Five amazing mobile projects

At the Web4Dev conference in New York I met with the founders, inventors and creators of some pretty amazing mobile-for-development projects. Below are my top five, with some thoughts on how they could be used for education.

Ushahidi: Crowdsourcing Crisis Information Ushahidi
Ushahidi — which means “testimony” in Swahili — is a free, open-source platform to crowdsource crisis information. It allows anyone to submit information through SMS, email or web form, with each submission pinned to a map. The aggregate effect is a compelling visualisation of an event as it unfolds, told by citizen journalists. It has been used to report on the botched elections in Kenya, the DRC and the war in Gaza.

I told Erik Hersman, the White African behind Ushahidi, that it should be used for an alternate reality game with teenagers in Cape Town.

GeoChat supports relief workers after a major humanitarian crisis, when reliable team-based communication is critical but notoriously difficult to achieve. This open-source group communications technology lets team members interact to maintain shared geospatial awareness of who is doing what where — over any device, on any platform, over any network. According to Robert Kirkpatrick, of InSTEDD, it works like this:

  • You register with GeoChat either online, by email, or by SMS.
  • Create a new GeoChat group and invite your team members.
  • Send messages to one another, or share them with the entire group.
  • If you’re mobile using your cell phone, prefix a text message with your location — say your current address, or a latitude and longitude from a GPS – and GeoChat will place your icon on the map for online users to see.

Even those not on the ground, e.g. the support team back at UN headquarters, can visualize the remote team on the surface of a map and interact with them. GeoChat is nearing public Beta release.

GeoChat beta test
GeoChat beta test

For educational purposes, this tool could be used by learners when mapping their community. Or for co-ordinating on-the-ground players, and distance players, during that alternate reality game!

Text to Change
In a pilot project in Uganda, Text to Change — an mhealth non-profit organisation — used an SMS-based quiz to raise awareness around HIV/AIDS. The quiz, which reached 15,000 subscribers, had two goals: i) to collect information, and ii) to promote voluntary counseling and testing (VCT). As an incentive to answer questions, free airtime was offered.

Text to Change The quiz allowed TTC to assess the rate of correct answers within certain socio-economic sectors; this information was passed to UNICEF to inform their interventions. The quiz also resulted in a 40% increase in the number of people who sought VCT. All in all, a very successful project!

Hajo van Beijma and I spoke about how TTC could be used in South Africa (SA) for education. Some ideas:

  • Literacy development: Send out short stories via SMS, e.g. each chapter of the story is five SMSs. Then ask readers: questions about the chapter (to test comprehension) via simple multiple choice or free-form responses, or ask readers to summarise the chapter and SMS it back, or ask readers to write their responses to the chapter, e.g. what do you think should happen next?
  • Learner needs assessment: send out quizzes about what subjects/concepts learners are struggling with, e.g. fractions in Mathematics. Provide this data to the Department of Education.

RapidSMS is an SMS-based open-source monitoring and data collection platform developed by UNICEF’s Innovations and Development team. An SMS submitting quantitative data consists of a keyword followed by parameters, e.g. “User5889 2” could be HIV-patient number 5889 reporting that she’s just taken her second dose of anti-retroviral medicine for the day. Qualitative data can also be submitted — ideal for when polling communities. The RapidSMS interface allows for editing and visualisation of the received data, as well as exporting it for spreadsheets.

As the UNICEF  team, Evan Wheeler, Christopher Fabian and Erica Kochi said in their report on Innovation for Africa, “rather than hiring consultants for monthly visits to hundreds of schools to survey teacher attendance, why not visit once and teach children to send UNICEF a SMS on days their teacher is not present?”

Literacy Bridge

Talking book by Literacy Bridge
Talking book by Literacy Bridge

Literacy Bridge is a non-profit organisation with the goal of making knowledge accessible to people living in poverty. The bet of Cliff Schmidt — it’s founder — is on audio, and so he created the talking book: a low cost, ruggedised audio player/recorder. The device has awesome features, such as simple device-to-device copying (no PC or network needed), audio hyperlinking (e.g. to a glossary of terms used in the audio piece), and slow play for reading practice.

In Africa, many people have low-access or no-access to ICT. The talking book is perfect for empowering this audience.

The conference made it clear that crowd-sourcing, user participation, SMS and geospatial visualisation (mapping) of information are all red hot right now.

Access to participation: what does it mean for learning?

Last week I gave a presentation at the Web4Dev conference in New York about Access to Participation. The point I wanted to make is that while access to information is essential for development (this was the theme of the session I was presenting in), what we should really be aiming for is enabling access to participation. In other words, we need to exploit the emerging participatory culture in society that wants to create and share information, and not only consume it.

At the Web4Dev conference in New York
At the Web4Dev conference in New York

There is a wealth of information at the “bottom of the [media] pyramid” — the audience that traditionally receives information, but doesn’t get to also share local information laterally or upwards, using media. While community newspapers and radio have enabled a degree of lateral and vertical movement of local information for some years, the increasing prevalence of social media that enables a culture of participation is changing the dynamics of information flow and the power of local voice.

My presentation is online at Slideshare and the video of me giving it is on YouTube (the video is in 3 parts — I start speaking at 1 min 40 sec of part 1). View it to learn more about participatory culture and how it looks in the developing world, under the themes of contribution, involvement, connectedness and conversation, all largely enabled by cellphones.

My work at the Shuttleworth Foundation is about understanding and leveraging the effects of technology and cultural changes for teaching and learning in the 21st century. Outcomes-based education (OBE) is predicated on a constructivist learning approach, where learners make meaning through exploration and creation (project-based learning is common). There is thus an obvious opportunity to link the activities of a participatory culture with a participatory learning curriculum.

Educators and parents are no longer the gatekeepers of information. It
is important for youth to develop the skills — such as the twelve
competencies set out by Project New Media Literacies at MIT — that are
necessary to play, work and live in an information-rich and connected
world. These are the skills necessary to fully participate in society in the 21st century.

Much of what is written about participatory culture in America is very much based on rich multimedia creations: blogs, videos, wikis and photo-audio-video sharing activities. In my presentation I showed that participation in the developing world looks different (but that the desire and benefits to participation are the same).

The dialogue that I would like to begin concerns participatory teaching and learning in South Africa. These are some of the questions that we need to consider:

  • What does participatory culture amongst youth, e.g. the MXit phenomenon, mean for teaching?
  • How can educators effectively leverage the activities happening in popular culture contexts to improve teaching? (Notice that I don’t ask Can educators … but rather How can educators …. This is because I firmly believe that it can happen; it simply requires time and effort to explore this space to find the answers. In fact, I believe that exploring this space is crucial to narrowing the disconnect between learners’ lives in and out of school; a disconnect that is making education increasingly seem irrelevant to youth.)
  • What changes are needed in teaching practices, and in the mindset of teachers, to make teaching more participatory? From changing the layout of the classroom to relinquishing the expert-novice perspective, changes are necessary.
  • How can social media, such as MXit, be used to give learners a voice? How can that voice, and the literacies developed in the exercising of that voice (visual, information, transmedia, etc.) be evaluated?
  • How can digital media learner creations and activities be tied to the curriculum? In what way does the curriculum need to be changed to recognise the new media literacies?
  • What information is in the hands of learners that, if allowed to surface in a participatory way, is useful to educators and other learners? How can this information be gathered, shared, aggregated or filtered? For example, performing a discourse analysis on aggregated MXit chats in the week leading up to exams may provide clues to the issues that learners are grappling with. We may realise that fractions are something that learners just don’t get, and as a result revise those before the maths exam.
  • Peer-to-peer learning holds much potential to compliment and support an already strained education system. How can participatory culture support peer-learning, using social media?

These are big questions, and by no means the only ones in this dialogue. The sooner we begin to engage with them the better. Through popular culture, participatory culture is happening whether School likes it or not. We urgently need to begin the dialogue around how to best deal with it in a way that supports the goals of Education.

Some blog coverage of my presentation, and the other two presentations in the afternoon’s session track, is at:


Ushahidi: crowdsourcing crisis information

At Web4Dev, Erik Hersman, the White African, spoke about Ushahidi, a free, open-source platform to crowdsource crisis information. It allows anyone to submit crisis information through text messaging using a mobile phone, email or web form.

It has been used to report on the botched elections in Kenya, the DRC and the war in Gaza.

Crowdsourcing Crisis Information

The next big thing for Ushahidi: how to overcome information overload. Taking all of the SMS reports and filtering the huge amount of data. Since the Mumbai bombings they’ve been working on a project called SwiftRiver, which is focussed on making sense of information received in the first 3 hours of a crisis. There are machine and people ways to filter the information — they’ve chosen the people approach.

The motto of the project: if it works in Africa, it will work anywhere.

Innovations for the poor, Grameen style

At day 2 of the Web4Dev conference, Kazi Islam, CEO of Grameen Solutions, spoke about Innovations for the poor: Challenges OR opportunities. He described a number of projects and companies within the Grameen family.

He spoke about how when Dr Muhammad Yunus decided to create a bank for the poor, he simply did what the regular banks did not do.

Regular bank: aimed at richer people; his bank: aimed at the poor.
Regular bank: needs collateral; his bank would be based on trust.
Regular bank: mostly male clients; he would cater to woman.

He has since won a Nobel peace prize based on the success of Grameen Bank.

A key point that Kazi wanted to make was that our solutions need to challenge the status quo and be about people. It’s very important to “get down and dirty” and understand the needs of the people you want to reach. “Go and live with the poor,” he suggested, and develop solutions that work for them and their real needs.

Grameen Solutions is a for-profit company. Kazi assured us that there is nothing wrong with making a profit, in fact it is essential for sustainability.

The need to enable participation for TB management

Dr Christopher Dye, Director at the World Health Organisation (WHO), spoke at Web4Dev about his work around TB. WHO works with top-level governments and large networks to try to obtain TB information in a country. What he’s realised is that the information is at the bottom, with the people. If only they could be brought into the information sharing network.

At the “top” is the IT, processing power and tools for analysis. At the “bottom” is the data and information.

Enabling participatory activities that allow for that information to flow more freely from bottom to top and down again is critical to moving the needle in this space. This is what my presentation will be about.

Thinking about innovation

The Heroism of Innovation by Tony Salvador, Intel, at Web4Dev. He is an anthropologist and ethnographer, who spoke about following the Hero’s Journey as a tool to think through innovation. He touched on complex adaptive systems and about preparation around innovation.

Complex adaptive systems resist external influences — which cause change — to maintain homeostasis. Social structures manifest in this system. So, when we want to bring a new ICT or service to a group of people we need to ask: who will think that this new thing is a threat to the system? This helps us to manage the resistance to change, the push back against any new external input into the system.

Innovation/development is 1% ideation and 99% preparation. We should:

  • Plan strategically 5 or 10 years out; for each prediction have one or more end-state and estimate the probability of each.
  • Network systemically: vertically and horizontally.
  • Understand explicitly how local institutions manifest local social structures and power and what social power you and your partners actually have and don’t have. For me: do the unions hold the real power in SA in education: should I try to influence them?
  • Think about your “new development” as a threat.
  • Use pilots or case studies to test and push the social system, not the technology.

Of golf balls and flirting: Web4Dev intro notes

Ann Venemon, Exec Dir of UNICEF and John Gage introduced the Web4Dev conference:

  • Both spoke very much about mobiles as the ICT for development. Also on biotech innovation as key to really moving the needle in reaching the MDGs.
  • It took 72 days for Christopher Columbus to reach the New World. Information can traverse the same distance at almost the speed of light — 280 million times faster than Columbus. This means that relatively speaking, the earth is now the size of a golf ball.
  • John Gage loves the Kindle and predicts that within 3 years ebook readers will cost $10.
  • A very powerful way to change behaviour is to show people what they’re doing and how much it costs them. For example, showing people how much carbon they emit and what they pay for that,will bring it home to them that they need to change.
  • Using the locative capabilities of mobile phones, providing services can become much more efficient. Efficiency is the most important thing in a downturn.
  • Someone asked how best to get people in the developing world to participate in ICT networks. John Gage responded that when it comes to engaging youth, the best way is through music, sport, gaming and flirting.
  • John Gage: leave traces of yourself on the web, what you’re doing, thinking about, etc. Buy every UN employee a basic camera to share their experiences. That’s how to spread information about innovation. (Clay Shirky articulates this very well in Here Comes Everybody.)

Web4Dev kicks off

Tonight the Web4Dev conference kicked off with a pre-conference reception. It felt pretty good to be at UN headquarters in New York, overlooking the East River and listening to Ann M. Veneman, the UNICEF chief. It doesn’t get more hifalutin than this.

Web4Dev conference
Since the theme is Innovation for Access, let’s hope the conference includes great networking, sharing of ideas and showcasing innovative projects!

I’ll be blogging about the best of it over the next 3 days.