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Bending the Cloud to the Last Mile

We've all heard the story about the wonder of mobile phones for better data. Problem is for many places in the last mile it simply isn't true. We submit a simple proposition: a single tool that permits organizations to leverage anything from pen & paper to Interactive Voice Response (IVR) to SMS, rapidly connects that collection to simplified visualization tools for use online or off, and advanced monitoring for alerts when variables change. By applying human centered design to the problem of information in the last mile and addressing it through a modular approach, we can bend technology to be context and culturally relevant at scale.

Photo of Matt McNabb
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Technology is rarely the solution to challenges in development. Paradoxically, that is precisely why we created a technology company to address such challenges. Here's the logic.

There is no dearth of organizations seeking to improve the conditions of women in low capacity parts of the world, both through direct programming and indirectly through related interventions. The principal challenge is one of how innovation can be used to amplify and improve those efforts. We believe that data can be leveraged to make smarter, more efficient, and more proactive decisions at local levels. The problem is that the available technologies often remain complex or out of reach, particularly at scale. 

The 'mobile revolution' in data undoubtedly has its uses. But for many organizations the technological or human capital constraints within which they work do not grant themselves to mobile solutions. Periodic electricity, literacy, information hierarchy, asset management deficiencies and theft are but a small subset of the many reasons by placing a smartphone in a community based organization's offices won't solve their data problems. This is to say nothing of the challenge of then connecting such data processes to visualizations that can lead to action.

Our approach is to offer 'software as a service' cloud infrastructure that bends technology to the realities of local conditions at scale. Or put another way, business intelligence tools useful in the last mile.

To do this, we must build out a modular system that enables organizations to apply data collection, visualization, and trend monitoring solutions that make sense given the context. Modularity is key to preserving both context-relevant interventions and scale. We consider these as distinct elements for each part of the information flow: collection, visualizations, and analysis.

The right technology for collecting data will differ considerably between organizations. For some, pen and paper will long remain the most sensible way of collecting data; for others interactive voice response (IVR) or SMS might make more sense. Applying the right technical intervention requires design research to understand the 'how' and 'why' of information flow through an organization, but upon the completion of that analysis of the information ecosystem an intuitive solution must be available to commence prototyping.

Our proposed solution is to integrate these data collection processes by leveraging the plethora of existing open source tools for data collection --ranging from the over 3-dozen mobile application tools to FrontlineSMS Cloud and other related tools. One system, one structured schema for collection, applied in whatever makes the most sense to that enterprise.

Where Ushahidi has proven the value of multi-modal collection for 'times of crisis' by allowing volunteers to easily communicate about events through everything from SMS to email and webforms, we believe that organizations focused on persistent data generation require a similar flexibility --including rapid digitization of paper forms.

Too many technologies are built for helping HQ staff to get a better sense of what is happening on their projects. Although such technologies have value, they do litter to support local action. We believe therefore that data collection methods should be directly connected to modular data visualization approaches.

Some people can read maps, some can't. Some understand bivariate correlations represented in a graph, some don't. Some have internet access and can login to play with interactive tools, some need it printed on the page for use offline. Through a combination of map and non-map visualization tools that support easily configured analysis without the help of a GIS staff or data visualization team, we can empower local organizations to get value from their data easily. Although some touchpoints with the internet are required, where internet access is only periodic we can support one-off configuration that pushes PDF visualizations out for printing via email or basic values via SMS on regular reporting schedules.

This modularity around how organizations consume data again enables it design research to lead the way in applying the most appropriate solution in the right way.

Beyond visualizations, the ability to say 'X is the most dangerous neighborhood for women' through maps or listings is equally important for prioritization in decisionmaking. But to achieve that, it requires much more than simply toggling around variables for a static image. Something like 'the most dangerous neighborhood' means a lot of things --homicide is different than rape and is different than economic vulnerability. We therefore are working to create simple, intuitive ways for organizations to begin developing basic analytical capabilities around their data, including creating weighted composite indices through point and click methods. This lowers the barrier to analysis modules that can support local action.

What is more, once such basic variables are established we are building to support those users to receive alerts via SMS or email when variables change. So if a women's group wants to monitor where it is having an effect or not, as data is collected and digitized they can receive SMS alerts when goals are met or risks change. All done with limited technical literacy, internet connectivity, or background in statistics.

These approaches --and others like it --constitute the promise of democratizing data analytics for use in the 'first mile' of where data originates. By building a multi-modal, modular system designed for data in 'last mile' areas, we can begin offering a sustainable global services that empowers organizations working with women --and other organizations entirely --in the last mile of international development.

We call it First Mile Geo.  Join us

Explain your idea in one sentence.

A modular 'software as a service' designed to deliver socially and technologically relevant analytics for lower capacity organizations working in the last mile.

What is the need you are trying to solve?

Data driven insights can be used to optimize resources. The challenge is to design technology in way that it can be leveraged even where technical and human capital constraints are severe. The proposed solution seeks to address this challenge by making software modular and useful for data capture and analytics that can fit into the realities of local requirements.

Who will benefit from this idea and how would you monitor its success?

By building a 'software as a service' for data analytics in the last mile, this solution can be applied by any organization that might benefit from collecting, visualizing, and monitoring data about their communities.

Who would be best equipped to implement this idea in the real world? You? Your organisation? Another organisation or entity?

Our organization (First Mile Geo) is well equipped to handle the technology components of this, as we've already learned from prototypes and design research in Liberia, Nigeria, Honduras, Afghanistan, Libya, Pakistan, and Syria. We can make the technology easy to use, modular, and intuitive for use in the last mile. But we must partner with trust organizations already engaged with local organizations. Technology does not solve these problems, but it can be used to considerably amplify and improve the ability of such organizations to do their jobs even better.

Concrete example from our experience: We worked in slum communities in Monrovia, Liberia around the question of urban crime and violence reduction. The challenge was that local organizations as variant as media to NGOs to the police, whatever their flaws, equally lacked a clear, data supported picture of where crime and violence took place the most. The police, for their part, sent officers to crowded areas rather than those places where and when violent crimes were apparently most prevalent. NGOs stigmatized communities thought to be violent that, upon inspection, proved to be less so than rumored. By not having clear, coherent insights on incidents, contextual variables about those incidents, and patterns, large sums of resources were consistently misallocated and opportunities for preventative measures passed over. As such, we built and implemented a pilot around what one might consider early 20th century pushpin crime mapping, linked to density mapping (heatmaps) and other analytics made easy in the cloud without introducing anything more than a paper map that sat alongside surveys and crime incident forms already used.

Although incentives for 'honest data' reporting in security of any type can be variable --and technology will never replace the need for programmatic efforts to address these challenges in varying ways --we can design technology to be minimally intrusive to the human capital and technical constraints resident in these environments. And we can do it at scale.

Where should this idea be implemented?

We have done similar work focused on applied ethnography and paper-based data management in slum areas of Monrovia, Liberia and are now working in San Pedro Sula, Honduras. Although we believe these early prototypes have the prospect to build into a value proposition that achieves both the modularity needed for context-specific work and the scale needed for sustainability.

This solution makes the most sense for communities in urban areas where human capital and technical constraints prove greatest.

How might you prototype this idea and test some of the assumptions behind it?

We have prototyped the concept already for cloud-to-paper at a basic level in several locations. But we need to make software as modular as possible to ensure that it responds to local context and is still scalable. Otherwise we are bringing a tech solution to a non-tech problem. sTo do this, we would extend our existing cloud-to-paper solution by integrating it with Captricity (a rapid digitization tool) and permitting existing applications for SMS, IVR, and Mobile to plug in as well. Thus you get one structured way of handling data through whatever medium makes the most sense locally.

With a modular prototype in place we continue with the human centered design approach that we've begun in order to understand the 'how' and 'why' of the existing information ecosystem. This creates the design frame against which we then test the use of the right data collection method and touch points for pushing visualizations back to the user in an offline context.

Further, this data trail and related visualizations can be used equally by donors for prioritizing interventions --although the principal focus should remain on using software to support local decisions not donor ones.

What might a day in the life of a community member interacting with your idea look like?

First we do human centered design to understand the 'how' and the 'why' of information flow locally. Second, we select the most appropriate ways of allowing data to be collected, shared, visualized, and used in light of the real-world information ecology that already exists (bend ICTs to context, not the other way around). Once that has been done, local organizations can begin slotting it the prototype into their own existing workflows in a minimally intrusive way.


Join the conversation:

Photo of MrsAlways RigHt

Hi Matt,

I am wondering why we think we need to design at the local level? Perhaps the design isn't the word we want to use.

From the last question and response, you are eliciting the process requirements and workflow to design or package the right components in a business service?

I guess I'm struggling with the fact it sounds like you are on a good path with the component or building block concept. In my mind its a great concept to have.

Design or allow a select and bundle type of service based on the needs of all humans.

I apologize if I am having trouble...I think it's important and I'd to get your language and mine clarified if you don't mind helping me.


Photo of Meena Kadri

Fascinating stuff, Matt! We'd love it if you might consider helping people better grasp how this idea could play out by describing some example scenarios which illustrate user journeys through some of the proposed activities you've outlined. Check this example: where a few simple scenarios were created in an attempt to explain the goodness on the idea. (You can update your post at any time by hitting the Update Entry button up there on the right.) Through doing this we'll be able appreciate your idea through the lens of people in low-income communities.

We also hope you'll join in on discussion on others people's ideas here at OpenIDEO. Your perspectives would certainly enrich our conversations and collaboration...