Restricted mobility

On my travels it’s not unusual for me to find a dozen or more Village Phone operators in a single village. It’s also not unusual to find them with pretty-much the same phone, quite often the same price plan, and the same signs and posters. And just to rub it in, their shops and kiosks are often the same colour, too. Standing out from the competition can be quite a challenge in an environment like this, but it can be done.

Making a phone call on a Village Phone can hardly be called a private affair. First of all you’re likely standing out in the open, the phone owner usually hangs around a couple of feet away, and children crowd around because that’s what children do. In an attempt to break the mould – and gain a little competitive advantage – this Village Phone operator decided that customers should be allowed to put some space between her, the children and their private conversation. So her customers can take the phone ‘away’ somewhere where it’s a little more private. To stop them running off with it, she attaches a length of wire which leads back into her shop. Simple, but clever.

Maybe the wire could double up as an aerial extension for places with poor reception (now there’s one for Nokia to consider, or Motorola in this case)?

Sometimes, living in a wired world can have its advantages…

Further reading
Unplanned adolescence“, a Fast Company article on what happens to Village Phone operators when local mobile ownership increases (and my response to that), and “Africa’s grassroots mobile revolution – A traveller’s perspective“, a photo essay I wrote a couple of years ago for ‘Vodafone receiver’

Mapping medicine availability via SMS

Medicine stock-outs are a potentially lethal problem in a number of African countries, yet governments insist they don’t occur. What could be more powerful than a map which contradicts this claim?

Last week activists in Kenya, Uganda, Malawi and Zambia started surveying clinics in their respective countries, checking stock levels of essential medicines, including:

  • First-line anti-malarials
  • Zinc 20mg tablet
  • Penicilin
  • First-line ARVs
  • Metronidazole 200mg tablet
  • Ciproflaxicin
  • Amoxicillin suspension
  • Ceftriaxone
  • Cotrimoxazole suspension
  • ORS – Diarrhea

Each of these are seen as essential in varying degrees to fighting disease and illness, and are widely used when available.

Armed with the data, activists report their results via structured, coded SMS – “x,y,z” – where the first number represents their country code (Kenya, Malawi, Uganda or Zambia), the second their district or city, and the third the medicine which they found to be out of stock.  These messages are received by a phone connected to a computer running FrontlineSMS, which then runs an automatic script which validates the data before it is sent over the internet to a Ushahidi-powered website.

From there the results are automatically displayed on a map, below (click to visit the live site).

Stockouts map

As of today, there have been over 250 stock-outs of these essential medicines.

Since the data is automatically populated, the map represents an almost real-time picture of stock-outs in the four target countries. After a successful launch and a week piloting the service, the “stock-out hub number” will now be distributed to medicine users throughout each country so that anyone with a mobile phone can send in a stock-out report. Unlike reports from official, known data collectors, these messages will firstly be checked by staff at Health Action International (HAI Africa) before being posted up on the map.

Stockouts Team

The technological portion of the campaign was implemented by Michael Ballard and Claudio Midolo, both Open Society Fellows from the Department of Design + Technology at Parsons the New School for Design in New York.  Ndesanjo Macha also helped in getting FrontlineSMS up and running in Uganda and Malawi.

For further background information and up-to-date news, visit the “Stop Stock-Outs” website.

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.

Conservation friends win Award

I’ve been friends with Lawrence and Gladys Zikusoka – founders of Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH) – for a few years after meeting them in Stockholm at an ICT4D conference. Our meeting was particularly exciting because of our shared interest in technology and primate conservation, and because of my previous conservation work in Uganda, the country where they’re based.

Today Lawrence sent me an email with news that Gladys had won an award. This is fantastic news, and incredibly well deserved. I’ve been an admirer and supporter of their work for some time, and it’s great to see them continue to get great traction and recognition for their efforts.

CTPH promotes conservation and public health by improving primary health care to people and animals in and around protected areas in Africa. You can see a more recent video of Gladys and her work below (the original Daily Telegraph website is no longer available).

(Gladys, Lawrence – remember you owe me a trip to Bwindi!)