What good is an SMS switchboard for Kenyans and their local NGOs?

The storytelling project in Kenya is not just about monitoring and evaluation (M&E), and not just about communications. It is about local NGO collaboration with other NGOs and local community members. If it works, it will work because the SMS switchboard serves local people directly. What’s been missing in a comprehensive M&E strategy is direct civic engagement. Participatory feedback approaches help, but time has come to make these digital, as an automatic effect of using some other technology for a more immediate purpose.

I can’t imagine what effort it would take to get local Americans to attend a formal participatory feedback meeting. I’ve attended PTA meetings and city council meetings, but both make sense because a particular issue was to be decided then and there. Participatory feedback in development rarely is the sole decisionmaking process. And hence, I expect people who attend either need to feel very strongly about an issue or need to feel that the organizers have a great deal of influence over their lives. GlobalGiving doesn’t fit either scenario.

Complexty: Usually, multifaceted M&E plans are needed to understand complex interventions. In our case, it isn’t the interventions that are complex, but the landscape of many simple interventions started by local organizations. Orphanages, sports for social change, and youth training programs are easy enough to evaluate. The complexity comes from asking whether the programs funded through GlobalGiving are (a) representative of local needs and (b) community supported. We could work with everybody, but we’d rather work with the best. Finding the best requires hearing about the rest. We’d like to hear from everyone about everything, and that takes time.

There are two guiding principals behind our plan to involve local people – primarily youth – in the story collection project.
First: we should merge the project with other activities people already do, or want to do.
Second: Where the first approach is not possible, we incentivize people to do something, but not so much that personal reward is all that matters.

Volunteers need to have a passion for listening, because it may be the listening that is more transformative than either the technology or GlobalGiving. I know being part of the listening project has changed me as a person.

Example of the first approach: Kenyans all want to sign up for Facebook. Even in Kibera slum, people want to use it on their phones, but they need to sign up on a computer first. So of course, we need to test a kiosk where people sign up for FB, get a free snapshot uploaded, in exchange for sharing stories. We can invite them to “friend” GlobalGiving while we’re at it.

To a lesser extent, people want to be connected to others in their community. Facebook and twitter don’t do this so well at the moment. So we have an opportunity to build our own community switchboard and encourage early adopters to use it to text others in the community. NGOs have been willing to advertise their events, and I’m sure community members are willing to receive updates that allow them to come to events. The pass-a-along hasn’t happened yet, so this may only reach a subset.

Not every project needs to advertise. A rescue center might not host public events, but even here, at the one I visited – the house mother wanted to find an arts program for her kid. Requests are an implicit measure of activities too, especially when they are met by others who then comment on the meeting.

Another key goal is data interoperability. By merging the storytelling project with the SMS bulletin board, we allow two kinds of information to pass through the same network. This makes it easier to make connections as NGOs between community stories and community activities. Our storytelling method also adds context and attitudes to color events being reported. Third, by pulling in other social content from FaceBook, Youtube, and twitter, we begin to have a rather complete view of what people do, think, and say to each other about NGOs. Other NGOs can now look at this information and use it in a variety of ways to design new projects.

How it can be used:

Adding new elements to existing programs. The child rescue center learns about art programs in the same town, and the kids benefit. This could have happened other ways of course, but we’re just increasing the speed of collaborations by aggregating messages.
Redesigning projects. A sports team learns that another organization provides TB and HIV testing through a third NGO, and both begin to use this health resource.

Polls. Local NGO wants to plan a program and doesn’t know whether one artist or the other is more appealing to target audience. They have an A/B poll on musicians and choose the one that will yield greater attendance. People who are part of the process are much more likely to attend.

Personal needs feedback. Organization that delivers medical supplies can learn that a particular medication is missing from pharmacies (or counterfeited) much faster.

New projects. As people continue to coordinate, other listening community members and redirect the projects as they are being conceived as everyone can be part of the conversation by default. Unlike social media, you don’t have to friend someone to hear this, but we hope that these messages can also spread through social media, with the switchboard being the nexus.

I can think of many other examples, but people keep asking me what specifically is going to happen. I don’t know. But I can imagine a lot of possibilities.

See kibera.ushahidi.com for details.


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