams together.

Here at Code Innovation, we're interested in what happens after TechCamp Dakar, particularly if and how NGOs will incorporate these new mobile technologies into their programming, where and why they succeed, and where and why they run into hurdles. We'll be spending time on the Facebook group checking in on their progress and seeing where we can lend a hand.

Teach Yourself mHealth, Part 3

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This post is the third part of a three-part series, 'Teach Yourself mHealth.' In Part 1, we focused on what mHealth is and what mHealth projects look like. In Part 2, we mapped out exactly how mHealth can strengthen communities and information systems, step-by-step. In this post, we'll explore some common design challenges in mHealth projects and review the best online resources for bringing your mHealth knowledge up to speed.

Now that you're familiar with some mHealth basics, it's worth looking closer at what we've learned about how to implement solid, scalable and sustainable mHealth systems. One benefit of the myriad mHealth pilots that are out there is a wealth of lessons learned on everything from project design to better monitoring and evaluation. Many of these challenges exist for other, less technology-focused aid projects as well, of course, but they're nonetheless a good reminder of where to pay special attention.

Design Hurdles in mHealth Projects

The following summary of design hurdles that mHealth projects commonly face is assembled from lessons learned from my own research and interviews. This is by no means a comprehensive list, merely some interesting things to think about if you're considering adding an mHealth component to your international health work.

1. Human-centered design: Designing with people in mind puts the service back into development work. mHealth systems improve communications and information systems when they meet a need better than traditional systems. To meet this need, a thorough understanding of the problem you're trying to solve and the multidimensional context it exists within is essential. Testing and improving ideas and designs with the stakeholders you're trying to serve ensures that their needs are more adequately met by your project, and that means a better and more sustainable system

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2. Interoperability: Customizing and deploying an mHealth platform that interoperates with the Ministry of Health's electronic information system is key to avoiding parallel information systems that can duplicate work and deplete motivation. For example, current iterations of RapidSMS can be customized to interoperate with DHIS2, the open source health information system used by many government ministries throughout Africa.

Creating standalone platforms is often unnecessary and can get especially confusing in a Ministry running multiple mHealth projects. Ensuring interoperability from the start means your SMS platform can be more easily scaled and will likely have an easier time getting Ministry and staff buy-in. After all, your system needs to be useful to the stakeholders that the project is for, otherwise, what's the point? If you're using SMS for health behavior change communications, interoperability may be less important.

3. M&E: Many mHealth projects have been

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criticized for not developing a solid monitoring and evaluation framework to collect baseline and project data and accurately report on project effectiveness. Don't let this happen to you.

4. Map the tech4dev and telecommunications landscape: Any good project idea starts with a solid understanding of the current landscape and technology projects are no different. Before you start sketching out your mHealth idea, it's a good idea to map the landscape of your country and region for other mHealth projects, which could be using software platforms that you can piggyback on. Who else is working in your region? What have they found challenging? Reaching out to colleagues creates an atmosphere of shared collaboration and healthy competition, plus the benefit of shared lessons learned.

The same goes for understanding the mobile phone and telecommunications infrastructure in your country. What does cell phone ownership look like in your country? Is there anywhere where the signal is unreliable? Who are the main mobile network operators? Have they previously partnered on any mHealth projects? Understanding the landscape lets you know what your options and constraints are, so you can proceed with clarity.

5. Sustainability: mHealth systems can

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be extremely cost effective, but implementation costs for SMS air time, server maintenance, and other needs can add up in the long term, especially as the program reaches a national scale. Taking these costs into consideration

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early on will encourage you to design a system that is self-sustaining. The importance of including Ministry of Health and other Ministries' staff from the very start was discussed in my previous post, but suffice to say that their level of ownership over the project is directly related to the system's likelihood of long-term success.

Developing mHealth Expertise

If you'd like to

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programs and projects, check out the links to documents and mHealth communities of practice below. mHealth, like all technology for development innovations, is a field that's changing rapidly. For those of us who want to further develop mHealth expertise, subscribing to regular email updates with the latest research findings and new projects is very useful. So are posting questions and design challenges you're facing on mHealth forums online, where an experienced community of practice is often very willing to offer guidance by sharing their own experiences.

For those eager to incorporate mHealth into their international health work, I recommend two online documents that summarize best practices to date and lessons learned. Both can be read in about an hour and offer pragmatic, no-nonsense guidance on the ins and outs of mHealth programming and implementation.

The first is "How to RapidSMS", written by a friend and former UNICEF colleague, Evan Wheeler. RapidSMS is a customizable mHealth platform that requires technical programming skills to install, but this how-to document is a great primer on the basics of a good mHealth project. The review of different SMS shortcode options offered by mobile network providers is especially helpful for thinking about how to best set up a scalable and financially sustainable system.

The second resource is a white paper written by Jeannine Lemaire for Advanced Development for Africa, "Scaling Up Mobile Health: Elements Necessary for the Successful Scale Up of mHealth in Developing Countries." Lemaire interviewed leading mHealth experts to mine their knowledge and experiences for a concise and thoroughly-researched list of best practices and programmatic, operational, policy and strategic recommendations. This might take you a bit longer than an hour, but is well worth the read.

As with learning any new thing, you're bound to have questions, especially technical ones. In that case, it can be helpful to reach out to a community of mHealth practitioners on one of the many mHealth forums online. I've found that RapidSMS and FrontlineSMS have particularly active communities.

Of course, the best way to teach yourself mHealth is to do it. Design, set up and implement a simple SMS-based project to apply what you've learned, and see what happens.

Teach Yourself mHealth, Part 2

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This post is the second of a three-part series, 'Teach Yourself mHealth.' In the first post, we focused on what mHealth is and what mHealth projects look like. In this post, we'll map how mHealth can strengthen information systems to build better health services, step-by-step. In Part 3, we'll explore some common design challenges in mHealth projects and review the best online resources for bringing your mHealth knowledge up

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to speed.

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We'll focus particularly on how an mHealth information system works on a detailed and practical level. Of course, SMS can improve other health services and plays an active role in communications for behavior change. My interest lies in systems strengthening, particularly in resource-poor settings, so that is the mHealth example I'll choose to focus on here.

 

mHealth Data: How It Works

Information for decision-making can be divided into two main categories: quantitative, to do with numbers, and qualitative, to do with language. Quantitative data, in public health and most social sciences, involves getting the results of random clinical trials or demographic surveys,

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or perhaps the routine information systems that Ministries of Health use to assess their population's disease burden. Qualitative data involves someone telling a story. For example, what does your new community health worker think about her level of supervision by the District Health Team?

By SMS, mHealth coordinators can gather both types of data, quantitative and

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qualitative. For the purposes of national level public health decision-making, numbers are a much easier information source to scale. In the example of outbreak early warning systems, a simple text message can specify the number of deaths, location and suspected diagnosis of a priority disease under surveillance, alerting District Health teams and central level Ministry staff to the need to respond.

Such a system's mHealth information system could look like this:

Of course, whenever gathering and analyzing data is involved, things can get complicated. As with any health information system, we need to identify exactly what we want to know, and trim off extraneous steps to simplify data reporting protocols as much as possible. Smart phones running mHealth apps can lead health facility staff through step-by-step reporting in greater detail than basic mobile phones (though they may be more vulnerable to theft and rough treatment).

 

Isolating Variables

During one of my consultancies, I had the opportunity to interview Dr. Theo Lippeveld, President of the Routine Health Information Network, who quite literally wrote the textbook on the Design and Implementation of Health Information Systems. I was a bit star-struck during the interview, but I remember his emphasis on "data for decision-making".

mHealth projects interface

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directly with health information systems to strengthen the flow of accurate information for improved decision-making. To present information effectively, they must be as simple as possible for the health facility, for the team sending the information, and for the Ministry of Health decision-makers to analyze and take action on.

Breaking down a system to look in detail at the part each reporter and each variable plays helps us identify where systems can be simplified and where the most important information can be prioritized. For example, if I want to use an mHealth SMS platform to gather real-time information about coverage for routine immunization, I will want to identify who will be sending and analyzing what kind of data, when they will

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send it and how it will be received--and ideally, I want to know why:

 

Sending data by SMS is important to keep simple and to the point. At the level of Ministry decision-makers, however, there is a bit more room for visual interpretation.

 

Visualizing Data

When displaying quantitative information and communicating about numbers at scale, design becomes important. In the international development world, many tools use crowd-sourced information and mapping to create real-time displays that shape emergency response (as in the case of Ushahidi in Haiti). In public health, we are used to seeing demographic data on maps and graphs.

The SMS platform (the one that ideally interfaces with

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the Ministry's electronic information system, complementing rather than duplicating the flow of data) selected for an mHealth project will often interpret that data graphically for easier analysis, enabling decision-makers to manipulate and customize the system to tell them exactly what they need to know. I'm currently reading 'The Visual Display of Quantitative Information' by Edward Tufte, who shows a lot of interesting historical examples of how large data sets can be creatively and meaningfully portrayed.

 

mHealth Applications for Developing Country Health Systems

As we see with each new post about an mHealth project in the developing world, using mobile systems to improve information flow can play a large role in systems strengthening. Routine reporting can be distilled into a text message that communicates priority data to government decision-makers. Qualitative information gathering through polls and SMS or radio outreach provides health campaigns with data to develop better communications for behavior change.

In the next post, we'll explore some common challenges that mHealth projects face and review the best online resources for keeping your new mHealth knowledge up to speed.

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Growing the innovations community in West Africa

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I have roots in Kenya, and have watched with pride and admiration the growth of the East African tech community from this side of the continent. I’m obsessed with mPesa, love that Ushahidi has long gone global, and am stalking UNICEF Uganda’s tech4dev projects—to name just a few.

CODE has been working in West Africa since 2007, recruiting locally for our teams as much as possible. Often, local tech talent has been hard to find. Thanks to iLab Liberia and others who are growing it from the ground up, in a few years we hope to have a talented pool of developers in every country we work in.

Jon Gosier’s recent post on AppAfrica, The Lucrative Skills African Talent Should Acquire in 2012 got me thinking about how best to cultivate and support a growing community of professionals in the countries where we work.

To help us get there, I want to share what we look for in our team members—and how, if you’re looking to break into innovations work, you could go

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about getting there. Improving these skills won’t guarantee you a job on cool tech

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projects, but it’s a good start. Jon makes a distinction between tech and non-tech skills in his post, and I draw on the later here. Building on his list, here are the skills we’ve found that serve us well in the innovations space in West Africa:

Writing: This one has to top the list—you can’t get anywhere without

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good writing. Decent writing is passable, but good writing opens doors and lets your ideas travel. Practice makes perfect, but so does lots of reading. Every opportunity can be used to improve the craft—emails, project updates, love letters…

Critical thinking/problem solving: Applying deductive reasoning to see different angles and approaches allows for creative, open-ended solutions that work in the real world. Critical thinking demands an open mind and it demands that we see things from other, often multiple and conflicting, points of view--as F. Scott Fitzgerald quipped, "the

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ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function." It takes practice, but with good problem solving skills you will identify a problem and its solution before it even manifests. Doesn’t that sound nice?

Project management: Manage projects, lead people. The implementation of successful projects demands

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adaptability and agility to adjust to changing situations. I believe that good management is impossible without good leadership, so see more about that below.

Videography and design: Knowing how to communicate using video and the web is now essential to share ideas in a way that spreads. Having the skills to put together a budget video or design a minimal website or presentation puts you ahead of the crowd and makes you an extra useful member of any team.

To Jon’s list, I’d like to add:

Professionalism: The professional world has its own norms for behavior, and while they may not always include wearing a suit and tie to meetings (especially in the tech world), there are still social graces and etiquette to be observed. A lot of this you likely learned in kindergarden—play nice, play fair, and share.

Leadership: Emotional intelligence is a professional currency that is measured and valued more and more by team leaders. Gone are the days of the stoic, authoritarian manager who sat behind a closed office door and only saw you by appointment—and thank goodness for that. Managers are out, leaders are in, and the better you can relate to, listen to and understand your team, the better you will be able to unite them around a common vision. That’s where the magic happens.

Collaboration: Collaboration is to the 21st century what competition was to the last one. Every opportunity offers a chance to bring people together to collectively innovate, vision and create. Get to know the competition, find ways to collaborate that benefit you both, and watch what happens. We work better and smarter together than any of us do apart. Learning this and making it work for you, is key to long-term satisfaction from your work.

Strategic thinking: Seeing and planning for the long-term future is a rare skill in this quickly-changing world, all the more valued because the landscape changes so quickly. Instead of forging concrete plans for the future, strategic thinking is able to adapt to what it sees and to anticipate the direction of change. It's hard; but it can be learned.

So, you may be thinking, how does one go about getting these skills? Find places to put them to work, giving generously of your time, effort and best ideas. Embed yourself within the community you want to work in. Find and take opportunities to contribute to projects and collaborate on teams to build your experience. In time, the community will know your value and job offers will find you.

CODE is always looking to connect with local

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innovators, so if you’re reading this and you have an idea we can collaborate on, we want to hear from you.