Where technology meets anthropology, conservation and development
Random header image... Refresh for more!

Grameen’s AppLab comes of age

Today is a very exciting day for many colleagues in Uganda, a day which sees the launch of a suite of new services from Grameen’s AppLab project. I was fortunate enough to be involved in the very early stages of the initiative, spending a month on the ground studying a mixture of geography, culture, challenges, data availability and technologies in and around Kampala (and occasionally beyond).

One of the best times to be involved in something like this is at the very beginning – the time when everything is on the table, nothing is ruled out and there’s no such thing as a bad idea. Over the course of the month we came out with around fifty ideas for mobile services, based on our research of the Ugandan landscape, and the kinds of issues, gaps and concerns which potentially lend themselves to a mobile solution.

A large part of the fun is without doubt this multi-faceted research – understanding the landscape from multiple perspectives and sources. TV, radio, conversations with taxi drivers (who, regardless of where they drive seem to have answers to all the world’s problems), newspapers, villagers, village phone operators, waiters, children and eavesdropping conversations in bars, all of which helps build a picture of what matters to people and what doesn’t.

Vision, Uganda
Image: Understanding local and national issues is an essential starting point in the mobile applications development process

Although it’s vital to start with the need, figuring out how to meet it becomes the next big challenge. Rural communities aren’t just passive recipients of information, but content generators in their own right. Communities are rich with knowledge, but more often than not this knowledge – not to mention more official sources of information – are rarely stored in anything resembling digital-friendly. Finding out who has the information you need, who owns it, how often it gets updated and how it’s stored are all part of the ongoing puzzle.

One of the most interesting and exciting phases of the AppLab work was the rapid protoyping – getting out into the field (or the matatu [bus] stations, to be precise) and offering people the opportunity to text in agriculture- or health-based questions. Any questions. What seemed to them like a smart, fully-automated system was in fact a handful of health and agriculture students sitting at computers in the MTN/AppLab offices, manually reading incoming questions and formulating 160-character answers. Suffice to say, the data gathered over a few days gave the strongest indication yet of the need and perception of such a service to potential users. The value of this kind of work cannot be understated.

Rapid Prototying (Photo: AppLab)
Photo: Students respond to incoming queries using the early version of FrontlineSMS, which was set up to help gather the data

Going back to today’s announcement, out of the original fifty early-stage ideas, AppLab have launched an initial suite of five:

Health Tips
Provides sexual and reproductive health information, paired with Clinic Finder…

Clinic Finder
Helps locate nearby health clinics and their services

Farmer’s Friend
A searchable database with both agricultural advice and targeted weather forecasts

Photo courtesy AppLab

Google Trader
Matches buyers and sellers of agricultural produce and commodities as well as other products (Google explains how it works here)

As part of the initial research, we looked at a whole suite of technologies on which to base solutions, including J2ME, WAP, high-end smart phones, 3G and MMS. As is usually the case, however, SMS won through and all of the services launched today are, according to AppLab,  SMS-based and:

designed to work with basic mobile phones to reach the broadest possible audience. Users can access the services quickly and privately at the time of their choosing and search relevant content on-demand, like someone with access to the Internet

A lot of work continues to go into AppLab’s work in Uganda, and today hopefully marks the beginning of many new announcements (believe me, many other exciting initiatives are already in pilot stage). By working through existing structures in the country (principally MTN and the Grameen Village Phone network, not to forget Google’s growing influence), AppLab is well-placed to identify, build and deliver appropriate, relevant mobile-related services to local communities, and my congratulations go out to David, Eric and everyone who has worked so hard on the project over the past two years.

For a little more indepth analysis on today’s announcement, check out White African’s excellent blog post and the short Grameen video below. The official Press Release is available here.

31 comments

1 changefeed (changefeed) { 06.29.09 at 1:04 pm }

->@kiwanja: Grameen’s AppLab comes of age http://tinyurl.com/lt77h5

2 Grameen’s AppLab comes of age | health { 06.29.09 at 1:18 pm }

[...] See the original post here:  Grameen’s AppLab comes of age [...]

3 Grameen’s AppLab comes of age | health { 06.29.09 at 1:18 pm }

[...] The rest is here:  Grameen’s AppLab comes of age [...]

4 XkiD | Grameen’s AppLab comes of age | blog.xkid.ro { 06.29.09 at 1:26 pm }

[...] the rest here: Grameen’s AppLab comes of age Posted in News | Tags: asked-their, galaxy, google, launch, microsoft, phone-from, [...]

5 Mbugua Njihia { 06.29.09 at 2:09 pm }

Excellent

6 inquisitiveme { 06.29.09 at 4:42 pm }

RT @kiwanja One month in Kampala, two years in the making: Grameen’s AppLab rolls out a suite of SMS services in Uganda http://is.gd/1i1P9

7 Heather Blanchard { 06.29.09 at 4:45 pm }

One month in Kampala, two years in the making: Grameen’s AppLab rolls out a suite of SMS services in Uganda http://is.gd/1i1P9 (@kiwanja)

8 poplifegirl { 06.29.09 at 4:45 pm }

One month in Kampala, two years in the making: Grameen’s AppLab rolls out a suite of SMS services in Uganda http://is.gd/1i1P9 (@kiwanja)

9 Alistair { 06.29.09 at 5:41 pm }

Nice post, and nice reading a little bit about how the services were developed! :)

10 Maneno (Elia) { 06.29.09 at 6:46 pm }

Cool! Grameen’s AppLab rolls out a suite of SMS services in Uganda http://is.gd/1i1P9 (via @kiwanja)

11 Maneno { 06.29.09 at 6:46 pm }

Cool! Grameen’s AppLab rolls out a suite of SMS services in Uganda http://is.gd/1i1P9 (via @kiwanja)

12 paconmiller { 06.30.09 at 2:55 am }

RT @kiwanja One month in Kampala, two years in the making: Grameen’s AppLab rolls out a suite of SMS services in Uganda http://is.gd/1i1P9

13 tracy1314 { 06.30.09 at 3:23 am }

RT @kiwanja 1 month in Kampala, 2 yrs in making: Grameen’s AppLab rolls out suite of SMS services in UG http://is.gd/1i1P9 via @paconmiller

14 Ken Banks { 06.30.09 at 6:33 am }

Catching up on news alerts for AppLab launch yesterday. http://is.gd/1i1P9. Amazed at how many pitch it as a Google service, not Grameen

15 kiwanja { 06.30.09 at 6:33 am }

Catching up on news alerts for AppLab launch yesterday. http://is.gd/1i1P9. Amazed at how many pitch it as a Google service, not Grameen

16 Vanstokkom { 06.30.09 at 7:18 am }

Catching up on news alerts for AppLab launch yesterday. http://is.gd/1i1P9. (via @kiwanja)

17 vanstokkom { 06.30.09 at 7:18 am }

Catching up on news alerts for AppLab launch yesterday. http://is.gd/1i1P9. (via @kiwanja)

18 AppLab launched in Uganda by Grameen, Google and MTN « MMD4D { 07.01.09 at 4:46 pm }

[...] to Google SMS Trader, which as a mobile commerce platform is of my primary interest to me,  Ken Banks that a “whole suite of technologies on which to base solutions, including J2ME, WAP, high-end [...]

19 craigheintzman (Craig Heintzman) { 07.02.09 at 7:53 pm }

“Rural communities aren’t just passive recipients of info, but content generators in their own right.” http://tinyurl.com/lt77h5 @kiwanja

20 Craig Heintzman { 07.02.09 at 7:53 pm }

"Rural communities aren’t just passive recipients of info, but content generators in their own right." http://tinyurl.com/lt77h5 @kiwanja

21 Craig Heintzman { 07.02.09 at 7:53 pm }

“Rural communities aren’t just passive recipients of info, but content generators in their own right.” http://tinyurl.com/lt77h5 @kiwanja

22 craigheintzman { 07.02.09 at 7:53 pm }

“Rural communities aren’t just passive recipients of info, but content generators in their own right.” http://tinyurl.com/lt77h5 @kiwanja

23 Joe Willcox { 07.03.09 at 12:29 pm }

Hi, Ken – this story is picked up in my recent blog post here:

http://developing-telecoms.blogspot.com/2009/07/mobile-applications-used-to-alleviate.html

Also, my blogging alter-ego just started tweeting and following Kiwanja on Twitter:

http://www.twitter.com/DevTelWatch

24 In the news this week: the Question Box « SIG-III Blog { 07.16.09 at 10:48 pm }

[...] Banks also notes that the Grameen Foundation this week launched its AppLab initiative in Uganda. (AppLab stands for application laboratory, and is essentially a project to get people in different locales around the developing world building information access applications for mobile devices such as cellphones. Their about us page has more detail). Kiwanja posts an insider’s view of the project’s rollout in Uganda to his blog. [...]

25 Media Helping Media { 07.18.09 at 6:27 pm }

@joncamfield I enjoyed the piece http://bit.ly/3n2L0 and have saved the links http://bit.ly/10sfR and http://bit.ly/p5Uwl very helpful

26 helpingmedia { 07.18.09 at 6:27 pm }

@joncamfield I enjoyed the piece http://bit.ly/3n2L0 and have saved the links http://bit.ly/10sfR and http://bit.ly/p5Uwl very helpful

27 Infrastrukturella problem finner lösning från Sverige? | Björn Sennbrink { 09.22.09 at 2:22 pm }

[...] tjänster såsom ”mobile banking” är stort på sina håll och det finns ett par andra intressanta projekt som drar nytta av att befolkningen har [...]

28 CnC Philippines { 11.10.09 at 5:30 am }

Great idea come of age: Grameen’s AppLab comes of age | Build it Kenny, and they will come… http://is.gd/1i1P9

29 When in Rome. Or Africa. | Build it Kenny, and they will come... { 08.27.11 at 10:06 am }

[...] In my earlier days I did a lot of travel, mostly to and around Africa. (One thing I regret never managing to do was walk across the continent, something I started tentatively planning a few years ago). As our organisation has grown and my role within it changed, I spend more time today travelling to conferences giving talks than actually doing the work. My last major piece of fieldwork was back in the summer of 2007 when I spent a month in Uganda consulting with Grameen’s fledgling AppLab. [...]

30 In the field: 15 traveller tips for Africa { 08.29.11 at 11:54 am }

[...] In my earlier days I did a lot of travel, mostly to and around Africa. (One thing I regret never managing to do was walk across the continent, something I started tentatively planning a few years ago). As our organisation has grown and my role within it changed, I spend more time today travelling to conferences giving talks than actually doing the work. My last major piece of extended fieldwork (i.e. longer than a week) was back in the summer of 2007 when I spent a month in Uganda consulting with Grameen’s fledgling AppLab. [...]

31 Eric Burgess { 10.18.11 at 6:48 am }

Grameen's AppLab comes of age http://t.co/2dSdyBLb #uwyngworld

Leave a Comment