Combating Rumors About Ebola using SMSs

[This article was first posted on Medium on March 27, 2015. This article is an account of the project I managed as a Country Director in Liberia during the Ebola crisis]

When misinformation is a case of life or death, aid workers and communities need an ear to the ground.

The rumor began with a fever. On March 4th, 2015 in a public school in rural northern Liberia on the border with Guinea, a child was diagnosed with a high fever. Following protocol in a region where Ebola cases remained a concern, the school called an ambulance to take the child for treatment. But when the ambulance arrived, students began to panic and flee the campus. Parents began to frantically connect by phone and a rumor quickly spread to the larger town of Sanniquellie, 35 km to the south.

The rumor?

“People are vaccinating children in schools and the vaccinated children are then taken by ambulance and hospitalized.”

Within the hour, parents throughout the region were rushing to local schools and removing their children.

Luckily, in this case the rumor was short-lived. Information about the panic was quickly communicated to local radio stations who set the record straight, calming the anxious population. The broadcasts were followed up by local health teams who made school visits. The rumor was stopped before it reached the highly populated Ganta school system, another 35 km south of Sanniquellie.

Replicating this system to refute future rumors is not so simple. Rumors spread quickly and generally through word of mouth, SMS and social media — channels that are hard to track and monitor. Rumors that start far from the capital, where most aid organizations are based, can grow out of control very quickly.

Rumors can kill

What is now clear to healthcare organizations working on the ground in West Africa is that the Ebola epidemic has been driven as much by misinformation and rumors as by weaknesses in the health system. It is common sense that information is a critical element in combatting disease, particularly when contagion from common social practices, such as bathing the corpses of the deceased, were central to so much of the early spread of the disease. But in the context of a massive disease outbreak, when hundreds of international organizations and billions of dollars flood into a region whose fragile infrastructure has been damaged by years of civil war, information dissemination becomes a powerful challenge.

In the Ebola outbreak, the international community quickly created a series of wide-scale social behavior change communication campaigns, a typical approach in humanitarian aid. The result was that local populations were bombarded with massive but poorly-coordinated blasts of messaging on billboards, in print, on radio and TV, through health outreach workers and community organizations, via SMS and call-in hotlines.

One thing that was routinely missed in this chaotic information environment was that one size does not fit all.

Local beliefs and attitudes were in some cases a serious impediment to people acting on the messages. Some communities believed, for example, that the bleach sprayed by health workers to sanitize the environment was the government spraying the virus and spreading disease. In other cases, people believed the disease was the result of black magic. In this context, misinformation could spread quickly and along with it, infection and death.

Even for those communities where generic messaging was absorbed, or where there was hope that Ebola was contained, significant challenges remain. People needed ongoing information about Ebola prevention and preparedness for future epidemics. They were hungry to hear about situations on the borders and the resumption of trade and commerce. Many parents were fearful of sending their children to schools that were once used as Ebola holding centers and were resisting regular vaccination schedules for measles or polio because they feared Ebola vaccinations.

”DeySay” SMS

In this complex environment, aid workers were grappling with how to get a better handle on rumors, and how to refute them quickly. In partnership with the Liberian National Red Cross Society, UNICEF and Project Concern International, Internews developed a simple but critical new tool. DeySay SMS (“Dey Say” refers to how people speak about rumors in Liberian English), to detect and manage rumors in as close to real-time as possible.

DeySay began with an SMS short code, provided by UNICEF free of charge to hundreds of health workers, NGOs and volunteers on the ground throughout Liberia. When anyone connected to the system becomes aware of a rumor, they texted it via the short code to a central coordination hub in Monrovia.

DeySay System Architecture. Credit: Internews

The information was then collected, analyzed for trends, and disseminated to local media partners in the field with details about the rumor so they could stop its spread. Once the system was fully functional, aid workers and social mobilizers in the relevant regions were put on alert so they could go door-to-door to calm anxieties and correct misinformation.

In conjunction with the rapid response system, DeySay also produced a weekly newsletter for local media throughout the country and partners on the ground. The newsletter highlighted trends in rumors and their geographic locations, and helped identify the most critical rumors at any given time. The newsletter also offered insights for local media into information gaps and challenges around Ebola and health reporting.

Information Saves Lives Newsletter. Credit: Internews

DeySay SMS offered both rapid response to rumors and, over time, collect and housed valuable data that could be analyzed and used to train media and health workers so they could be more prepared the next time the region experiences a crisis. Knowing which areas were prone to rumors, where the pockets of resistance are and how to truly communicate in ways that people could understand was critical not only for combating epidemics but for creating a healthy recovery.


The DeySay project was an Internews project in collaboration with UNICEF, Liberian National Red Cross Society and Project Concern International. The project is funded by USAID under the Health Communication Capacity Collaborative (HC3) project.

The Humanitarian Information Dashboard 7 months later

[This blog post is an abstract of the “Next Steps Report” produced by Internews and Aptivate in August 2015]

Seven months later, I am really excited to talk about what we have done with the Humanitarian Information Dashboard (HID). The system was designed to track and analyze community views and humanitarian related data during emergencies. The platform aggregates feedback from affected communities to give humanitarian responders unprecedented insight into community information needs and make informed decisions that save lives.

The HID supports Internews’ belief that information is an essential part of humanitarian relief and helps Internews respond to issues of information overload during a time of crisis. The main goal of the dashboard is to create:

  • greater trust and security around information;
  • an improved efficiency of response efforts during emergencies;
  • identified knowledge gaps within communities affected by a humanitarian disaster;
  • more targeted information delivered to communities affected by a humanitarian disaster.

Review of developments to date

A great deal of useful, valuable and complex work has been completed during the first phase of the HID development, done between February and August 2015 with Aptivate, an established NGO that believes in the power of knowledge and communication to alleviate poverty, suffering and conflict, and in the right of every individual to inform and be informed. Aptivate is dedicated to developing ICT services that facilitate communication for unconnected communities, empowering ordinary people across the developing world to improve their lives and has been selected by Internews to work on the this project. Associated with the developments achieved to date, there has been some important learning that has strengthened Internews and Aptivate with regards to their understanding of what a successful HID comprises and what opportunities and challenges exist for future development.

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What has been delivered

  • A working prototype of the HID for use by Internews in Liberia, designed for low bandwidth and with a responsive design interface (key requirements of the HID user environment).
  • Supporting documentation and deployment support in Liberia.
  • Architectural design and technical implementation of the REST API – a significant foundation for future developments of the HID based on robust scale and connectivity infrastructure.
  • Inception report and a more refined scope for the HID based on iterative discovery, development and testing with users.
  • A comprehensive evaluation of existing practice, data streams and software tools used in gathering information in global humanitarian response efforts.
  • Refined vision and implementation scenario modelling from field work, personas and user stories, user consultation and participatory discovery processes.
  • Huge insights into field office reality and field office working within which any HID solution needs to operate.
  • A more detailed understanding and documentation of future development options in the form of a features and requirements backlog and associated future planning.
  • Field user testing and a more defined understanding of digital literacy, functions and tasks of the target users.
  • Enhanced capacity of Internews staff based on training and support on agile product owner role and user testing.
  • Scope of the project refined to focus on Liberia office needs – that has been an important development – this is a big delivery in itself. Embedding in the office has been crucial.
  • An effective project management and implementation team working environment between Internews and Aptivate staff. With improved knowledge and decision making around the project as a result.

What is unique

  • The REST API is a unique contribution to this project and the wider information for development community.
  • The demonstration prototype of the HID is a unique and promising application. It is built using Open Source technology that has the potential for adoption and adaptation by others working in this area.
  • HID end user functionality that allow tasks and actions to be completed that it was previously not possible to do.
  • User testing and field usage of the HID prototype that has allowed previously abstract ideas to be field tested and trailed in a field deployment scenario.
  • Strengthening and enhanced dialogue around “communication and information as aid”
  • An understanding of how the HID can facilitate reciprocal and active engagement between humanitarian response efforts and affected communities, and consequently encourage responders to hear and respond to the most urgent questions from the community and that the community responds and provides feedback to relief agencies to ensure its efforts are relevant and actionable.
HID REST API Development

Significant effort was used in developing the HID REST API. A REST API is a software architecture style for building scalable web services. REST gives a coordinated set of constraints to the design of components in a distributed hypermedia system that can lead to a higher performing and more maintainable architecture. This was identified as important during the inception and discovery phase of the project. The REST API has the following features;

●      It provides a common architectural framework for future technical development.

●      It enables potential future changes to information inputs or feeds, their analysis and visualisation, without the need for re-engineering what has been done before.

●      It provides a scalable architecture that will support information feeds and updates in real-time with the potential for significant data volume handling in response to incoming messages and information (Event Driven or Real time).

●      It provides a framework to support integration of different web technologies, meaning that the system is programming language and technology agnostic. External modules could be linked or development more readily as a result.

●      It provides a separation of the UI from the back-end, meaning the HID could have multiple interfaces, using different appearances, even created using different technologies.   This also allows for replacing component parts of the system (e.g. changing database choice) when a need is identified without needing to replace what has been done before.

●      It provides a caching framework so that the system could potentially be refined in future to support true ‘offline’ use, with re-synchronisation when re-connected to the Internet.

●      It enables future extension so that other systems can integrate with the HID, either by sending out or passing in data, using a standard format.

●      It enables scaling to support potential analysis of very large quantities of data from social media and other sources.

●      It supports improvement measures (such as load balancing and queueing) to handle and maintain performance under high loads of incoming data or data processing.

●      It can help maintain performance when storing very large amounts of data.

What has been learned

  • A much clearer understanding of the role and field use reality of the HID has resulted from developments and learning to date – in terms of user requirements, user digital literacy, field teams tasks and operational reality and technical requirements. However, more still needs to be learned from a wider range of field deployments of prototype HIDs.
  • A clearer vision about what the priority implementation environment, context and deployment model is required to prioritize the next stages of development.
  • A good understanding of HID potential user and requirements (personas) has been completed. These were developed as generic personas but they have been most closely tested and validated in the Liberia country office context. Additional effort will be required to extend their testing and validation to other country offices during any future phases of development.
  • The initial plan of reviewing existing tools and taking those and integrating them into the HID was misplaced in what it could achieve. Aptivate was over ambitious in what they could achieve and Internews had too high expectations about what this would result in.
  • Moving from piecing existing tools together to custom development meant the project ballooned in complexity.
  • Investment in robust scale and connectivity infrastructure takes time and effort and, as a result, has significantly slowed technical development during this first phase of work.
  • The design decisions around scale and connectivity infrastructure may be useful for continued development but they will continue to make rapid end user functionality more difficult and expensive. A decision should therefore be made about continuing development within the initial design decisions framework.
    • Important scale and connectivity infrastructure back end, architecture and data modelling has been completed. This will allow future work on processing of data / links (which can be a highly complex undertaking in terms of processing data and volume data storage issues) to be addressed, if that is still a priority.
  • Real time visualization within the HID will be both a challenge and significant opportunity in the next stage of development.
  • Team structure and working has been refined and improved. An effective agile development relationship has been established between Aptivate and Internews. This bodes well for future developments.

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Delivery of value discussion

The prototype HID that has been developed, has been tested and deployed in a single limited environment (for the Liberia office). This small country office had a 3-person team dedicated to collecting (and helping journalists respond to) rumors from communities affected by the Ebola crisis, linking journalists with key decision makers, government bodies and NGOs, conducting SMS polls and essentially acting as knowledge intermediaries to local journalists. This information is sourced from a mix of data streams, in particular; RapidPro, GeoPoll, XLXS files.

The HID in this first phase was envisioned to streamline this information gathering process as it operated in Liberia. It allows users to tag and categorize content from these different sources (RapidPro, GeoPoll, XLXS) through uploading data via spreadsheet. This information can now be handled in a single location rather than collected and processed manually and coordinated via emailing spreadsheets within the office.

Processing data has been supported through batch tagging and deletion capabilities, as well as administrator-configurable bar charts showing data by category against selected dates.

In terms of delivery of value to Internews in Liberia, there has been real value delivered in the following areas:

  1. Operational efficiency of Internews Liberia field team
  • Reduced manual effort or day to day tasks around information flows and analysis
    • Visualizations (bar charts) can be created for sharing on the HID showing categorization of information needs (Questions) from the community. These are generated automatically for tagged data and can be set to each display the same information for different time periods enabling comparison. More can be done to increase the ease by which different time periods can be compared – such as being able to visualize two different time periods on one chart.
  • Improved team coordination
    • Team members can now coordinate tagging and data cleaning for both Questions and Rumors through a single location, removing the need to pass spreadsheets by email for coordination. Data can be added to the HID through spreadsheet upload (specific format for Questions and specific format for Rumors) or by manual entry.
  • Improved usability and ease of system use contributing to increased productivity
    • The HID enables batch processing – deletion of items and categorization of Question types – making the work of initial data handling easier.
    • Data can easily be sorted by imported date, creation date, or by category where applicable.
    • The most recent additions to the system can easily be viewed. The user can choose to see the full set of information held about an item on a per item basis.

2. Increased effectiveness and improved impact of field interventions

  • Increased analysis capability by field teams
    • Questions and Rumors can now have tags applied on a per item basis. This will form the foundation of some powerful data exploration and analysis capabilities once search and filtering have been added to the system. In the interim this data can still be captured for future use.
  • Improved data or information validity through increased data handling, machine processing and improved accessibility to information
    • Categorization capabilities, such as the implemented example of question categorization, enable consistent application of terms to items.
  • Improved information visibility within teams
    • Shared access and storage of information within the HID has moved information out of individually owned spreadsheets (with associated access, security and backup risks) into a single place, visible and accessible to all HID users.
    • Information handling visibility and progress tracking e.g. staff can observe progress and quality of information handling and tagging.
  • Improved opportunities for communication of complex information issues tailored to core field partners and user groups
    • Partners (invited users) can now visit the dashboard to see current information as provided by the team through the use of configured tables, bar charts and textual updates.
  • Improved information reliability and associated trust
    • Data handling process is now shared by users of the HID (in the country office), providing a central canonical storage location for information, increasing data security and hence reliability.
    • More open and shared data handling processes build confidence and trust in data and processes among HID core and invited users.

In addition, there has been considerable value delivered in terms of organizational learning within Internews and Aptivate, that can help guide future HID development.

Regardless of next steps, some core value and important developments have been made;

  • Core architecture has been designed and developed.
  • Prototype delivered for use in the field in Liberia.
  • Experience of all involved available to guide future development.
  • A much clearer set of functions and features and implementation options for Internews to consider to guide further development of the HID. These include a much more nuanced set of effort and complexity costing estimates.
  • Learning, ideas and data to guide the next stages of HID development and deployment.

Now, we are happy to share the code developed so far on GitHub and we invite all interested organizations, developers and agencies to download it, contribute to it or let us know what do they think.

The next phase of development will start once Internews has secured more funding for it, so stay tuned!

Learning from Kenya: using SMSs for a rapid response mechanism in Central African Republic

One of the biggest problem right now in Central African Republic is the perception in the two different communities, Christian and Muslims, that the two fighting movements, the Seleka and the Anti-Balaka, are the same thing than the communities themselves. This means that when the Seleka attack or kill people, the Christian community attack the Muslim communities living in their areas as a rapresail, and so it happens when the Anti-Balaka attack Muslims communities.

One month ago I had the pleasure to spend two full days with Rachel Brown, the person behind the creation of a peace building organization called SiSi Ni Amani (SNAK) in Kenya. Internews Global Initiative program asked Rachel to share with us her impressive knowledge and her lessons learned from her 3 years project in Kenya.

One of the most impressive and important part of her project for us was the way Rachel understood and used information dynamics to study the decision making processes that lead to violence in the context of the Kenyan society.

In this regard Rachel has done an incredible work based on the fact that violence behaviour is almost entirely based on information ecosystems dynamics, and how the way information is delivered, used, manipulated and spread has an impressive trickled down effect that affects entirely the outcome of a violent action or not.

During my stay in CAR I am having an additional confirmation of this kind of dynamic and I truly believe that the more we are able to adapt Rachel methodology to this context the more we can actually start designing some interesting way to mitigate violence in between the two communities.

Rachel created and carried out two very interested methodologies to understand violence and its development. She first was able to understand and realize that the violent behavior is not the result an immediate and sudden decision but it is the result of a process where information flows in a community and depending on the point in time, format, and the content itself, the informations triggers decision making processes that then results in specific action and behaviors. This dynamic is therefore not immediate but consequential, and therefore an escalating process that can be eventually predicted or guessed if the steps and the triggers are indentified in advance. Rachel called this the Football Match model.

The football match process basically looks at the ball as information. The ball is first kicked by player one in the field, and it is then taken by player two – player two can be of the same team or the opposite one. Once the ball in on player two he will also kick it and the all match continue until there is a score. If we look at this as an information system what happened is that information travelled Ina community from one person to  another and in the process people use that information to make decisons. This decisions and behaviors than trigger other players actions and behaviors. When it comes to violence this is normally translated into the escalation process.

If we look at the CAR dynamics of violence right now this is exactly what it is happening: Seleka fighters attack Christian civilians, and this triggers Anti-Balaka to attack Muslim civilians. This also triggers Christian civilians to attacks Muslim civilians and Muslim civilians to attacks Christian civilians. This all dynamic altogether also triggers civilians of both religions to flee from the areas wp they live in to escape violence, resulting in IDPS camps that become also source of tensions and targets for more violence to happen.

DO_NOT_USE_MARCUSC_2826353b                                              (photo from www.telegraph.co.uk)

Using the football match model Rachel did an analisys of the micro-local behavior that would lead to the final decision of actually engaging in a violent act. She did this by using a second analytical tool, whihc she called the Trigger analisys. The trigger analisys basically looked at whihc type of information, in which point in time would trigger a specific decision to be taken. Since the foot match model allowed her to identify the steps through which the information flows in the community, the trigger analisys was able to give her insights about which specific stage of the process was the one that would make people chose to spread an information or use it as a decision making base.

The third analitical tool Rachel used was what she called the hotspot analisys. The hot spot analisys basically used the insights from the two previous tools to indentify recognizable external evidence that a violent action was about to take place. This kind of analysis was only possible to be done because Rachel worked with members of the communities that had a deep knowledge of their own communities behaviors. It was also possible because Rachel staff had experienced already a violet outbreak, during the elections in 2007/2008 and those events provided very good insights on the development of violence in different communities in the country.

With the use if those three analitical tools SiSi Ni Amani was able to design very specific mitigation programs to use the already existing dynamic in their favor. How did that work?

Basically SiSi Ni Amani had local “monitors”, all members of the communities, that would simply observe their own community over time to identify when a behavior was associated with a hotspot. Once that behavior was indentified, the SiSi Ni Amani staff would use mobile phones to provide information that could potentially change the decision making process to avoid the decision to engage in violence.

Let’s see an example. One one the behavior that was identified by SNAK as an evidence of a possible decision to engage in violence was the fact that young people in certain areas were suddenly gathering in the street and talking in an animated way. This would normally follow the circulation of a rumor or information in the community about a recent violent event against the local community. Once the information was reported to SNAK the team would used already existing pe designed messages and send them as SMS to the local community youth.

Those messages had been designed by other youth in that same community in order to appeal to their peers. Basically the idea behind the design of those messages was that different people in the same community may be subscetible to different appeals. An example would be that young people are very susceptible to the idea of belonging to a group, and therefore if an action is seen as required to belong a certain group, they would most likely engage in the activity. A message that would break that dynamic would be to show them that the may be different other groups they could chose from, and that a certain action may not be the only choice to belong to a certain group.

The SiSi Ni Amani model proved to be effective – in the preliminary results of their extensive survey after the use of this system for the previous Kenyan elections, it looks like more than 45% of the people changed their mind after receiving a message from SiSi ni Amani. It also looks like that more than 60% of people forwarded the message or talk to other people about the issue.

What I am very interested about right now is on how we could potentially adapt this system to Central African Republic. We know that this trickling down dynamic is happening, and we know that rumors as well as information about attacks are at the base of people engaging in violent behaviors. Could we actually replicate this system in CAR to design a rapid response mechanism to prevent outbreaks of violence, at least the one committed by members of the communities against each others? (of course for this to happen the government would have to allow SMS again in the country).

Bluetooth is the Facebook of Central African Republic

[Cross posted from the Internews Centre for Innovation & Learning website]

It has been 2 years since I have been in Bangui. It is exactly how I remembered it: dusty, noisy, chaotic and fascinating.  On the way from the airport to the home/office I am surprised by how the recent events seem not to have changed the look of this city. Sylvain, our country director, reads my mind “Today is a good day, it looks like it is quite. But not all days are like this”.

I look for sights of the recent clashes in between the Seleka and the anti-Balaka..I can’t find any. I only notice that the place where I was used to go get roasted meet back in 2012 is now closed. Later on in the day Jonathan, our resident journalism trainer, will explain to me “There is a food crisis coming – beef meat is not available anymore – the Muslims have historically been the one breeding animals but now they have been pushed out of the country or are too scared to leave their houses, so there is no beef meet available anymore. There are already shortages of meet in some cities in the north and more is about to come. Since beef is not available anymore now, also the other meet is becoming more pricy and the local population have been over hunting bush meat, so that one is getting shorter and shorter.”

It is the end of my first day in Bangui and in the dark of my room I have a lot of things to think about. I loved this place since the first day I came here in 2011. And I thought there was nothing worst than CAR. Now, I can’t stop thinking that this place got worst than I thought it would have been possible, while I hear gun shoots in the background and a helicopter is flying over the house.

I could use this space here to explain what lead to this, but I am not sure I have the answer to be honest. I know it is not about religion, this is for sure, but I am not sure I know what this is all about. I will leave analysts and experts to explain what this conflict it is all about. I will focus on what I am here for: supporting local journalists to give people the information they need to make really informed decisions, and possibly to lead to a reconciliation process that is based dialogue and not imposed by a far distant “international law” that means nothing to the people living in CAR.

As it is always on my first day of mission, today was the day of questions. I believe that there are no experts when it comes to information systems, because by the time you become an expert the situation on the ground is changed already and your expertise is of no use. So the real expertise becomes asking questions and challenge all your assumptions. Only if you do that you can understand what it is gong on.

One of the things that I always tell people that ask me about technology and ICT4D in Central African Republic is that CAR has a mobile coverage of 30% and an Internet penetration of 0. 1%. This is why Internews in the country is working mainly with radios – radio is without any doubts the most widespread mean of communication in the country. Even now, when more than 50% of the radio stations have been looted or destroyed. So what’s about ICT4D?

On the way from the airport Sylvain tells me “There is something interesting happening – people are taking videos of the massacres and the killings with their phones and they share it”. My skeptical me start thinking “How do they share it? And how many people can afford a phone here?”

When I get to the office I immediately start chatting with T. the manager of our local partner organization and a very good local journalist. I ask him what phone he has – and he takes out of his pocket a new Samsung Galaxy 5. I ask him where he bought that. He smiles and says – “We may have no meat, but we have phones.”

Then he disappears only to re-appear 5 minutes later with 4 different phones:

 

The first one is a fake blackberry and it costs 15,000 CF, almost 32$. It also allows you to watch TV – all without a data plan. The rest of the phones are all around 12,000 CF, 24$. They all have 2 things in common: they have a camera to take pictures and to make video, and they all have Bluetooth.

I spend my lunch chatting with Jonathan about the meaning of this. Basically people take videos and pictures of the massacres and the killing happening in their areas – and share them in between each other using Bluetooth, or sometimes using memory cards. This is a completely closed and untapped information system that we still need to figure out. You get in the circle of information only if you are part of it already.

This got me thinking about the concept of homophily as it was explained by Ethan Zuckerman in the PeaceTech conference in Boston in 2014. In his closing remarks Zuckerman talked about how social networks are becoming vehicle for less dialogue and mutual understanding rather than the contrary, because of their complete reliance on the concept of homophily.

This paper summarize it well the homophily principle [translates into the fact that] people’s personal networks are homogeneous with regard to many sociodemographic, behavioral, and intrapersonal characteristics. Homophily limits people’s social worlds in a way that has powerful implications for the information they receive, the attitudes they form, and the interactions they experience. Homophily in race and ethnicity creates the strongest divides in our personal environments, with age, religion, education, occupation, and gender following in roughly that order. Geographic propinquity, families, organizations, and isomorphic positions in social systems all create contexts in which homophilous relations form. Ties between non-similar individuals also dissolve at a higher rate, which sets the stage for the formation of niches (localized positions) within social space.”

Basically Bluetooth is the Facebook of CAR right now, where closed information systems are created, systems that can function without Internet and still diffuse information that appeal to people sharing the same values – or in this case, sharing the same fears and maybe also hatred. But the real question is “What can we do?” How can we enter those closed and polarized information systems, if we are not even part of it? How can we create systems that prevent or fight against this new form of hate speech – because this is what it is, in the end – while we are not even sure that people really know what they are seeing – it is the Seleka killing the anti-Balaka or the contrary? Or it is just mob violence? It is used to fuel more violence, to show victory or to increase fear? How can we use the same system to fight against it?

Well as I said, this is the day of questions – not of answers, so you have to be patient with me – I really do not have the answer to this. But this all system reminded me of the use of What’s App during the Westgate attack in Kenya, something I blogged about here. Basically those closed systems offer a lot of advantages for people that want to use them to spread rumors or false information:

1) they are closed systems and rely on peer to peer trust – I trust you and therefore I trust what you are giving me – which allows for the primary source to become completely irrelevant to the reliability of the information, because the trust is transferred to others;

2) it allows for the information to spread fast because it is free and relies on homiphily;

3) it does prevent any sorts of cross-verification to happen: only people that are inclined to trust the information will receive it and they only share it with others that have their same values, so the likelihood of someone within the system to doubt the information declines considerably.

What this all system is making me realize is that technology is not only democratizing information but it is also “ghettoing” it, confining it into small areas that we cannot reach it that easily anymore, therefore enabling the creation of closer systems, rather than open one.  I am not advocating at all for a pessimistic “alarmist” approach, but I am wondering, what can we learn from it? How can we investigate and understand those new systems and enter into it, so that our approach to information is truly “global”?

Asia Trip 2013: Follow the adventures of a crisis mapper in Asia!

I owe an apology to my readers: I did not disappeared or stopped blogging, I just changed platform for a little while. No worries, this is still my official blog, but for the time being you can see what I am up to here. I am using this platform because it is simpler and easier, it allows me to post from my phone and not necessarily original content. As to say: different methodology, different content, different technology.

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I have started a long trip in Asia, visiting 6 countries in one month to work on social media, local technology communities, crisis mapping, local context with regard to communication with communities, media and much more. For the trip, I have set up a Tumblr, so I am using it to write about my trip, my discoveries, and interesting projects or people I am meeting.

I will be back blogging here once I am back into a more of a normal life, but for the time being, please refer to my Asia Trip 2013 Tumblr for more information about what I am up to 🙂

And, as always, contact me if you have any tips, suggestions or comments 🙂

Why Android it not (really) the future of mobile apps

I have been wondering in the past year were Josh Nesbit (blogging here) was, after stepping back from FrontlineSMS and finally concentrating fully on Medic Mobile. Then, one week ego, he suddenly appeared in Nairobi, and I could not miss the opportunity for a chat and an update on his last adventures.

Of course it turns out I was just not paying enough attention, but let’s skip the cause and go for the content. On June 6th, 2011 Medic Mobile announced the development of the first SIM Application for healthcare.  According to their announce “SIM apps can operate on 80% of the world’s phones from $15 handsets to Android smartphones – and Medic’s new implementation of this technology brings data collection to a new level of accessibility and affordability.”

So what is a SimApp really? Well the best way to explain it is to actually look at where the name comes from: App that sit on the SIM card. Normally apps are built on platform (iPhone apps, Android Apps and so on), which means also that if you want an app to work on any phone you have to create an app for each platform. Also, apps are most used by smart phones, when for features phones you max can have an SMS platform/USSD support.

The SIMapp solve this problem, by using the same system that mobile banking have been using for some time now: create an app that sit on the sim card and that basically “self-shape” itself according to the phone where the sim card is used. In this way you don’t need to build an app for each platform but just to put your app on your SIM. Depending on the phone the app will have have a different look and format, but the same content.

What this means is that with SIM apps, Mobile Medic is creating simple menu-based applications that can function on handsets four times less expensive and operable in the hardest to reach areas as well as on super expensive – high tech mobile phones (or tablets).

I know that the question here will be: ok so how do you get the mobile provides to give you SIM card space? – cause ultimately they have to do that. Well, this is where I think that the Mobile Medic team is seriously one of the most cutting edge and innovative group ever. They created a separate parallel SIM cards to run the application The card is as thin as possible (almost a 4th of the actual SIM card) that can be sliced on the top of the SIM card and that had its own processor running on it. This parallel SIM fit underneath users’ standard mobile operator SIM cards, maintaining connectivity to the mobile network.

So, why the hell are we waisting out time on the building Android, IPhone or Java apps? Why should I choose which share of the market I want, if I can have it all?

What Mobile Medic got is that today you cannot think about only working on feature phones or only working on smart phones: as long as feature phones are growing, the growth of the middle class, especially in developing countries, is corresponding to the growth of smart phones too. Platforms, as well as typologies of phones will also grow: from an economical point of view it make no sense for us to continue focusing on one of another platform: we should think  global and big..why try to get the right phone is you can get them all?

Medic’s first official SIM app is Kuvela, developed for PSI with support from the Maternal Health Task Force, and the company plans to develop many more. The combination of a SIM application and a reporting dashboard allows for the power of a mobile app to be combined with the power of a full features online platform.

From Josh (source here) “People get excited about the iPhone apps because of profit potential. We’re excited about designing SIM applications because of the impact potential, I can imagine all eight million global community health workers utilizing SIM applications to support their work and improve the lives of their patients.” In the future, Medic hopes to build applications for patients to help them manage their own health by scheduling appointments, accessing remote consultations, alerting the nearest clinic in medical emergencies, and more.

Now the question is: outside Health, how much potential there is in this application? What about if we have a SIMapp with a form in it for emergency situation, so that where there is an emergency everyone one can use USSD to send a form with his/her data to a central system that can immediately find out who is there who is not, if you are injured, what injuries you have, how many people there are with you. The advantage of this is that this system will be free (USSD and not SMS) so you don’t need a short code; everyone can have it already in their SIM card, so no need to have people phone numbers to blast them with SMS, and that you can send/receive structured information.

I am incredibly excited to see how we could use this in emergency situations and how this can affect the development of mobile apps, especially for emergencies!!