Burundians with mobile phones

by wonderfullyrich on June 12, 2010

Without going nuts and writing a dissertation like I normally seem to get into, I'm going to try and talk about one of the projects what I've been doing for the last several days. As I mentioned, I've got several going on while I'm here in Burundi, the primary of which is implementing a mobile phone communication system for the 120 HROC  election monitors. We have just spent the last two days training trainers how to train the “citizen reporters” to use phones (of various types), how to text the “Bureau HROC” (FrontlineSMS on a laptop) with an update, how to use a private twitter like rebroadcast to a small community group using the Bureau HROC number, when to use what and what the reason for each might be like, and going over again how to use there existing training the Alternatives to Violence Program (AVP) that HROC incorporates to help defuse the small scale situations that lead to the large scale riots, attacks, and problems.

Overall it was a successful training, but I felt ill prepared for this. Thankfully Andrew was around, and I also had two Jessica's here to help. One Jessica Heinzelman is doing her MA at Fletcher on mobile tech in such situations as we are doing (mostly incorporating Text-in-Twisterthe Ushahidi platform) and just happened to be willing to come from her several months in Keyna to help us out for a week. Jessica Brown is here in Burundi for 3 months with HROC as part of her MA in Conflict Resolution. Andrew of course is invaluable for a variety of reason, but briefly the ones that come to mind include the fact that he speaks french and a bit of kurundi, he is very familiar with the HROC program and it's people, he help write the grant for this election monitoring, and he knows how to deal with me. This is in addition to Florence who's one of the prime movers at HROC and was learning and helping teach.

This confluence of people helped us bounce ideas and form a training that wasn't perfect in the least, but at least conveyed the concepts. I've taught people how to use technology for 10+ years, and I am fairly good at making K.I.S.S. decisions, but none of us has done this. According to Jessica H. few people have integrated such a system of election monitors that leverage previous training in community peace building, election monitoring, and mobile technology.

For most of you, sending a text might be relatively simple, but I don't expect it to be easy for rural Burundian's who desperately want a cellphone (even if they have to walk an hour to get it charged), but haven't the $12.5 USD to purchase a phone and the regular (and more expensive) ability to purchase airtime. Consider the first time you were introduced to a cell phone, now add the idea that Long line of cellphoneswe need them to send a text which has one piece formatted properly ( an @ symbol followed by a word at the preface of their message) to a specific number. It seems easy, but it's easy to assume it's simple if you've learned it, but it takes patience and time to teach people to use it. It's easy to make mistakes too, as it can't be “@ word” or “subject @word” or “@word+errant character”. You might also remember that mosts of these people speak some level of French, but mostly they work in Kurundi and donated phones don't work in such a language. (Some local mobiles have been regionalized into kurundi). The great thing is that they are eager students.

We'll get the 60 cellphones we have out to people and they'll ask people in there village and the trainers how to use them. And they won't want to give them back… but we'll see what happens. We are actually thinking, and even planning on using this in the future to keep in contact with communities and help them talk amongst themselves. To use a non-quaker term, we are looking at it being a force multiplier for peace.

So, what's next? Well I have to get the system to work as optimally as possible in these extremely aggravating mobile phone conditions. SMS'es irregularly take mins, hours, or in some cases weeks to get delivered, the power generally goes out at least once per day here during the dry season, and even inter network calls don't go through sometimes. (Oh and the local provider Leo formerly Ucom formerly Telecel-burundi gave us blank stares and the silent treatment when we asked if we can purchase a Short Code, ARRGGH!) You'd think this idea of immediate feedback via mobile won't work, but it's Burundi and they are used to aggravation and take it in stride (a trait the industrialized world could learn from). This on top of FronlineSMS being a quirky and the least obnoxious localized SMS platform of the choices. (Column sorting doesn't work!) It's not going to be like the Keynan election a few years ago, but it'll be a step forward.

I digress, I'm also working on getting the parts to make a more redundant power situation for the office (via Solar or Mains, but including batteries), we are moving ahead to build a simpler design on the CAWST Bio-Filter using local materials (clay pots) so locals can build and create filters for under $12, working with FWA on there wireless and on the new medical records system they want to build, building a clay oven for the house where HROC office/guest housing is, to finish fixing a 3 or 4 computers (did I mention my 6 month old Asus eee netbook inexplicably died on me, I think the heat of Eastern Africa killed the processor, random BSOD and can't install ubuntu now. Bad computer, no Donut!!).  I'm also teaching HROC how to use FrontlineSMS to broadcast, setup new groups, and harvest information and most importantly writing the training manual for the above mentioned non-phone-using-Burundians first experience with a cellphone (with plenty of input and guidance from Burundian's).

So many projects so little of me, my money, and my time…

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