eInclusion initiatives in Africa: by-passing the digital divide with mobile technology and U-speak
- Monday, 17 October 2011 14:03
- Written by Louis P.
What is U-speak?
U-speak is our latest component. It is an online platform and an app using Geospatial Information Systems, which lets citizens report and comment on virtually anything they want – in just a few clicks!
What is it for?
No matter where you live or how big your community is, you probably see a few things that could be improved. All action starts by reporting it! And U-speak does just that – it empowers everyday citizens to improve their community.
The concept is simple. You see a problem, then check the mobile application or website to report it or see if someone else has reported it. Your local government reviews the report to see if it can be fixed or if it's already on their to-do list. U-Speak removes the barriers for local governments, making it easy to set up a problem-reporting platform for today's resource-constrained municipalities.
U-Speak uses the power of technology and community involvement for more transparency, collaboration, scale and efficiency in local government. The transparency of reporting issues leads to participation, which ultimately makes your community better.
How did we end up developing it?
It all started in Africa. No, really! U-speak was first developed within the framework of the Parliamentary Call system in Uganda, one of our pilot projects carried out with the National Democratic Institute. The initiative consisted of providing online communication channels to citizens within four constituencies, as a means to share their concerns with their elected representatives. Citizens were given the opportunity to express their views by selecting a location on a map and start reporting on it.
At this point, I am sure that many of you rightly ask yourselves about the point of launching eInclusion initiatives, in regions where there is no access to the web. Sure; there wouldn’t be much point in calling it an eInclusion initiative, if it only benefited the happy few, right? Right. And internet penetration in Uganda is low...extremely low. According to the World Bank’s World Development Indicators, there’s only a rough 8% of the whole population who actually access the web – and that’s for the whole of Uganda – not rural Uganda.
But while internet penetration is low, mobile devices are booming! In fact, the United Nations International Telecommunications Union reveals that mobile phone use in Africa is growing faster than anywhere else in the world and argues that now its market is actually larger than North America's. Progressively coming to be seen as a ‘universal device’, for both its low price and its wireless connectivity, Mobile technology has potential to impact on the lives of the world’s poorest people; not just through voice communication but also through other applications such as information delivery, social networking, and service delivery.
It was clear to us, that to truly empower citizens, we had to by-pass digital exclusion and income inequality by setting up alternative channels which would take advantage of mobile technology. So we established two additional offline channels enabling constituents to voice their views by means of text messages and voice mails to a dedicated line, at no charge. At the other end, specialized data entrants would process the information received through these channels and sort it out by issue and location, to upload it on a tracker. This information would then be displayed on a secured dashboard to which each MP had access. This way each elected representative could see citizens’ messages according to their nature (opinion, request for information, or request for action), their primary and secondary issue (health, education, agriculture, etc.), their locations, etc. What’s more, the MPs could generate reports designed to assist them in making the most informed decision about his constituency. Depending on the number of messages in each policy category, MPs could assess what are the priorities of his/her constituency.
And it works – to the point that we’re currently working on setting it up for the entire National Assembly in Uganda. Neat huh? Neat indeed.
We are now engaging public administrations to convince them to adopt our technology. By crowd-sourcing the task of reporting faults – municipalities can greatly reduce their costs of operations, thus improving pareto-optimality in governance. What’s more, opening channels of communication to give citizens’ the opportunity to voice their own concerns, quickly leads to greater levels of trust towards governments too.
The more people use the platform – the more governments will be inclined to adopt the platform as a solution.
Why don’t you give it a try! Just start by reporting anything you can think of.