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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2018 IFIP WG 9.4 and an Interactive Workshop about Sexual Harassment via Mobile Phones

In the heart of the beautiful Tirana, the capital of the surprising modern and dynamic Albania, the IFIP WG 9.4 conference took place. I was invited to present my work and also co-chair with Tim Unwin a paper and demo session regarding Equality and Safety issues with Digital Innovations. Tim and I wanted to mix up the session a bit to try out something unusual.

Before the conference, we started to discuss the issue of sexual harassment via mobile phones, after I read his blog post concerning the findings of their research. I proposed a, as we call it now, flawed solution to the problem. I designed a simple mobile application to register sexual harassers and warn victims. I wanted to start a discussion. Quite quickly all the drawbacks of potential abuse, legal implications, data management/ownership, etc arose. So, we got stuck in finding a good solution to empower victims of sexual harassment (via mobile phones) in developing countries.

We then decided to bring the topic to the table of the conference and use the participants to brainstorm for other and foremost better solutions. The goal was to break my programmed engineering thinking and use the diverse minds of our demo and paper session track to come up with something much better. The goal was not a technology, but anything which could empower the victims. The topic was intentionally set very broad to not limit the flow of ideas. This was also challenging, since there were no boundaries and many questions arose during the brainstorming. Furthermore, solving this complex in just workshop is unrealistic, but we were willing to try our best.
We formed groups, I introduced the concept of the Brainwriting-Pool (see our IFIP workshop slides for an explanation) and we tried to generate as many ideas as possible. We only had 45 minutes to discuss and brainstorm together. While some groups kept stuck in great discussions, others were quite productive and proposed many ideas of what we could do. One of the participants opened her heart and shared her story of harassment via mobile phones, which gave us a much better understanding of the topic. This once more showed the importance of including the targeted user group in the design process. Of course, we did not solve the issue in the 45 minutes, but many key points and ideas were stated. Ideas were put out to

  • create an anonyms social network for victims to connect with others and find help.
  • To visualize the harassment to show that this is a big issue and to illustrate that victims are not alone.
  • Make it easier for victims to defend themselves by offering information material on how to legally fight back. Illustrate the rights of every person.
  • When harassed by mobile phones, then the harassment is actually documented by call logs and text messages. This offers a new way of using this as a prove of harassment against the harasser and visualize the attack.
  • Translate sexual rights and women rights into pictograms and make them accessible to everyone.
  • Better illustrate that sexual harassment is not the fault of the victim and that they have a right to dignity.
  • Create mobile awareness campaigns.
  • Provide a quick help by offering options to victims to protect themselves.
  • A place where victims can share their story anonymously. To make it first possible to talk about the incident in a safe environment and also help others to understand that they are not the only ones going through such a difficult time.
  • Provide call centres with no charges and ensure anonymity.
  • A self-defence Drone you can launch to film your harasser and document the incident.
  • Better offer statistics about incidents to trigger a discussion and create awareness.
  • A “one button click” to connect one victim to another to reach out for help and understanding.
  • Create a SMS based one/two-way communication with empowering and motivating messages. Also offer a smart phone application.
  • Implement a general filter to block harassment content entirely form your platform. Have a “Right to delete” content on the Internet.

Many more issues, problems and ideas were discussed and mentioned. The possibilities and challenges are there, the sensitive topic of sexual harassment is too often ignored and our workshop underlined that we need to put a spotlight on this issue. ICT can do good, but also too often bad. It is our responsibility to also discuss the dark side of the technologies we promote and to be aware that ICTs are not always shiny and golden.

All of this was possible due to Kutoma Wakunuma and Sirkku Männikkö Barbutiu who also presented their profound work in our track. They agreed beforehand to shorten their presentations to give us the stage to carry out our workshop. I would like to again express my gratitude and recommend reading their valuable contributions:

Kutoma Wakunuma: Hey women can play dirty too! Social media Building and Construction – A tale of empowerment in the developing world

Sirkku Männikkö Barbutiu: A Facebook Account of Ones Own

I would also like to thank Endrit, the conference chair, who gave us the opportunity and a big thank you to Tim, for supporting me in my work.





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2018 IFIP WG 9.4 and an Interactive Workshop about Sexual Harassment via Mobile Phones
was published on 09.07.2018 by Paul Spiesberger. It files under eastern and central europe, global
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Modern software development workshops at the UEM Maptuo

The ICT4DMZ project is now running quite a while and after three amazing weeks in Maputo we are one big step further to reach our goals. Philipp and I (Paul Spiesberger) tried to bring the students of the Universidade Eduardo Mondlane (UEM) in Maputo on the right track.

In more than eight workshops we gave them the tools and the knowledge to start programming for their projects. At the beginning we tried to find out on which level their skills are and what we can expect. From that point on we knew that we will have to give them a short introduction to modern software development in a team as well. Up to that day the students were exchanging code with Dropbox and they had almost no structure or/and organisation for their teamwork. At that time we were glad that Florian and Anders did great work a few months ago. They helped them with team roles and project documentation a lot. So it was not necessary to cover that important part too. In order to give them an easy tool to handle their code and the organisation of their projects, we introduced them to GIT and Bitbucket. The students were impressed by the GIT workshop and we were happy to see over the next days that some of them were porting their “Dropbox projects” to their new GIT repositories. Working with Bitbucket-Issues was not that successful at the beginning, but we are sure that this will change over time. From that point on we were ready for programming and we split up the group by the two projects:

Complaint Center

The goal of this project is to create a website which can handle complaints about a company or a product. It should gather information or feedback and help to improve their services. Philipp started with a short tutorial about the PlayFramework and helped to set everything up. After that he assisted with his expertise as much as he could.

Philipp with students

FindUEM

The other group is working on an Android app for students to find POI like lecture rooms, Wifi hotspots or public power plugs at the UEM campus. I started to teach them the basics of Android programming and helped them to set up the project. Since Java programming and developing for Android are quite different, it took a little bit longer to write the first line of code. I tried to explain step by step the important parts and assisted as much as I could.

Paul with students

In total we worked about 27 hours in three weeks with the students. We had some troubles finding the right time slots for all students, since they had different time schedules during their weeks. Especially at the beginning we did some workshops twice, so no one missed the introductions to the technologies. After that, not all students attended to our workshops all the time, but we were never alone.

From now on, we will assist via Skype and e-mail remotely from Austria. We have a good feeling for the outgoing of the projects and hopefully the students keep engaged in the next months as they were during our workshops.

Group picture UEM

During our stay we also helped the UEM to use Moodle for a first test run. We hope that in the future this modern way of IT supported teaching will be expanded to other lectures and faculties to strengthen the teaching abilities at the UEM.

In addition Philipp and I were working hard on our master thesis. Philipp is doing research on big data for emerging countries and for that he conducted some expert interviews. I am interested in user interface design for mobile devices in emerging countries like Mozambique. So I did a survey with students to find out their mobile phone usage and habits.

Of course we also found time to travel and to take a look at this beautiful country. When you talk to people in Mozambique, experience the beautiful landscape and take the time to look behind the curtain, then you get the feeling that this country is moving fast forward. The question is in which direction. The currently discovered massive resources (minerals, oil, gas) can have a positive or a negative impact to the society. There is also a new party growing really fast and it is gaining more and more influence. In the last few months the country was almost slipping into a new civil war. But one week before we arrived, they managed to find a compromise and elections are going to happen in the future. But I think that despite the fact of great poverty, corruption and the lack of education, Mozambique has the ability to find the way to a great and rich future.

3 women

Last but not least I would like to say thank you to Emilio Mosse and Andrei Shindyapin. We are lucky to have this partner and friends in Maputo, who are willing to share their valuable time and love with us. Also a big thank you to the students for their great effort and time!

Philipp and I are excited to continue the work and we are looking forward to meeting our friends in Maputo again.





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Modern software development workshops at the UEM Maptuo
was published on 03.03.2014 by Paul Spiesberger. It files under sub saharan africa
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Coop 2.0 interview: Stéphane Boyera

This post is part of a series of interviews collected at this years conference Coop 2.0 in Gijon.

Stéphane Boyera has been working with the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) – the internet standardization consortium – since it was founded in 1995 and has been leading the Mobile Web for Social Development initiative there since 2006.

Hear him talk about his work at W3C and the role of ICTs, especially the mobile phone, for development.





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Coop 2.0 interview: Stéphane Boyera
was published on 20.06.2009 by Florian Sturm. It files under global
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This Friday – Premiere of our movie 'Hello Africa'

This Friday (8.5. 19:30 @ Schikaneder, Margaretenstraße 24, 1040, Vienna) we will have the premiere of our documentary project “Hello Africa” which we recorded last fall in Zanzibar.

The promo text of the movie:

Hello Africa is an experimental documentary about the emerging use of mobile phones in Africa. Just in the past recent years, mobile phone subscriptions, fixed lines and internet access have increased in Africa, quicker than in any other region on earth. These rapid changes, the implications it has on African society and impact on social life in general is the reason for making this documentary.

The film is shot on the island Zanzibar outside Tanzania, considered to be one of the most enigmatic and cosmopolitan places in Africa, rich with contrasts and cultural heritage from many civilizations. It shows encounters with people from all backgrounds and proffessions; street rappers, primary school teachers, Massai watchmen, seaweed farmers, fishermen, multimedia students, nightclubbers and many more. What they all share in common is their opinions, habits and usage of cellphones, in private as well as proffessional life.

With a great music soundtrack and beats, this film wants to send a strong and positive message about the many possibilities that the new communication technologies brings, and in a larger perspective to  get attention to issues on how to “bridge the digital divide” between developed and underdeveloped countries.

A joint film project between Swedish DVD Magazine UZI and Austrian NGO ICT4D.at. More info: http://wiki.ict4d.at/Hello_Africa and http://www.uzi.se

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Here is once again the trailer:

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The screening will take place at the movie theatre Schikaneder in Vienna at 19:30 on Friday 08. May, entry is free.

Afterwards we’ll have a release party – so make sure you come by if you have time.





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This Friday – Premiere of our movie 'Hello Africa'
was published on 04.05.2009 by Florian Sturm. It files under global
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Africa Gathering – Talks 2

Notes from the talks of Africa Gathering taking place in London, England on 25 April.

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Ken BanksKiwanja.net / FrontlineSMS o/
Mobiles in Africa – How technoloy is driving social and economic change
Mobile technology empowering grassroots NGOs – FrontlineSMS and field-based case studies

25 years in IT, projects in 8 different African countries

Pattern emerging: Mobile adoptionby users & NGOs is driven by formal & informal conomic activity

  • shops & people just putting up businesses
  • exciting activities
  • people selling airtime, fixing phones, charging phones

impact of mobile phones is as revolutionary as roads, railways…

the majority of reports fail to specifiy which applications are used or how other NGOs can start running similar projects

FrontlineSMS

  • easy solution for NGOs to use mobiles, not necessary to have internet
  • it provides a communication platform, not a tool for something particular
  • it empowers innovators and organizers to do what they desire to
  • basically just allows you to send and receive messages
  • examples: Nigerian election monitors, security alerts to fieldworkers in Afghanistan, spreading news in Iraq, rural healthcare network in Malawi, …

Online comunity for FrontlineSMS is about 470 people now – talking to each other, giving adivce

Why it works

  • Local ownership
  • Local Awareness
  • Free & works on available hardware
  • Replicably & scalable
  • No need for internet
  • Easy to ues
  • Responds to their needs

Logo – o/ – signifies empowerment

Lowering the bar

  • creating versions which work from USB
  • Mobile applications
  • MMS version

Tag line – how can we help the disadvantaged

Q & A:

Technology – is it quite basic? Just sending messages between phones? How to get the numbers? Free SMS?

  • I don’t deal with that – the users do, they work out how to deal with it best

How can you monitor that? How does this SMS response work?

  • software is keyword-driven – can be posted to a website, sent be email, automatic response, call some totally different tool

What do you think about scaling? Is it possible?

  • It’s a big issue – how to scale stuff? Scaling can work horizontally – not one central big implementation but many small ones

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Nigel WallerMovirtu.com
How we’re creating access to basic phone services for more than a billion people earning less than two dollars a day
Connect the Unconnected

Working in telecommunication for 20 years – with the mobile operators (Zain, Vadacom, Safaricom, …)

Current mission: connecting the unconnected

What does Movirtu do

  • Research & dissemination of information how people use phones at the bottom of the pyramid (BOP)
  • Innovative infrastructure for mobile operators
  • consumer services

Who are the unconnected? People below $2 income a day

  • 3.5 bn people not connected
  • without phone
  • but still using phone services
  • spend 5-20% income on mobile services

Barriers to entry

  • handset prices
  • airtime prices
  • sim card costs for operators

Ways to get to a phone – shared phones

  • public phones, person to person sharing
  • nearly as many shared phone users as regular users

The problem

  • Identities – shared phone users don’t have an “identity”, they’re hard to get hold of
  • creating an identity for these people
  • e.g. email exists behind the hardware – mobile numbers depend on the hardware
  • why not take the phone number away? – put the phone number back in the network & use phone as network clients
  • you can do everything as if had a phone – but you don’t need to buy one
  • buy airtime for your account – get a free number, access your account with any phone

Applications:

  • community phone – people using their own number
  • brand: sending free phone numbers to people

Q & A:

We can’t do projects without the operator; to get this working is quite complicated

There is a system around called Pigeon – SW based solution which does basically something similar. Why is it necessary to get so deep into the protocols?

  • It’s necessary to be able to make outbound calls as well; we’re faking a whole SIM-card, because of all the security our there it has to be quite complex

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Sian Townsend – Google
Conducting mobile user experience research in sub-Saharan Africa

At ICTD in Quatar: a lot of questions what is Google doing there – so this information should be shared in this presentations

Displaying asked questions by people via sms about diseases, agriculture, …

What is User Experienced Research?

  • deals with all aspects of user interaction
  • user experience, feasibility engineering, product management
  • what do people actually need?
  • about the whole experience of a user – how it looks, how it makes you feel, make it easy to use

2 tyes of research: tactical (optimising) and strategic (innovative)

Tactical: trying to find out what people exactly do when using a devices, where they get confused, …

Strategic: do people have unmet needs, understanding existing patterns, …

What is Google doing in Africa?

  • Offices in Kenya, Egypt, Unganda, Senegal
  • Launching search in African languages – 38 African languges
  • Google SMS in Kenya, Ghana, Nigeria – keyword based
  • Google Maps in several countries – user generated content
  • Research awards for students, literacy project, gadget competition

Google.org: social stuff Google does with 1% of the profit

A rising tide lifts all boats – any success is good – snowball effect

Mobile is the technology to work with currently – but ecosystem is complex (operators, …)

What new products to build? How do you know you want something if you don’t know it?

  • Field studies – using FrontlineSMS
  • collecting data, mapping them – user journeys
  • what happens when you first give people the opportunity to use a technology?
  • creating a lot of pilotes – many iterations

google-africa.blogspot.com

groups.google.com/group/google-africa-community

Q & A:

The sms-questions/answers were translated to English

What about the 100 best ideas?

  • Delayed, coming back to that

Why do people trust the answers of Google?

  • The operators brand helps the applications behind that (trust in the operator)

How are maps verified?

  • The satellite images can be used to trace the streets





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Africa Gathering – Talks 2
was published on 25.04.2009 by Florian Sturm. It files under global
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The downside of mobile technologies

We like to praise the availability of mobile technologies in African countries and to talk about the opportunities that emerged from the introduction of mobile phones. However, it is important to acknowledge that where there is much light, the shadow is deep. When we were in Africa last year to work on the UZI Africa project, we already encountered stories, where the mobile phone was responsible for family conflicts. For example somebody told us how a guy thought that his wife was cheating on him, because she was regularly calling a phone number he didn’t know.

Crystal Watley who lives in Kenya and works for Voices of Africa recently wrote about the negative consequences for family and social relationships at the MobileActive discussion group:

  1. Cell phones make it easier to cheat on your spouse.
  2. Cell phones GIVE away the secrets of the spouses that were already cheating thus causing household tension and domestic violence.
  3. African men tend to be very jealous and often use mobile phones as a way to control their women monitoring every message and call.
  4. Violence and jealousy is also caused between those who own phones and those who do not. Or between those with different model phones. Theft is rampant.

Surely this cannot be generalized, but it is important to keep the possibility of negative side effects in mind when designing technologies for the African market. Maybe technology can even be turned into a tool that helps to avoid and eventually eliminate such conflicts?

(Thanks to Crystal for sharing this.)





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The downside of mobile technologies
was published on 14.04.2009 by Martin Tomitsch. It files under sub saharan africa
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Interview with Blaine Cook (former chief developer at Twitter)

After last week’s interview with Evan Henshaw-Plath, we want to introduce Blaine Cook today, who worked on Fire Eagle together with Evan. We were excited to meet Blaine at the MobileActive08 conference in Johannesburg, since he used to be the chief architect at Twitter, before he joined Yahoo. Currently he works as open source developer for BT group.

Blaine has received quite some attention in media due to his role at Twitter. He also has a big name in the open source developer community, not only for writing an open protocol for secure API authorization for desktop, mobile and web applications (OAuth).

Find out in the interview below what his views on mobile technologies for development are and why he thinks that current trends of the mobile market in Africa will change how this technology is viewed.

Check out also this interview that he gave about his experiences with ruby on rails last year in June.

This is the 15th interview from our MobileActive08 video podcast series, shot at the conference in Johannesburg (organized by MobileActive and sangonet).





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Interview with Blaine Cook (former chief developer at Twitter)
was published on 03.03.2009 by Martin Tomitsch. It files under sub saharan africa
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Interview with Evan 'Rabble' Henshaw-Plath

Evan ‘Rabble’ Henshaw-Plath is currently working at Yahoo! Brickhouse. In the past he worked on odeo.com and Fire Eagle. His business card says he is a hacker & builder of things. We met this really interesting technologist and activist at the MobileActive08 conference in Johannesburg, where he shared his thoughts on emerging technologies with us.

One of the things he points out in the interview below is that mobile innovation in developing countries is currently restricted by costs. Text messages are a very powerful medium, but projects that rely on text messages are too expensive for actual deployment. In the interview he explains why many amazing projects around the world thus remain pilot projects.

Evan ‘Rabble’ Henshaw-Plath is also the co-author of the upcoming O’Reilly book Testing and Debugging Ruby on Rails. He blogs about technology and politics at anarchogeek.com.

This is the 14th interview from our MobileActive08 video podcast series, shot at the conference in Johannesburg (organized by MobileActive and sangonet).





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Interview with Evan 'Rabble' Henshaw-Plath
was published on 23.02.2009 by Martin Tomitsch. It files under sub saharan africa
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The next step in the mobile revolution?

After Samsung launched their glamorous solar-powered mobile phone Blue Earth last week, which is targeted at the environmentally-aware costumer, Chinese manufacturer ZTE is the first company to introduce a low-cost solar phone for the emerging markets. The Coral-200-Solar phone uses an integrated solar charger and promises to give people living in areas without electricity access to mobile phones. Digicel will be rolling out the Coral-200-Solar in selected markets from June. It will be interesting to see the impact of this new amazing piece of technology on those markets and also on the product developments of other manufacturers.

(Image from engadget mobile)





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The next step in the mobile revolution?
was published on 20.02.2009 by Martin Tomitsch. It files under global
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