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October 06 2011

12:20

How Mobile Phones Could Bring Public Services to People in Developing Countries

In Santiago, Chile, more than 60 percent of the poorest citizens don't have access to the Internet. In the rest of the country, that number increases to 80 percent, and in rural areas, an Internet connection is almost nonexistent. But there are more than 20 million mobile phones in the nation, according to the latest survey by the Undersecretary of Telecommunications. (That's actually around 1.15 cell phones per capita in a nation of 17,094,270 people.) And in rural areas, cell phones are king.

santiago.jpg

As Knight News Challenge winners FrontlineSMS, Ushahidi and NextDrop have shown, mobile communications are crucial for citizens living in rural areas, where being able to reach other people and access relevant news and public services information make a huge improvement in people's lives. Plus, cell phones are tools that most already have.

THE PITCH

What if, apart from efforts to widen connectivity in isolated areas and government programs to provide computers for schools in rural areas (which has been a very good, but slow, undertaking, and not an attractive business for telecom companies), governments of underdeveloped countries create and provide easy ways to access public information and services on mobile phones with an application or open-source web app that could be downloaded from government websites (in Chile it's Gob.cl)? Or cellular service providers could pre-install an app or direct access to a web app on every smartphone or other devices?

This could mean a great deal for people, particularly in rural and impoverished areas where the biggest news is not what's happening in Congress or the presidential palace, but what is happening to you and your community (something Facebook understood very well in its latest change that challenges the notion of what is newsworthy -- but that's a topic for a separate post).

People could do things like schedule a doctor's appointment or receive notice that a doctor won't be available; find out about grants to improve water conditions in their sector; receive direct information about training programs for growing organic food and the market prices for products they might sell; find out how their kids are doing in a school they attend in the city or if the rural bus system will go this week to the nearest town or not. These are just a few very straightforward examples of useful public services information that could be available on people's phones. Such availability of information could save time and money for those who lack both things.

I know it because I saw it as a boy growing up in a small town -- and as the son of a farmer who still hasn't gotten around to the idea of using a computer, despite having the chance to use one. But because my father owns a mobile phone, he's become an expert user of SMS and applications that allow him to check weather conditions.

WHAT'S IN IT FOR THE TELECOM COMPANIES

At the same time, telecom companies could support this initiative by providing mobile Internet connection packages and a free SMS service for rural areas by which citizens could specify their information searches or requests (a kind of help desk). Why would they do it for free? Because with each free transaction, there might be another one that has nothing to do with the government or public services information, which may produce additional income. It might also improve the companies' public image.

Another way of getting support from these companies consists of giving them a
tax reduction for providing the service and automatic updates of information. Thus, rural citizens living in small towns and cities would be able to access the data they need (pension reforms, hospital appointments, housing benefits, food grants, etc).

IN SIMPLE WORDS

To do what we're talking about, we need clean and intuitive interfaces with super-simple steps and strong government websites or apps that learn from the end users' needs, systematizing:

  • Databases containing questions and answers made by ministries and government staff.
  • Services citizens can access in order to ask for all kinds of information: subsidies, hours of service, etc.
  • Simple and complex procedures, so that answers can be delivered accurately and in the shortest amount of time.

This reduces the margin of error, maximizes human resources -- decreasing the man-hours needed for searching for requested information -- allows specific departments to detect questions which are more usual, and meets the needs of users and citizens.

However, in order to make citizens understand the information, it has to be written in a simple way, with no illegible technical or legal terms. For such a purpose, there are citizen language manuals that standardize response criteria issued by the state. (A good example of this in Spanish is the Mexican Lenguaje Ciudadano government guide.)

This is a small civic proposal to start a wider conversation and brainstorming and discover projects and ideas that may already be addressing this issue. Please feel free to post your tips and thoughts in the comments section.

Image of Santiago, Chile by Flickr user Cleanie.

June 15 2011

14:43

Tanzania Media Copes with Wild Success of Feedback via SMS

For the largest civil society media platform in Tanzania, back talk is good. 



In fact, talking back is the objective of a new service at Femina HIP called Speak Up! The service aims to increase access of marginalized youth and rural communities and promote a participatory, user-driven media scene in Tanzania.



SpeakUp.png

Femina HIP is the largest civil society media platform in the country, outside of commercial mainstream media. Products include print magazines, television shows, a radio program, and an interactive website. Fema magazine, for example, has a print run of over 170,000 copies and is distributed to every rural region in the country.



Over the last few years, Femina HIP has encouraged its audience to connect and comment by sending letters, email, and SMS messages -- and comment people did. Dr. Minou Fuglesang, executive director of Femina HIP, said the platform was nearly drowning in messages.

It became clear to the team that SMS needed to be handled more systematically. Speak Up! is a service that offers a more automated, organized way to receive and respond to incoming SMS messages. With the Speak Up! service, the message flow is more systematic and organized. Femina HIP is better equipped to respond to comments and queries. A more automated system also helps Femina HIP embrace the young community -- one that feels a growing need to organize and participate, Fuglesang said.



How It Works

Femina HIP uses an application built by Starfish Mobile, a wireless application service provider. All SMS messages are sent to the same shortcode (15665) and the Starfish application sorts messages according to key word. (Senders have to begin the message with the key word of the product they wish to address, be it Fema magazine or the Ruka Juu na Fema TV Talk Show.) 



Femina HIP staff members access the application from a web-based dashboard, where they can view all incoming messages across products. Virtually all messages received are in Swahili. "It is very rare to get a message in English, let alone other languages," said Diana Nyakyi of Femina HIP. "Though if we do receive something in English, it is considered just as much as any other SMS in Swahili in terms of feedback value."



The Speak Up! service works in collaboration with local mobile providers, because the shortcode is "bound" to the providers, Nyakyi said. "However, we are keen on having a more engaging and beneficial relationship with them [the mobile operators] as partners, and some have shown interest."



Two-Way Communications

Femina HIP wants to talk back to its audience, too.

When an individual sends an SMS to the Femina HIP shortcode, he or she receives an automatic confirmation. Senders' phone numbers are automatically entered in a database, which allows Femina HIP staff to further respond to individuals. Often, this is to simply say thank you for the message. But staff can also access and respond to urgent or serious messages, including questions on issues of health, sex, suicide, or requests for advice. Currently, Femina HIP has a list of about 30,000 active mobile numbers.



chezasalama sms.jpg

The Speak Up! database can also be sorted by categories such as key word, time submitted (date, week, month), or by phone network. Statistics are available, including which phone numbers have had the most interactions with the system, and whether the interactions were via SMS vote or SMS comment. The ability to sort allows the staff to group SMS messages around content themes and inform people about relevant, upcoming programs. 



Speak Up! wants the audience to become agenda setters, and claims to achieve "a more inclusive public debate and a more investigative reporting that mirrors everyday life in Tanzania." 


Challenges and Lessons

Femina HIP and the Speak Up! service have faced a learning curve. For example, it's been challenging to help the audience understand how to send an SMS to an automated service. "It's not as easy as it sounds because people have to understand how to use the shortcode and our key words," Fuglesang said. 



If someone misses a space or spells the key word incorrectly, for example, the SMS is marked "invalid" and ends up in the trash box. 



Similarly, if people send a message that's over the 160-character limit of a text message, the second half of it is also marked invalid. Currently, Starfish Mobile does not support these so-called concatenated SMS messages. "This is causing a problem, even though we ask our listeners to send us short messages," Fuglesang said. "People write long messages." 



For example, Speak Up! had 900 responses to a recent question, but nearly 500 ended up in the trash bin because of error or length. While the messages can be retrieved, and the team is trying to do just that, "it does pose a bit of a headache," Fuglesang said.



Another issue may be cost. While there is a cost to send a text message, sending an SMS to a shortcode actually carries a slightly higher cost, Fuglesang said. "We are trying to monitor this to see if it affects the flow."



May 03 2011

10:07

May Net2 Think Tank: Improving Lives in Rural Communities with ICTs

May 17 will mark World Telecommunication and Information Society Day (WTISD). To celebrate, we're using this year's WTISD theme, "Better Life in Rural Communities with ICTs" to guide our Net2 Think Tank question for May!

For this month's Net2 Think Tank, we're brainstorming ideas for closing the digital divide for people living in rural areas all around the world. How are you bridging the divide and what are your tips for others who are just getting started? Share your projects and ideas with the NetSquared Community!

Topic:

How can we help improve the lives of people living in rural areas using ICT? What are your tactics and best practices for helping rural communities using web or mobile technology? And, which projects are already doing this well?

Deadline:  Saturday, May 21st

How to contribute:

  • Post your response online: Leave a comment below, write on your own blog or website, post on the NetSquared Community Blog, or share your feedback on Facebook or Linkedin.
  • Tag your post, comment, or tweet with net2thinktank.
  • Email Claire Sale the link to your post.
  • Have you written about this topic in the past? Great! Simply add the net2thinktank tag to your post and email us the link.

Be sure to get your submission in by emailing Claire the link to your post by Saturday, May 21st

The roundup of contributions will be posted on the NetSquared blog on Monday, May 23rd.

About Net2 Think Tank:

Net2 Think Tank is a monthly blogging/social networking event open to anyone and is a great way to participate in an exchange of ideas.  We post a question or topic to the NetSquared community and participants submit responses either on their own blogs, the NetSquared Community Blog, or using social media.  Tag your post with "net2thinktank" and email a link to us to be included. At the end of the month, the entries get pulled together in the Net2 Think Tank Round-Up.

 

About World Telecommunication and Information Society Day:

The purpose of World Telecommunication and Information Society Day (WTISD) is to help raise awareness of the possibilities that the use of the Internet and other information and communication technologies (ICT) can bring to societies and economies, as well as of ways to bridge the digital divide.

17 May marks the anniversary of the signing of the first International Telegraph Convention and the creation of the International Telecommunication Union. Learn more.

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