A human-powered, user-created, SMS-based search engine that saves lives – made in Zambia
“Well, we were getting a lot of the same requests for information from kids – so I thought I should make the system smart,” says Andre Lesa, the lead developer for Zambia’s uReport “so now it learns from what they’re talking about and helps them faster.”
Andre isn’t building a Zambian Skynet – he’s helping to engineer uReport – an SMS (text-message) based system that currently connects 45,000 young Zambians to 24/7 counseling and health advice. The system has had more than 29,000 conversations (defined as more than one message back-and-forth around a specific query), and is a vital doorway to information for young people who might not have access to an internet café or mobile data.
Here are three reasons that Zambia’s uReport is unique and should be scaled as a model for providing access to information to young people.
- No one likes phonecalls anymore. If someone wants quick information about a sensitive subject they’re much more likely to text than to want to talk. uReport has counselors who are specifically trained in SMS-based counseling, available 24/7 – and each one can deal with multiple requests at a time, creating efficiencies that don’t exist in traditional helplines (and referring cases that need a voice to a related voice-based helpline).
- It’s built by young people, in Zambia, where it’s being used. Adolescents design the messages (“the first message sent by UNICEF sounded so boring, no one would ever read it – so we re-wrote it, and every one afterward,” explained one young uReporter to me.) The content is youth generated. The code is branched off a main RapidSMS repository and has been customized by Andre and other young developers in Lusaka. I was interviewed for a radio publicity piece by one of the uReport celebrities – who had just graduated highschool. The counseling is done by youth. This is an example of creating an open-closed-system – UNICEF has written itself out of the design, ensuring that it is truly user-driven.
- It’s working to lower HIV infections. The system sends the equivalent of context-sensitive ads after a conversation finishes (sometimes right after, sometimes days later) saying things like: “since we think you might have been asking about ….” and providing relevant follow up information. In a small group of 5,000 uReporters who were given personalized messaging, 40% decided to go for voluntary HIV testing for the first time in twelve months. General HIV testing rates are about 24% in Zambia. That’s a better click-through rate than Facebook gets on its targeted ads, and these messages are saving lives.
Zambia’s uReport system is open-source and ready to get bigger. The office is in the middle of an evaluation – as Dr. Landry Tsague says: “it’s been proven in concept, now we’ll prove it in principle through a randomized control trial.” The mobile service providers in Zambia will need to become close partners in this project’s scale up. The idea of collaborative design, and collaborative dissemination are lessons that anyone creating complex system solutions can learn from and apply.
21 March, 2014