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AppLab’s Initial Social-Impact Measurement Efforts Pay Off

February 08, 2011

Eric Cantor has led Grameen Foundation’s AppLab efforts in Uganda for the past three years, and continues to serve as an advisor on the project.

Grameen Foundation takes outcome measurement seriously.  We want to make sure that our programs and services are effective, and that we can demonstrate their benefits before implementing programs or practices on a wider scale or urging others to replicate them.

With this in mind, we recently completed one of the first randomized control trials designed to assess the impact of a mobile phone-driven health service aimed at improving the lives of the poor.  The service we sought to measure was Health Tips, part of the Google SMS suite launched throughout Uganda in 2009 with our partners Google and MTN Uganda.  Our social impact partner Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA) performed the study.

Preliminary findings from the study are substantial, supporting some of our initial hypotheses and refuting others, and informing our approach to building pro-poor, mobile phone-driven solutions going forward. In short, findings indicated that when people learn of such services, they use them. People also seem to learn from this particular text-message query-based product.  But we also found that, because of the limitations of human motivation and barriers like language and literacy, we have a lot more work to do.

The Health Tips study was conducted in Uganda over an 18-month period. Before the launch of Google SMS in June 2009, IPA conducted a baseline survey of 1,800 people in 60 rural communities, assessing demographic profiles, attitudes, and knowledge and behavior regarding sexual and reproductive health, and collecting data from local clinics.  When we launched the service, we initiated a marketing campaign that randomly targeted half of those communities (the “treatment” areas) and did not reach the other half (the “control” areas).

[caption id="attachment_1471" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="Our studies have shown the value of "trusted intermediaries" -- such as the Mobile Midwife counselor in the photo above -- as a way to make mobile phone-based communications to the poor more effective. "]A Mobile Midwife counselor talks with a client[/caption]

Through randomization, IPA chose two sets of communities that were uniform in every relevant respect – except that one was exposed to the product through targeted marketing campaigns, while the other was not.  Nine months later, they began a follow-up survey of 2,400 people to detect changes.  They looked at data from surrounding clinics, conducted qualitative interviews and assessed the information provided to the communities. Because the targeted marketing in treatment villages was effective – we saw more than four times as much usage in the treatment areas as in the control – we were able to assess the effect of the service on attitudes, knowledge and behavior relating to sexual and reproductive health.

Lessons Learned from AppLab’s First Three Years in Uganda

January 21, 2011

Eric Cantor has led Grameen Foundation’s AppLab efforts in Uganda for the past three years, and continues to serve as an advisor on the project.

More than three years ago, I landed in Uganda to establish Grameen Foundation’s “Application Laboratory” – a program conceived to explore the potential of mobile phones to improve the lives of the poor.  In our quest to test, develop and expand mobile services that are useful for the most often-ignored people on the planet, our team spent (and spends) extensive time talking to our users, in the places they work and live, to hear about the good and the bad of the methods we are testing to empower them.

We sit under the mango tree at the rural health clinic, hearing about how people learn to avoid and treat common and devastating diseases like malaria and HIV.  We walk the banana plantations of farmers in the West, trying to gauge how they can best control banana wilt, using locally available resources and techniques.  We observe the effects of the rapidly growing “mobile money” phenomenon – essentially digital currency delivered through a mobile phone network – and assess how it can improve the lives of villagers.  We see how people interact with the Internet and other unfamiliar services available through the few laptops and smartphones in a community.  And we listen to farming groups, led by Community Knowledge Workers (CKWs), as they plan and prepare to bulk their crops for sale to the highest-paying buyers.  As white winter washes over the US, and the rains wind down and planting season approaches in Uganda, we share some lessons learned through this work in the hopes that our growing body of work, as well as that of other practitioners in this field, will benefit.

In AppLab’s early work, we tested a number of information services, leading up to our launch, with MTN (one of the primary mobile phone services providers in east Africa) and Google, of Google SMS Tips, the product that won the award for “Best use of Mobile for Social and Economic Development” at the 2010 GSM Mobile World Congress.  It was rewarding to sit on a farm and hear how making organic pesticides using local chemicals or even waste products found on the farm helped save a farmer money, and increase her yields and incomes.

[caption id="attachment_1451" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="Community Knowledge Workers act as valuable local intermediaries, bridging the "last kilometer" to bring essential information to other rural farmers in Uganda. Here, a CKW uses her high-end mobile phone to check for information on banana wilt."]Community Knowledge Workers act as valuable local intermediaries, bridging the "last kilometer" to bring essential information to other rural farmers in Uganda. Here, a CKW uses her high-end mobile phone to check for information on banana wilt.[/caption]

But what became quickly apparent was that information alone is not a complete solution.  A reference pointer or a tip about maternal health techniques may be useful to an expectant mother, but creating deep, impactful behavior change – what information-driven development initiatives seek – requires a context in which that information has a value. People certainly have a hunger for knowledge and a willingness to embrace the mobile phone to search for answers, as shown by all the questions they asked from the beginning about family planning, and HIV and other sexually transmitted infections, which affect them directly and for which few reliable, anonymous sources are available.  But we require several things to make this information actionable and impactful: specific information, a context in which to make it useful, and relevant services and resources.

A Day in the Life of a Community Knowledge Worker (CKW): Part 2

October 23, 2010

This is part two of of a two part blog series. If you haven't yet, we recommend you read Part One of his blog post series. In part 2, Jason Hahn describes his day with Esther, a kind-hearted Community Knowledge Worker (CKW), as she asks farmers to register for the CKW program, where they will be able to use smartphones to access CKW Search to access information about the current market prices for crops as well as ask questions about best farming practices.

A Day in the Life of a Community Knowledge Worker (CKW): Part 1

October 21, 2010

Jason Hahn describes his initial impressions of Uganda upon his return to the United States. Jason is the Information and Communication Technology Innovation (ICTI) Development Manager at Grameen Foundation. The ICTI team develops, tests and advances mobile phone products and services in Uganda, Indonesia, and Ghana to improve health care, farming, banking, and more. This is the first part of a two-part blog series on "A Day in the Life of a Community Knowledge Worker”

AppLab Wins Best Use of Mobile for Social & Economic Development Award

February 26, 2010

Eric Cantor recounts his story from Barcelona.

My heart was racing as I sat in an auditorium with several hundred of the 45,000+ attendees of 2010 GSMA Mobile World Congress . We were there to hear which of the 100 finalists out of 500 nominations for the Global Mobile Awards - recognizing the top achievements in the mobile world from the prior year – would get the one of the top honors in the industry.

The category of Best use of Mobile for Social and Economic Development was the reason for the aforementioned anxiety, because along with our partners in the AppLab and Google SMS endeavors of the last 2.5 years, Google and MTN Uganda , we had two entries out of the seven finalists. As the results were announced, we weren't sure whether we would win or not. Then the announcement came, it was us – we won the award!

They called my name and we went up on stage to accept the trophy, say our thank you's and give a brief acceptance speech. In my shock, I’m not sure what I said but I am hopeful it was fitting for the moment. This recognition comes at a critical time for Grameen Foundation . Since the inception of AppLab in late 2007, Grameen Foundation and its partners have been focused on leveraging the most successful technological innovation of our time, the mobile phone, to improve lives of the low-income individuals and communities who are always the last to be reached by the market.

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