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Boosting community development, disease control with SMS-based platform


Lily Nasur, a UReporter from Nakapiripirit district, North Eastern Uganda helps mobilize members of the community to attend Family Health Days – during which a package of health interventions is offered at various places of worship for free. (c) UNICEF Uganda/2013/Yusuf Atef

Lily Nasur, a UReporter from Nakapiripirit district, North Eastern Uganda helps mobilize members of the community to attend Family Health Days – during which a package of health interventions is offered at various places of worship for free. (c) UNICEF Uganda/2013/Yusuf Atef

Can an SMS-based platform be effectively used to empower Nigerians by enabling them to participate and engage in policy-making and governance and access real time information on key social issues as well as control disease spread?

The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and partners last week launched the U-Report, an innovative SMS-based platform, which they said enables those who voluntarily register – known as U-reporters – to speak-out on what is happening in their communities, provides a forum to amplify their voices through local and national media, sends alerts to key stakeholders about the issues their constituents are facing, and feeds back useful information to the U-Reporters, so they are empowered to work for positive change and improvements in their localities.

UNICEF Representative in Nigeria, Jean Gough, said the platform provides decision makers a forum to listen to millions of voices through simple messaging.

According to the UNICEF document, in the last one-year with support from Airtel, MTN, GLO and Etisalat the number of U-reporters has rapidly grown to about 200,000 with thousands joining every month from all parts of the country.

UNICEF said the number of U-reporters is expected to top a million by the end of 2015. Gough said it has also attracted strategic partnerships with civil society organizations, UN agencies and Government Ministries, who contribute by selecting poll questions and promoting the platform to Nigerian citizens, as a tool for civic engagement and community empowerment.

The UNICEF Representative said: “Today more than ever before community journalism through communication technology can help engender good governance, accountability, social change and improve health standards.

“U-Report platform provides a thrilling opportunity to contribute to positive social change in the Nigeria.”

UNICEF said about 15 million text messages were sent out through the U-Report platform while the Country battled Ebola. Gough said the awareness messages and real time responses via sms and on the U-report Social media platforms sent out during the Ebola outbreak were able to address mythical cures like bathing with hot water and salt, taking bitter kola to cure the disease. U-Reporters were informed on how to identify the disease, and how to keep safe.

According to UNICEF, the U-Report Nigeria has sent out more than 50 polls and 26 million messages over the past one year on Prevention of Human Immuno-deficiency Virus (HIV)/Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS), unemployment, maternal and child health, safety and security in schools; child protection and security in general, electricity, water and sanitation hygiene, among others.

Gough said UNICEF Nigeria is working closely with its partners; the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC), National Orientation Agency (NOA) the Scouts Association of Nigeria, Boys Brigade and Girl Guides, Religious and Traditional leaders, the Media and Telecommunication service providers to scale up registration and increase impact.

Gough said UNICEF strongly believes that through U-report communities can constructively contribute to the betterment of their standard of living and significantly contribute to transparency and accountability in the management of public funds, which is key to development.
She said: “The support provided by AIRTEL, MTN, GLO, and Etisalat this past one year made u-report to grow to what it is today and we look forward to a continued collaboration with these companies as we strive to achieve our target of million u-reporters by the end of this year.”

To become a U-reporter in Nigeria, UNICEF Nigeria Head of Communication, Geoffrey Njoku, said: “Text the word ‘JOIN’ to 24453. It is free.

“To access and utilize U-report information, see via a mapping infographic interface, the website shows U-Reporter responses across Nigeria to over 50 questions over the past one year. Poll questions on a wide range of development topics continue to be asked to U-Reporters every week, providing a deep source of real-time information on the views and opinions of Nigerians.”

UNICEF consultant to Nigeria, Caroline Barabwoha, explained that the initiative is highly promising in Nigeria due to the large population of the country.

Barabwoha, who was part of the same program in Uganda for about three years, also said that the motive behind this program was for community engagement and participation in issues that affect them for development to take place.

As a young person, Caroline is inspired to ensure that as many young Nigerians as possible are part of U-report. By using a tool such as a mobile phone, which everyone has in every household, and in every community, people who are often left out of decision-making now have a powerful voice to speak out and be heard.

There is no charge at all for a U-reporter to send any message. Weekly polls are sent out on Wednesday and results are shared on Monday. It is simple to use and alreqady plans are on to introduce local languags such as Hausa, Pidgin, Igbo and Yoruba to ensure no one in the community is left out.

“It’s easy to become a member. All it takes is to sign up by texting “JOIN” to 24453. You can join as long as you have a cell phone that is connected to any of the networks, Airtel, MTN, Etisalat and Glo. All messages are free of charge.”
Compared to other countries, one strong point we have seen with Nigeria is the existence of the National Youth Service Corps, NYSC, members gives strong potential compared to other countries.

“In Uganda where I come from, this platform does not exist. The NYSC being our first partner, is a very good entry point and a strong potential because we are looking at the possibility of over one million corpers joining over the course of one year.

“If each of them is reaching about five others, that is a very strong potential to spread out and you cannot ignore the power of the youth in a country like Nigeria where a huge population are youths,” she asserted

Meanwhile, Idibon, in February 2015, announced a collaboration with UNICEF to provide scalable natural language processing and analytics to their U-report applications. U-report applications leverage UNICEF’s open source RapidPro platform, which empowers governments to deliver valuable real-time information and connect communities to available services via text SMS messages.

Text messages are the most widely used digital communication for many of the world’s poorest people, for whom cell phone ownership is more widespread than access to fresh drinking water, education or basic health.

Idibon’s Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Robert Munro, said: “Processing text messages from anywhere in the world goes to the heart of Idibon’s mission. Helping organizations process communications in any language gives a voice to the most overlooked people in our connected world — the more than 50 percent of the world who do not speak English, Chinese, Spanish or any other dominant language.”

In the collaboration, Idibon is helping UNICEF process messages sent from citizens to their analysts in potentially hundreds of languages.

Chief Technical Officer (CTO) of UNICEF’s Global Innovation Centre, Evan Wheeler, said: “We are excited to work with Idibon to explore new ways of engaging with the young people that we serve — in their own local languages and dialects. Thanks to Idibon’s unique natural language processing technology, we’ll be able to better understand and empower marginalized communities that are often excluded due to language barriers.”

“Our machine learning systems can help UNICEF understand the most pressing needs of the populations they serve, at a scale not currently available to social development organizations,” explained Munro.

Prior to Idibon, Munro ran the largest uses of text messaging for disaster response and wrote his Stanford PhD thesis about the use of machine learning for this purpose. Overseeing the project within Idibon is Jessica Long. Her unique experience combines a MS in Natural Language Processing at Stanford with work in health information systems in rural Burundi.

Idibon was founded with the mission of bringing smart language processing to all the world’s languages and has deep expertise in social development engagements. Idibon’s investors include Khosla Ventures, where Vinod Khosla has been a thought leader on income disparity and machine learning, and Morningside Ventures, run by the Chan family who recently gave $350m to the Harvard School of Public Health, the University’s largest ever gift. Idibon has been actively involved in processing unstructured data and text classification in disaster and development contexts, supporting damage assessments following Hurricane Sandy in New York, helping track epidemics globally, and partnering with organizations like the MIT’s Humanitarian Response Lab.

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