OpenIDEO is an open innovation platform. Join our global community to solve big challenges for social good. Sign Up / Login or Learn more


Voice it or text it, now every disabled South African can request services using only a mobile app.

Photo of Coenie Louw
44 19

Written by

What problem does your idea solve?

Disabled people need to experience day-to-day activities in the same way their able-bodied friends would. They need opportunities to participate in every aspect of life and engage in social activities, use public transport and libraries, move around in communities, receive adequate health care... To achieve that, they need access to services. Accessibility of services and social activities, or lack thereof, is the main barrier faced by disabled people.

Explain your idea

If you have ever used the location function of a smartphone to order an UBER or to drop a pin for a friend to find you... If you ever recharged a pay-as-you-go mobile phone... If you ever recorded your voice using your phone... Then you have experienced most elements of SmartLocate, which is a combination of mobile phone technology, recorded voice, USSD and a 3-word address that is linked to your exact GPS location. 70% of disabled people own a smartphone, 98% own any kind of mobile phone - making it ideal to ensure disabled people get access to services. Why USSD? It is menu-driven and works on any kind of mobile phone. Why a 3-word address? Informal settlements and rural areas do not have street addresses and 3 words are easier to remember than GPS coordinates. Why voice recordings? Voice mp3s cater for those who are visually impaired or cannot use their hands. How does it work? 1. Where are you? Send a please call me to SmartLocate and click on the link we send you - we locate your smartphone and assign you a 3-word address. 2. Who are you? You register in our database and complete your profile. 3. What are your needs? Our directory lists service providers and activities in your area, you log a service request and make an appointment. 4. Tell us what you think. Rate the service. No money? SmartLocate is free No smartphone? A friend with a smartphone can help you register, you can then use your basic feature phone for all future communication.

Who benefits?

If you are disabled and struggle with access to services, SmartLocate will soon be available throughout South Africa, regardless whether you have a known street address or not, what kind of phone you own, the nature of your disability or your age. Disabled people account for 7.5% of the South African population, estimated to be 4.125 million. Disability affects more than 1 billion people worldwide and making SmartLocate available as open source software will have a global impact.

How is your idea unique?

SmartLocate uses two existing technologies in an innovative way - USSD (Unstructured Supplementary Service Data) and what3words. A combination of these has never been used to address challenges faced by disabled people. It is unique because we can remotely assign a 3-word address and register you in our database. It is different from and better than conventional GPS location services because using words means that non-technical people can discover, understand, remember and share a 3-word address more easily than complicated GPS coordinates. It is more accurate than conventional GPS street address searches that drop pins in the middle of buildings, rather than at the entrance. SmartLocate has both text and voice capabilities, allowing people with a wide range of disabilities to use the app and according to expert feedback, SmartLocate is unique because it tackles access to services, which is usually an issue disabled people are left to grapple with.

Tell us more about you

Gateway Health Institute is a South African NGO based in Gauteng. Our current focus is on the use of technology to solve challenges. Bragging rights: in 2015 we were among the winners of Grand Challenges Explorations, and recently 2 of the 4 ideas invested in by Hivos Idea Accelerator, were ours. We have strong partnerships with NGOs, government and in the private sector. Our partner What3Words provided the addressing technology and MobiHealth Technologies is developing the SmartLocate app .

What are some of your unanswered questions about the idea?

How do we get more businesses and service providers to adopt what3words as a system to locate their customers? Listing providers with a national presence is easy, how do we reach SMEs at local community level? How do we create a sustainable service through corporate advertising and a survey service? How do we ensure service providers communicate better, change attitudes, provide quality service and understand the needs of disabled people? Fadila, a quadriplegic said:" I would rather have my nails done by an expert in an uncomfortable salon space than by a student who is less qualified in the comfort of my own home. " It should not be assumed that disabled people are satisfied with less than the best. How do we change these attitudes?

Where will your idea be implemented?

  • South Africa

Experience in Implementation Country(ies)

  • Yes, for more than one year.

Expertise in Sector

  • I've worked in a sector related to my idea for more than a year.

Organizational Status

  • We are a registered non-profit, charity, NGO, or community-based organization.

Idea Maturity

  • Prototyping: I have done some small tests with prospective users to continue developing my idea.

How has your idea changed based on feedback?

Did you know that a quadriplegic in a rural area is more disabled than a quadriplegic living in Johannesburg? This is the most important lesson we learned. Simply put, disability is not restricted to a physical, sensory or intellectual impairment - it also depends on the barriers disabled people face. We included service providers we did not think of initially: mobile libraries and clinics, transport that accommodates guide dogs and wheelchairs and beauticians to name a few. We included social activities where disabled people can interact with those who are not disabled, such as community events. Service providers can be rated for attitude, communication, knowledge and understanding the client's needs. Feedback will enable providers to improve their services and sensitize staff. We developed a sustainable business case to keep SmartLocate a free service. We accommodated users without smartphones, who cannot submit voice mp3s via USSD, by involving our call center to assist.

Who will implement this idea?

Iterate, iterate, iterate! Piloting SmartLocate in the Mopani district, a rural area of Limpopo Province with a disabled community of almost 50 000 people, is the first step. ChoiCe Trust provides 72 Community Health Workers and 300 Home Visitors to create awareness and recruit subscribers. 7 Staff in Limpopo will run the pilot, supported by our office and call center in Gauteng. After iteration based on pilot results, the national roll-out will be implemented across all mobile phone networks.

Using a human-centered design approach, you may uncover insights that lead to small or foundational changes to your organization’s existing strategy or processes in order to unlock the potential of your idea. How would your organization go about making such changes?

Gateway believes in co-creation. We created a Google Drive folder aptly named "Playground" where staff members can post ideas, starting with a problem statement and proposed solution. Other staff members can then give input and feedback to develop the idea. Programmatic ideas are shared with beneficiary and stakeholder focus groups for their input in the design and content. When the idea evolves into a feasible project, the concept note is moved to a folder called "Pipeline" for sharing with partners and funders. Big decisions are made at planning sessions where the team is engaged in getting buy-in for new ideas/decisions through productive inquiry - questions, criticism and feedback allowing the team to own the decision/idea. The Board then ratifies decisions or send it back to the team.

What is it that most attracted you to Amplify instead of a more traditional funding model?

Amplify enables us to co-create. And in the process, we are challenged by difficult questions and feedback that seems impossible at first. The Amplify challenge allows for iteration and offers design support as well as financial rewards. Many funders only provide funds and look for ideas that are perfectly developed - Amplify allows room for improvement. Gateway is in the business of solving global challenges and Amplify gives us that opportunity.

What challenges do your end-users face? (1) What is the biggest challenge that your end-users face on a day-to-day, individual level? (2) What is the biggest systems-level challenge that affects your end-users?

1. We learned through feedback and focus groups that access to quality services coupled with attitudinal barriers such as stereotyping and stigma, and service providers' failure to understand their needs, are the main challenges faced by people with disabilities. These include access to social services, transport, financial, healthcare and simple day to day luxuries and entertainment. 2. System level challenges highlighted by beneficiaries include limited access, environmental barriers that exclude them from participation, public transport that is mostly inaccessible and poor communication experienced by people who have disabilities that affect hearing, speaking, reading, writing, and understanding, and who use different ways to communicate than people who do not have these disabilities.

Tell us about your vision for this project: (1) share one sentence about the impact you would like to see from this project in five years and (2) what is the biggest question you need to answer to get there?

Impact: By 2022 we will empower 1.5 million disabled people in South Africa through improved access to quality services and opportunities, enabling them to live independent and full lives Question: How can we address and change service provider attitudes, knowledge, communication and understanding of the needs of people with disabilities, to effectively double the reach and uptake of SmartLocate by 2025?

How long have you and your colleagues been working on this idea together?

  • Less than 6 months

How many of your team’s paid, full-time staff are currently based in the location where the beneficiaries of your proposed idea live?

  • Under 5 paid, full-time staff

Is your organization registered in the country you intend to implement your idea in?

  • We are registered in all countries where we plan to implement.

My organization's operational budget for 2016 was:

  • Between $50,000 and $100,000 USD

If your team/idea/organization has a website, please share the URL below. (Gateway's Facebook Page) ( Map API provider) (pilot partner) (Gateway's Twitter Account)
View more

Team (2)

Coenie's profile
Fadila's profile
Fadila Lagadien

Role added on team:

"Fadila organised a focus group discussion where we got some really good feedback and suggestions, as well as a clear indication of what disabled people want and don't want from service providers. One thing that stood out is the fact that disabled people do not want second best and need the same quality service their friends who are not disabled, would get."

Attachments (1)


A short user experience map FYI.


Join the conversation:

Photo of Lesa R. Walker MD, MPH

Innovative idea to enable access to services for people with disabilities!! Are there any persons with disabilities on your project development staff or who work with you as paid consultants? What assurances do you have from service providers that will be listed in the app that they are aware of and have put in place accommodations to be able to provide quality services to people with disabilities?

Photo of Coenie Louw

Hi Lesa,
Yes, we have 1 paid staff member and 1 volunteer who work on this project who has various degrees of disability. Our most valuable input came from focus group discussions comprising disabled people with a variety of disabilities. Service providers have to commit to minimum standards of quality service, but I guess the proof will be in the pudding... Our client ratings will be fed back to service providers and will hopefully improve the quality of services they provide.

Photo of Lesa R. Walker MD, MPH

Great! Thanks!

View all comments