Monday, November 5, 2012
Shot@Life Trip Blog: Uganda Innovations with Cell Phones
Many reading this blog know me as an anti-poverty advocate and a mom. Some, but not lots, know that my background is actually in engineering. Let's just say I have a fondness for data and for people who use data wisely.
I was delighted to discover we were visiting a country where the UNICEF crew is on the forefront of poverty-fighting innovations. They were, with good reason, especially proud of the tech innovations they've started with cell phone technology. Not smart phones like most of us Shot@Life moms were carrying, but regular ol' cell phones with SMS text capability. Since many Ugandans carry this kind of low-tech phone, the opportunity to reach people all over the country instantaneously is unprecedented. There are two programs I want to tell you about: Mtrac and U-report. They make my geeky heart go pitter-pat!
U-report: Ureport is a free SMS-based system that allows Ugandans to speak out on what's happening in communities across the country, and work together with other community leaders for positive change. (You can look at it yourself by clicking here even though some of it isn't in English) Along with with the government, UNICEF is publicizing heavily to let Ugandans know anyone with a mobile phone can participate for free. Ureport sends weekly opinion polls, health alerts, and health notifications to help support programs already in place. Let's look at how this can work using the example of Family Health Days that we were there to observe.
The first round of Family Health Days took place this past July in particularly vulnerable districts, including Kabarole and Mubende, two of the districts we visited. Ureport was used to send texts to let people know the dates and locations to increase attendance. The districts later were polled by Ureport with a simple text question: "Did you or your family take part in Family Health Days? Please tell us why?" The information is summed up in this graphic pulled from their website:
Radio and newspapers publicize the results of polls on this and many other topics. U-reporters can send in their own comments, too, not related to the prescribed questions and members of Parliament receive monthly reports concerning issues raised by constituents.
There’s 154,434 members of Ureport right at this very moment, and hundreds more join each week. The average age of a Ureporter is 24, and over half are female. Poll response rates are steadily growing. As a volunteer with RESULTS, which is all about citizen empowerment in the U.S., this is truly exciting to see young Ugandans using their voices in their democracy.
MTrac: This is an SMS-based disease surveillance and medicine tracking system for all health facilities & 8,000 medicine-distributing village health workers. It provides Ugandans with timely and accurate data for response, while monitoring performance of health programs. It lets everyday citizens report things like drug outages. That may sound kind of dry and boring, but let's think about what that might mean for tuberculosis control. (Still too uninteresting? TB is the airborne disease that causes coughing up of blood and death if untreated. Got your attention now?) If you're living in a remote area of Uganda and can't get your allotment of meds, you can send a free text to the proper authorities saying "We have not received TB drugs here in a week and we need them for treatment" And then the bigger part of it is to have it acted upon. This would be critical interaction for the Ministry of Health to have with citizens because the treatment of simple TB costs only US$30. Without proper treatment, multi-drug resistant TB costs US$3000 and loss of life of many if not treated at all. For more info on Mtrac, see an article in Time magazine about it here. It also uses citizen feedback through U-report and an anonymous hotline to integrate strong governance and accountability. It has been rolled out in 28 out of 112 districts and will be scaling to national coverage in 2013. Whee!
There are a number of other cool programs like Mother Reminder (text reminders about prenatal visits and health tips), Edutrac (school monitoring to report violence in schools or teacher absenteeism), Birth Registration (what it sounds like), and many others. In fact, there is currently a moratorium on the starting up of new programs just because the government and UNICEF have a keen desire to make sure all these programs are integrated and work well together. But the initial successes and potential of these programs makes me happy that there are such strategic and forward-thinking people at the helm. Seeing the level of thought and excitement in the UNICEF offices make me very, very hopeful for the future of the country and for all of Africa.