Feedback from Innovations in Mobile Data Collection for Social Action: "If this is the Future, I like it"

Posted by KatrinVerclas on Dec 17, 2009

After coming back from Amman, Jordan, where we co-hosted a workshop on mobiles, data, and social action, we heard from many of our colleagues who have been blogging about their experience. We also combed through the evaluations and tweet and other social media streams to evaluate this unique workshop. Here are some excerpts.

Robert Soden from Development Seed writes

Last week I got the chance to present some work we're doing on Managing News and SlingshotSMS at the Innovations in Mobile Data Collection for Social Action workshop in Amman, Jordan. It was an eye-opening event that brought together representatives from the Iraqi government's Central Organization for Statistics and Information Technology (COSIT)UNICEF Innovation, and several dozen of experts on the cutting edge of mobile technologies, data visualization, and mapping.

The workshop was organized by Mobile Active with the goal of bringing new technology to bear on the challenges involved in Iraq's efforts to meet the Millenium Development Goals. We focused on using mobile phones for data collection around child malnutrition and school attendance. The Iraqi government and UNICEF are looking to collect this information so they can better design and target their interventions.

Several participants have blogged elsewhere about the difficulties on the first day of bridging the jargon-gap between the technologists and the development workers. Yes, the geeks spoke too fast and focused too little on storytelling during the first day's Ignite Talks. True, the development folks could have communicated more effectively about the goals of the project or the context in which they were working. As someone who has tried hard throughout my career to straddle these worlds, I can attest to a few painful moments.

But that's not the story here.

When Development Seed was first getting started seven years ago, this sort of event would have been unthinkable. For me the chance to participate in passionate, intelligent, and creative discussions with high-level representatives of a government and the United Nations about how technology can be utilized to solve some of the world's most challenging development problems was amazing. Even better, many of the tools and strategies discussed will be piloted early next year and rolled out in the months following that. This workshop was the real thing. Real decision-makers working with leading technologists to design and implement a project that would be rolled out in the real world on a scale big enough to matter.

We had great discussions about strategies for verifying data, making mapping participatory, visualizing data, and incentivizing participation in crowd-sourced data collection projects. The range and depth of experience of the attendees ensured that the conversations were peppered with examples of previous work conducted across the Middle East, Asia, and Africa. COSIT deserves a lot of credit for their willingness to adopt these tools as well as their active and critical participation in the group discussions. The UNICEF Innovations team also deserves recognition for spearheading the development and deployment of these technologies in a famously slow-adopting UN system. If this is the future, I like it.

Cory Zue from Dimagi notes:

Imagine, for a moment, putting a member of the Iraqi Ministry of Planning next to an MIT researcher working on creating distributed micro-networks of peer to peer communication through cell phones. Now say: “You two – go work together for Iraq’s children!”

Does this sound like an impossible task? The Iraqi is concerned about the unique challenges facing their operations. How to build trust in a government among a skeptical population base. How to tackle the problem of daughters being forced into early marriages, and thus never having access to a proper education. How to reduce violent crime by getting kids off the streets. And how to make policy decisions without access to good data, and difficulty coordinating among ministries.

Meanwhile the researcher is thinking about network modeling, asynchronous communication channels, and extracting meaningful information from a vast, complicated space of data.

Neither person has any domain knowledge of what the other person does or is interested in. Throw in a language and cultural barrier on top, and how can these two people possibly be able to work together effectively?

Well this is exactly what happened at the Innovations in Mobile Data Collection for Social Action in Iraq and the Middle East (tumblr, netvibes) workshop last week in Amman.

The key to solving this seemingly intractable problem was, as it often is, the right people. See, it wasn’t just the technophiles and the Iraqis in the room. There was an incredibly broad spectrum of people ranging from the uber-techies, to the tech-for-dev crowd (like us and the Ushahidi guys), to the UNICEF crowd of devs and program managers, to the local and regional UNICEF experts, to the team of ministry officials from Iraq. What this meant was that there was a perfect bridge of communication between every different group, and information flew readily from end to end along this bridge. Everyone in the room contributed to this process.

During the conference’s excellent IGNITE talks, we got an overview of all the different projects being executed around the world, and a picture of how these projects succeed and fail and how they might be brought together began to emerge among the community. At the same time we got to see several of UNICEF’s programs, both tech and non-tech. The convergence of these ideas, with the goal of applying them to help Iraq’s children, was one of the primary objectives of the conference. The ministry officials were supposed to pick and choose from what they saw and decide how best to apply technology for the kids.

But it wasn’t working. The geeks were talking too fast. The translators, struggled with the excessive techo-babble and NGO-acronym-speak. The team from Iraq struggled to keep up. And the techies couldn’t understand what the the team from Iraq needed from them.

This was where the bridge came in. A group broke off from the main session with the goal of framing the discussion in a way that the Iraqi officials could relate to, and providing them an environment to communicate their needs that they were comfortable in. With this bridge in place, each party was able to reach that a-ha! moment where they understood how they could work together.


For the Iraqis it came after an excellent talk about the RapidSMS Malnutrition Project in Malawi by Merrick Schaefer, and then a second presentation (in Arabic!) from Jacob Korenblum on Souktel’s mobile offerings in the Middle East. After a vibrant Q&A session, several of the Iraqis approached me for a RapidSMS demo, and when they saw actual messages coming to and from their cell phones and then showing data on a map they got it. They started talking excitedly about how this could be used in their own programs, and I found it one of the most rewarding moments of the conference.

Likewise, in the last session of the conference the Iraqis presented their visions for potential systems they could build to help the Iraqi children. This time it was the geeks who lit up. A lively discussion of how to build the systems ensued, asking and addressing questions that spanned from the current state of cell phone coverage and costs in the region, to defining specific user and service models, to the unique-to-the-region questions around building the population’s trust and working in an environment where security is a huge concern.

Word visualization of the talks with the Iraqi officials

In this way we were able to expand our small tech-for-dev community’s core of interested parties to both the hard-core techies and the Iraqi officials, and successfully build the bridges of communication to bring the most unlikely of partners together.

We greatly appreciates the thoughtful, smart, passionate people who were able to come together for the three days in Amman to critically and constructively engage, share, and plan together. If this is the future, we like it, indeed. 


Photo: flickr user katrinskaya

Feedback from Innovations in Mobile Data Collection for Social Action: "If this is the Future, I like it" data sheet 3248 Views
Countries: Iraq

Scenes from Amman: Mobiles and Mapping

Posted by AnneryanHeatwole on Dec 15, 2009

"Innovations in Mobile Data Collection for Social Action," a workshop co-hosted by and UNICEF Innovation in Amman, Jordan, featured Ignite Talks -- five minute presentations by inspiring people who are using mobiles for social action -- and interviews with key participants.

Igniting the attendees, Brian Herbert presented Ushahidi, a crowdsourcing platform that allows users to map crisis information from their mobiles. In an interview, JD Godchaux discussed NiJeL: Community Impact Through Mapping, which helps organizations share information and tell stories through maps.

Scenes from Amman: Mobile Data for Social Action in the Middle East

Posted by AnneryanHeatwole on Dec 09, 2009

"Innovations in Mobile Data Collection for Social Action," a workshop co-hosted by and UNICEF in Amman, Jordan, featured Ignite Talks -- five minute presentations by inspiring people who are using mobiles for social action in the Middle East -- and interviews with key participants.  Jacob Korenblum describes the work of Souktel in Palestine, and Erica Kochi from UNICEF Innovation, the co-host of the event, illustrates why data collected by mobiles is so important for their work in Iraq.