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Mobile phones for on demand information dissemination

With 95% penetration, mobile phones are the most lucarative tool for information dissemination. Design menu based expert system (using protocols like USSD) which gives authentic information on queries ranging from what do for infant's rehydration to STDs using a simple mobile interface (without requiring any specific apps or programs) This can further be used to connect people (seeker with the knowledge giver) for a better "feel" of the service.

Photo of Manish K Singh
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The system addresses the most basic roadblocks in personal/family health care (infant mortality and sexual health are relevant here):
  • Lack of authoritative information (infant care and sexual health)
  • The awkwardness involved in discussing such matter with parents and peers (sexual health)

Using a system implemented through USSD (see note at end) the user invokes a menu from their mobile phone by dialing a code like *4357# (*help#) Which then leads to a series of menu based choices aimed at narrowing the query to the specific information that the user seeks.
e.g. If i need information on AIDS prevention

  • Dial *4357#
  • Send 2 for query on sexual health
  • Select option corresponding to Diseases
  • Select option corresponding to AIDS
  • Select option corresponding to Prevention
  • I get a text message (or a push message) with the required information

The expert system here is also envisioned to be capable of identifying a query from a text message. The development of such a system is easy (most troubleshooting guides use a similar format) and the associated technology is also standard.
The system is expected to be capable of gauging the required information from unstructured phrases like:
  • "What causes AIDS?"
  • "Am I pregnant?"
  • "Baby vomiting"

In case of unresolved issues (questions which are not satisfactorily addressed by this automated - text menu based system) there would be the provision of connecting you with people who have solved similar issues earlier.
Here we are looking at a model of users (identified by their phone numbers) who are categorized by their queries and earn reputation points as and when they guide a fellow community member. And all the while maintaining anonymity (or known, if desired)

At this point I would like to clarify that there are two sub-systems here:
  1. Menu based (textual) navigation which used a series of menus to narrow down the query and then provides the info or processes a text phrase to identify the query required.
  2. A community based service where the user is connected to an experienced  user from withing the community who has had a similar experience anonymously or otherwise. Monetary incentives maybe introduced to drive motivated knowledge sharing.

The system is intended at being a source capable of quelling myths, provide basic information which aids towards prevention through precaution and in other cases timely action.

It would be ideal for answering queries regarding sexual behavior and handling simple issues like - oral rehydration for infants, even vaccination or even a recommendation for visiting the doctor based on the data supplied.

Not being deployed through apps, this system does not depend on the users having smart phones. The system envisoned here (deployed using USSD) is usable even through the most basic mobile phones and thus would be accessible to all mobile phone users

Social highlighted
The plan caters to the objective of addressing health in a the society with a focus on preventive measures (awareness). Moreover, one aspect of the plan focuses exclusively on using the  existing intra-community knowledge base to improve the overall general awareness.
The fee for the service would be a bare minimum and it might be possible to eliminate the fee completely through partnerships with companies - where in advertisements included at appropriate place (so as not to compromise the user experience)
The most exciting part is that this orients around the community strengths (95% mobile penetration and >90% literacy) for its adoption and success!

Other merits highlighted
The feasibility of the scheme here maybe questioned. It seems unlikely that  literate individuals (here) miss out on mass media campaigns and instead find out facts through a mobile service which dole out the same information (at a price).
The point is well made, but the plan here has its merits:
  1. The complete agenda of this plan is centered around providing information on demand - and at all times, which is not feasible through a human contact (a serves can handle thousand queries at a time compared to a community member or a health practitioner)
  2. The cost of a wide public awareness campaign (for same targets as this plan) will be costly and will need a continuous effort from the community for the information to "live" in memory. 

Explanatory note:
USSD is a protocol for real time communication with the central server. It provides a richer interface for communicating with the server, as compared with the SMS interface increasing the efficiency and reducing the learning curve for the user.

How do you envision this idea making money?

A small fee levied for these services should be capable of server maintenance. A fee can also be charged for doctor referrals; and advertised for medicinal brand - or consumer products.

How does this idea create social impact, particularly around improving health?

This is the first step towards creation of a culture of prevention - awareness.
Once the teenagers have a source of authentic information, diseases and teenage pregnancy rate would drop.
The same stands for families which would be able to address infant care issues like oral rehydration and timely action for vaccination and diseases like diarrhea.
Improved general awareness would serve as the first line of defense against any preventive measures that be launched in such a scenario. A non-existent "culture of prevention" is what the poor overall health in a society is attributed to.

How does this idea add social value at every step of the process?

The primary contribution comes from the creation of an authoritative accessible knowledge base. In the second step it uses the local expertise (knowledge) by connecting people who need information to people who have resolved similar issues themselves - this crowdsourcing from within the community will result in a more integrated social structure.

What are the short term steps we could take to implement this idea tomorrow?

The following steps would be essential for kick-starting the service.
1. Access the feasibility of such a system in the region.
2. Negotiations with telecom operators will also be required, as the system is setup behind their servers. The USSD based system is handled and operated on the servers which handle text messages (SMS) and our phone calls.

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Photo of Sheldon Allen*

Hi Manish. Love the concept. I've joined the conversation late, so I hope my comments may still be of value, if they haven't been raised earlier.

In Pakistan, my colleagues and I were involved in setting up an interactive voice recorded version of what you describe. Perhaps some aspects of what we did and learned there would be of interest for your concept (and its potential implementation).

1. One of the advantages of using voice recordings is that it overcomes literacy and numeracy challenges that may prevent some of your intended audience from accessing the information.

2. The content and its "packaging" is key to getting your intended audience to try it. We used a prominent female TV personality who is also a medical doctor to be the voice of the content and the face of a campaign. This gave the service credibility but also helped to make the service more entertaining.

3. Consumer education is critical to take it beyond trial. Our data indicated that initially many callers had difficulty navigating the menu.
We used billboards, local radio and community health volunteers to promote and demonstrate the service to address this.

4. If sufficient demand is created for the service, it may become a viable business model. "Packaging", promotion and consumer education are your biggest costs, in our experience. Beyond that, the service can be maintained at low cost. In our case, callers were charged at regular call rates (which are relatively low in Pakistan) and the our commercial partners were happy to keep the service running well beyond the pilot phase without any additional finance.

We can exchange some more ideas if you you see some value. I know there are many of these models around (particularly in India), some of which have already been shared.

Photo of Manish K Singh

Dear Sheldon,
Its a sheer delight to interact with people like you who go out in are the real gears of social change.
What I describe here is what seemed viable to me and there is much that can be improved from field testing and the experience of people like you.
The insights that you provide here in your four points are suggestive of that power.

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