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UPDATE 4. Creating Connections

For the family members (particularly the wives) of the unlawfully detained, one of the hardest parts of detainment is the loss of a confidante. How can we use technology to develop an emotional network of support for them?

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"It is your husband who is your friend, he's your confidante; he's the one you share everything with.  Your good, your bad; your grief, your happiness.  So I feel extremely lonely as a woman, that my partner is not here.  I cannot share anything, with anyone at all.  I mean the children are too young, I have to hide so many problems from them.  The old people are also very old and depressed, I cannot share my griefs with them."  - Amina

This excerpt, taken from the video above, highlights a key issue with illegal detention.  Amina's friend, her partner, her confidante was taken from her.   While he is irreplaceable in many ways, what if we could ease her grief by giving her someone to talk to, someone to confide in?

I propose a location-based matching service that will connect the wives of detainees with other wives of detainees.  These women need someone to talk to, who will not only sympathize with their situation, but will understand it.  Who better to fill this role than other women who are experiencing the same thing?

These women could be matched in a high-tech way, where they might sign up on a website such as Amnesty International, enter in some basic information such as age, if they have children, how old their kids are, and where live, in addition to contact information such as a telephone number.  In turn, an algorithm could be developed that would select the match closest in location (this is priority) and then who shares the most in common among the other demographics.  Once a match is made, the women could be notified of each other's contact information and they would be left to develop their own relationship.  I envision this as an emotional support network for women whose husband's have been detained.


Making this concept happen requires recognizing two different phases of the matching process, initiating a match and initiating meetings, and (within each phase) the differing types of technology and methods of use.  The update below should provide further detail as to how these phases would work and what technological means would be necessary.

Technology, Generally:

Web database. Skype. Telephones. SMS messaging. Shift Van. Human capital (matchmakers). Letter writing or audio communication.

Technology for Initiating a Match:

Web database. While I’m not really familiar with web design/programming in an in-depth way, I think developing this website should be straightforward. It would have to be designed so that you would answer several basic questions about yourself and provide your contact information (e.g., SMS, phone, town, and Shift Van stop). This information would trigger a search for potential matches. This search would operate in a way very similar to dating websites; the match is made based on location first, then on answers to key questions. The results of a search lead to two possible scenarios:

  • A match is not immediately available. The information already entered would be stored and used to create a pool of potential matches. As this pool grows, more and more matches should be immediately available.
  • A match is immediately available. The if-then logic from the initial questions leads to a pool of logical matches. From this pool, the match closest in location is picked and their contact information is provided.

To emphasize, this website would not be a social networking website. It’s simply a means of creating a connection, not maintaining one. Once the initial matching logic is set up, very little maintenance will be required. The matching program will essentially run itself.

This is a prototype of the front end of the website.  (This is a very rough draft, I am not a developer!)

Note: In order to address language/translation issues with the website, the first 3 questions will be geared towards establishing what language the rest of the questions should be presented in.  This topic is addressed in the prototype, but the first drop-down menu would present the names of countries, in their native languages.  The second drop-down menu would then give regions of whatever country was picked, in that language.  The final question would ask for the specific language of the person, including dialects.

Shift Van. As it seems the Shift Van would have access to Wi-Fi, the Shift Van could serve as an access point for the website. Either through a personal computer, or through computer access provided by the Shift Van.  As Paul suggested, it would be worthwhile (in the Shift Van) to have some type of backup for the database that could be automatically updated.  That way, if the van passes through an area of low bandwidth, the saved database will be up to date and a match can still be assigned.

SMS messaging. You could send an SMS message with your location information, and the Shift Van driver could send a response with when and where to meet the Shift Van. Then, upon meeting the Shift Van, the scenario would proceed as above.

(Note:  According to Wikipedia, the term SMS messaging is an umbrella term which encompasses most forms of text messaging.  There are some exceptions though, but for the purposes of this concept, I mean those terms to be used interchangeably.  Referring to whichever service might be available in a given area.)

Little-to-no tech. It is worth considering that governments in areas where illegal detention is occurring may block access to such a website. As such, a little-to-no tech version is important to think about as well.

In this version, if in a rural area, the person could find their local Shift Van (or perhaps church or some other safe location) and then answer the same questions as on the website, but answered on a wheel similar to the one Megan described in the concepting phase. The filled out wheel could then have the person’s contact information written on it and the hard copy could be saved. Or, instead of the hard copy, the resulting shorthand code and contact information could be entered into an offline Excel database (remember, in this example the internet is blocked and the database is inaccessible) maintained on the Shift Van.  Then, when another person comes to the van looking for a match, the Shift Van operator could just key their code into the Excel database and provide them with the contact information of their match.

Alternatively (as suggested by Alix), in more populated areas an individual could be appointed, or a local NGO could serve as, a matchmaker.  These matchmakers would deal only in local matches and would assign matches immediately.  This would lessen the demand for the Shift Van and also provide faster service in terms of completing a match.

Using either method, these matches would not necessarily need to be matched based on location, because the very method of collecting the information would necessitate relatively close distances.

Technology for Communicating with your Match:

It is important to consider that in-person meetings aren’t mandatory to form a connection. That being said, they should certainly be an option. I think that likely communication methods would include letters, audio files, phone conversations, and in-person meetings. Some people may prefer the anonymity of a pen pal, while others may prefer the immediacy of a phone conversation. As I mentioned previously, the most important aspect of this concept is providing as many ways as possible for people to connect with each other.

Letter Writing and Audio Files. This method of communication would largely occur through the Shift Van. After being paired with a match, people could either exchange letters or audio files by dropping items off at the Shift Van, at which point the Shift Van could transport them to the person’s counterpart.

An option such as this could easily account for literacy issues. If both women are literate then, when in town, the truck could administer the letter-writing workshop Yen Chiang suggested, for the purpose of helping these women write to each other. If only one woman is literate, then the truck could offer a scribe (thanks for the suggestion Anne-Laure) who would write the letter for the illiterate woman. As well as offer audio recording equipment for the literate one (probably a computer with a microphone) so that her illiterate partner will receive an audio letter. If both women are illiterate, then it could be audio recordings only.

In this scenario, for remote areas where there may not be easy access to other detainee wives, the Shift Van would serve as a mail truck.  This solution is likely the safest in terms of maintaining relative anonymity, and also addresses literacy and technology issues.  The challenge with this solution is that the time required to get the message from the sender to the receiver may be greatly increased.

SMS messaging.  SMS messaging could be used for brief communication between matches.  It could also be used to set up in-person meetings between matches.  In addition to using SMS messaging to set up meetings among matches, SMS could also be used to set up support group meetings among multiple matches in the same area.  The women could register for the support group messages on the initial website where they register for matching service, or they could register with the Shift Van.  From there, they would be able to get support group messages (much in the way that universities now have emergency text services and can send one text to many people at once).  This way, you might send one text and message the whole group at once, kind of like this.  This could be used to express support to the group or in order to set up a group meeting.  Whether individually or as a group, meeting in person certainly best addresses needs in terms of literacy and technology challenges, but perhaps is the biggest safety risk, depending on the area.  Alternatively, text messaging with no in-person meetings might be challenging in terms of literacy, but safer overall.

Telephone. In addition to the other methods of communication described, telephone is also a possible means of communication.  This could either be through the use of personal phones, or phones accessed at the Shift Van.  While this method of communication requires more technology than letter writing, both this and in-person meetings probably best address the literacy concerns prevalent within some areas and increase the speed/immediacy of communication.

Skype. Finally, Sype might be a viable option.  If both women had access to the internet and computers (either through their own personal possessions or through the Shift Van) then Skype could also be a viable option.  This might meet needs in terms of safety, speed of communication, and intimacy.  It may become problematic in that Skype requires a relatively good and sustained internet connection.  Still, it should certainly be a possibility.

Note: The first priority for matching is location.  The second priority for matching will be methods of communication available.  So those with access to the high technology methods (i.e., Skype) would be matched with each other, and those with access to low tech would be matched with each other.  In terms of matching, location is the first priority and technology is the second.  So, if one match is returned with a close location but a disparity between high and low tech, that pair would win out over the match with a person far away, but with matching methods of technology.


This update is to address the suggestions of Amy, Jason, and Willemijn, originating below.

Jason brought up the issue of what happens if there isn't a match available.  I think the best way to address this would be to ask for volunteers on the site.  Perhaps when women sign up for the website, they could be asked if they would like to be a Friend in Need.  In addition to being paired with their own match, if they sign up to be a Friend in Need they would be volunteering to have their data stored in the system.  Then, for each new woman signing up for the service, a local match would be searched for first.  If none was found, a Friend in Need (with a matching language) would be searched for.  The Friend in Need would then serve as a temporary match for the woman (now Woman 1).  Because this match is only temporary, when a new woman (Woman 2) signs up for the system, her data will be compared against other local matches.  Woman 1's data will still be coded as unmatched, because she doesn't yet have a permanent match, only a Friend in Need.  So Woman 1 and Woman 2 will become permanent matches.  It will then be up to the Friend in Need and Woman 1 to determine if they would like to continue their relationship or go their separate ways.

Amy brought up two issues I'd like to address.  The first is how to give suggestions for the women about what to talk about. I think the best way to address this would be to have an audio clip on the website, giving a brief overview of some things to talk about.  Because Amnesty will likely either have people on the ground, or have connections with people on the ground, in these areas, I think it would easy, fast, and cost-effective to have a basic script available that each of these agents could then make an audio recording of them reading the script in the local language.  This could easily be attached to the website so that once the local language is selected for the text, the appropriate audio recording could be pulled up.

The second issue Amy brought up is a sensitive one.  How can these women convey to each other that they don't want to talk that day?  First, it is worth noting that this is only an issue with methods of immediate communication (phone, Skype, or in person).  I think the best way to address this problem would be to establish what is, in essence, a type of safe word.  This safe word would indicate that a woman is unwilling to talk that day.  It should be clear to both parties that, if the safe word is presented, they should stop all communication with their match for that day, no questions asked.  I think that these simple rules could be presented in the audio package I described for suggestions about what to talk about.  This audio recording could serve as an operations manual for Creating Connections.

Willemijn brought up the issue of safety, asking how can we keep people for signing up for Creative Connections with the sole purpose of trying to access personal information from wives of detainees?  I don't think this would be too much of a concern because of the nature of the relationships developing.  These women should be exchanging information about day to day life, and not information that could make them political targets.  That being said, I think it is enough of a concern that I would suggest adding precautions to the audio operations manual that include a warning that communications to partners may fall into the wrong hands and, as such, here are some topics that partners should avoid.


Inspired by Anne-Laure's recent update for the Shift Van and Marnie's recent update to her Collaborate with the UN Global Pulse Project concept, I would like to more explicitly lay out how women will be directed towards Creating Connections.  I think that local NGOs would be an excellent way to steer women towards this service.  Local NGOs will have the best grasp of who is in need of these services.  Additionally, Amnesty could use its network of connections to get the word out.  Finally, I think that via each website (Detainee Support Net, Local Advice Wiki, Sponsor a Spouse, the A-Z Guide for Families and Friends of Detainees, and the Universal Emergency Number) a link to Creating Connections could be posted, along with some basic information about services.


As intimated above, this concept could be integrated with the Detainee Support Net, Sponsor a Spouse, the A-Z Guide for Families and Friends of Detainees, and the Universal Emergency Number.  This integration could happen through collaboration with the UN Global Pulse project (as suggested by Marnie) or maybe even during the development of the winning concepts.  The benefits such an integration would provide could be enormous (in terms of getting the word out, sharing resources, etc.).


Ultimately, the key to this concept is maintaining as much versatility as possible in methods of communication. In various areas, there may be particular challenges associated with either the trucks, or the phones. In addition, some women may be more comfortable in reaching out via letter than phone, or vice versa. I would want this concept to offer as many communication methods as possible so that as many women as possible can be connected with the support they need.

What kind of resources are needed to get this idea off the ground and/or support it over time?

Before discussing the technological resources required, it is necessary to highlight a very important element of the website. Once the women have answered the initial questions, the profile they have created will not be publicly available or visible on the website. This information will go straight to the database and the rest of the matching process will occur on the backend of the site. The website functionality would have to be set up by a developer, but after that it could function independently with little maintenance. Though the following budget calculations do include some money for maintenance/problems. Resources to develop and run the website: 1. Time resources. It will take 2 developers several weeks to get the website up and running. a. It would take several initial meetings to work out the logic/conditions/questions and exactly how the matching should work. b. It would probably take a few days to design the webpage template, as this would probably take multiple iterations. c. Once designed, it would take 1 day to code/test the template. d. It would take 2 weeks for the developers to design the database/backend. e. Finally, several weeks would be needed to test everything and make sure it's running properly. 2. Technical resources. a. The website could be developed using PHP, MySQL, Django, or Ruby on Rails (all open source tools). b. The location based component could be set up using the Google Maps API. 3. Web hosting. The website would need to be hosted either through Amnesty or independently. a. It is worth considering that, should Amnesty host the website, this overt sponsorship may draw unwanted attention to the website in terms of blocking or potential hacking, etc. 4. Financial resources. a. $75,000 - $90,000. This estimate would include website planning, design, development, and several years of hosting. It also includes some money for maintenance issues that might arise. b. If this financial estimate is too high, it might be worth considering developing the initial database/functionality through a hackathon type programming event. Similar to events/organizations such as: - Random Hacks of Kindness - Hack for Change - Code for America

My Virtual Team

Thanks to the team at OpenIDEO for posting this video. It was moving and inspirational. My virtual team includes: The creators of all of the Top 16 concepts, but particularly those that I've noted in my Building On section. In addition to Amy Bonsall, Alix Gerber, Willemijn Elkhuizen, Paul Reader, and Jason George, who all brought up some great points during the refinement phase. And the creator of "Rolling" Away from Unlawful Detention, Megan Christenson, the creator of the Letter-Writing Workshop, Yen Chiang, as always, the creator of the Info Hub, Ana Cecilia Santos, and the creator of the Amnesty International III Shift Van, Anne-Laure Fayard. Finally, a big, big, big thanks to my friend Heather Young for her technical expertise!!!

How could this idea also be adapted to work in low-tech situations?

This idea incorporates both low tech and high tech scenarios.


Join the conversation:

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I think this is a great idea. Not only will it benefit the wife of detainees, it can further be evolved to act as a platform for wives who loses their husbands or those who lost their loved ones when their husbands lost their lives during their deployment to Iraq, Afghanistan or the middle east.

It's never easy to be on your own especially when you lose someone you've been used to living for ten twenty years so this solution would definitely help people tide over emotionally.

Edmund Ng

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