Last Friday a group of six girls from Westpoint, a poor neighborhood in Monrovia – helped our team design a U-report – a system that uses basic SMS (text messages) to ask questions of and provide information to kids through basic mobile phones.  U-report has more than 270,000 users in Uganda, 70,000 in Nigeria, and 50,000 kids who get counseling on HIV through text messages in Zambia.

Part of Liberia's first U-report cohort making questions that matter to them (Fabian / 2014)
Part of Liberia’s first U-report cohort making questions that matter to them (Fabian / 2014)

We sat with mobile phones, scratch-off cards for calling credit, post-it notes, markers, and the accoutrements of the design world and they built a version of U-report that they wanted to use.

We gave them a set of sample questions – like “what information source do you most trust for your news on Ebola.”  Quick, final, and conclusive rejection: “those questions are boring.” “we wouldn’t write them that way.” Laughter.

So they re-wrote the questions

“Are you aware of the Ebola disease” became “do pple no abt Ebola” (no argument over the extra ‘e’ in ppl)

“What information source do you trust” becomes “which 1 will pple take on d info abt Ebola” (some argument over d vs da)

However, my favorite question-metamorphosis came when we were trying to ask “what has changed the most in your community because of Ebola” (to the great consternation and yawns of the girls).  This was quickly rewritten as

“wat bother U d  most abt Ebola” with the following possible answers

“1) No touchin 2) No bollin 3) handwashin 4) no school 5) no new bf/gf”

“What’s… bollin?” I asked.

“Ebesling!” they responded at once…

“And… um.  What’s ebesling?”

“You know… chillin, hanging out, clubbin”

I hadn’t known.  Nor had I realized how much more difficult the already torturous world of teenage romance had become, because of Ebola. “Now you have to stay with your old boyfriend – you can’t even go out and get a new one!”

The beauty of U-report, and other systems that are designed with their users, is that they can take on the texture and rhythm of conversations that happen naturally.  In a situation like the Ebola outbreak where conversation is vital, and where so much of the world (whether in the American media hysteria or rural Liberia) doesn’t have the facts about the disease – conversation must be tuned to local ears.

The first set of questions on U-report Liberia (Fabian / 2014)
The first set of questions on U-report Liberia (Fabian / 2014)

U-report will come out of alpha this week in Liberia, and will give us the tools to have conversations with young people in their own words – and to create a set of discussions that are both relevant, and built with the urgency and harmony of the voices of young people from the most vibrant and diverse communities in the country

So – watch this space and “still good n keep chillin”

Chris Fabian
Monrovia, Liberia
29 October, 2014