Feature Story

How the poor are benefitting from real-time data

by Melissa Jun Rowley

Poor benefitting from real-time data

A look at how mobile data collection and real-time data are serving disenfranchised communities in the developing world.

As a byproduct of connectivity, IoT and mobile broadband, commercial businesses spanning the First World are transforming into data-driven enterprises. Collecting real-time information and data insights has become a number one priority for companies across sectors, as the practice can mean better reaching and serving customers. For humanitarian organizations, having access to data can mean life or death for their beneficiaries.

A conundrum that a number of mission-driven groups face is their remote locations, which are far away from any access to an online network, let alone a decent signal. This leaves the collection of data at the hands of humans who must manually aggregate information in the field. And, this is detrimental for the already busy activists who are helping the poor in developing countries.

To circumvent this issue, activists on the ground are using apps and mobile platforms such as offline networks, SMS and IVR (Interactive Voice Response) to collect and transfer data.

How can data be retrieved through mobile without the Internet?

A product of Grameen Foundation, the mobile data collection tool creator TaroWorks provides an end-to-end solution that allows field workers in remote environments to gather, consume, and update data completely offline. TaroWorks’ client Iluméxico delivers solar products to rural areas in Mexico, using TaroWorks to track product maintenance, as well as the expenses and performance of their field staff in real-time. In a 12 month period, Iluméxico reported saving almost $41,000 using mobile technology.

See also: Harnessing the power of the digital revolution to accelerate global problem solving

"The 3-2-1 Service allows people to be the decision-makers regarding what information they receive and where and when they receive it. This is a really exciting achievement—to empower previously isolated communities with vital pieces of information."- Hannah Metcalfe, HNI country manager for TanzaniaIn India, where water runs to households intermittently, the mobile-based program NextDrop, uses SMS to notify people when their next water window will be open. To date, the service has reached 75,000 registered users in Bangalore. The social venture’s team is currently analyzing data to determine how the messaging system is impacting household welfare.

Meanwhile in Malawi, farmers have benefitted from mobile phones using IVR implemented by the global development organization, Human Network International (HNI). The on-demand messaging service, which is called 3-2-1, provides real-time data without the Internet.

Here’s how it works.

The 3-2-1 Service delivers information via voice recordings that are done by professional native speaking voice talent. The text-based information is provided by SMS and USSD (Unstructured Supplementary Service Data). Callers use their own mobile phones to retrieve information across a range of topics. Usage of each call is tracked with metadata including the timestamp, telephone number, menu decisions, and the key message selected.

A recent study conducted in Malawi, showed 95% of trial and repeat users of 3-2-1 have acquired knowledge through this service, with women and lower education users acquiring comparatively more new knowledge.

Hannah Metcalfe, HNI’s country manager for Tanzania, says 3-2-1’s focus is getting data in the hands of the people.

“The 3-2-1 Service allows people to be the decision-makers regarding what information they receive and where and when they receive it,” says Metcalfe. “This is a really exciting achievement—to empower previously isolated communities with vital pieces of information that they have chosen to listen to. Traditional mass media solutions have proven to be effective at reaching large numbers of people, but these channels do not allow the target audiences to have input.”

What are the greatest challenges in deploying mobile services for impact?

In international development, a condition known as pilotitis pervades the landscape. It spreads when mobile projects aiming to have impact make zero progress. The gap in measurable deliverables is something many humanitarian tech workers are looking to fill.

See also: Capturing innovation anywhere it lives

Having worked for GSMA, a group representing the interests of mobile operators worldwide, prior to joining HNI, Metcalfe is quite familiar with pilotitis. She says clear communication lines are crucial for moving forward.

“It was widely reported that mobile had huge potential in the Ebola crisis, but because there were misalignments in the different mobile offerings, people became spammed with information that was often conflicting or confusing,” says Metcalfe.

By getting data to the people in local communities, services such as 3-2-1 are creating pathways for clearer communication and ways for governments and NGOs to be better informed when they need to reach specific segments of the population. And, beyond all the commercial priorities of the First World, aiding the disenfranchised is the miracle of mobile. 


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