Building a SMS Based and Server-less Volunteer Conversation App for Civil Societies in Uganda

Many civil societies in Uganda have volunteers across the country. The volunteers are integrated into local communities and, among other activities, act as disaster reporters. Disasters include floods, landslides, disease outbreaks, hailstorms, accidents, and others. The current solution for disaster reports includes a web formula and a lot of communication between different levels of management hierarchy.

In many cases, existing web formulas cannot be used by the volunteers directly because of missing access to smartphones and/or the internet. Days can pass until information travels from volunteers to their regional manager and gets passed on to the head-quarter’s management. Even worse, communication is not only slow but information is sometimes lost. Therefore, faster and more direct communication would enable headquarters to act faster and more precisely on disasters.

Approach

My colleague Marlon Alagoda and myself Philipp Moser kicked-off the project in March 2020 together with Paul Spiesberger and Christoph Wimmer from the INSO, TU Vienna who established the connection to one of the local civil societies. This collaboration is a direct result of ICT4D.at’s engagement with the Austrian Red Cross and their engagement within the Skybird Programme. Our goal was to enable our new partner to act faster and more precisely on disasters.

To achieve this, we built an Android app that acts as a chatbot with an SMS interface. Volunteers are able to file disaster reports via SMS and managers can aggregate, filter, and view disaster reports. Furthermore, volunteers do not need an internet connection. Only the smartphone that hosts the app, must be connected to the internet. If a volunteer wants to start a conversation with the Volunteer Conversation App in order to file a report, he or she just sends an SMS to the smartphone. The content of the message could be: “Hi, my name is John and I want to report a flood.” Afterwards follow-up questions are sent to the volunteer until the report is fully collected.

All volunteers have the phone number of the smartphone that hosts the application. They can file a report by sending an SMS to that one phone. The smartphone transfers the input from the SMS to Dialogflow and gets the follow up questions from the same service, which are then sent back to the volunteer. All data is stored locally on the smartphone and can be exported to Google Drive. Everyone who has access to the Google Drive folder can access the data. Branch managers could also have access to the data and use their own tools to process it.  However, “live” alerts can only be seen on the smartphone itself.

Left: Phone of volunteer reporting; Right: the report in the application.

This idea is not new and many other SMS/text based services such as U-Report are already out there. Nevertheless, for us the biggest advantage of our solution is that there are no custom servers required to run our text based chat bot in comparison with other solutions (e.g. U-Report). Our goal is that anyone who wants to run a text based SMS chat bot to collect data from a group of people will just have to download our application to start the service and we are currently working on this vision.

Please feel free to reach out to us if you have any questions, if you are working in the same direction, see an opportunity for collaboration or/and know similar projects we could team up with. The application is not yet publicly available, but we develop our application as an open source project. We encourage you to check out the code base, file bugs/requests and contribute to the project.

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Building a SMS Based and Server-less Volunteer Conversation App for Civil Societies in Uganda
was published on 11.02.2021 by Paul Spiesberger. It files under east africa, Europe
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