It’s been some time since we’ve posted about Nuru’s Poverty Intelligence Network, but rest assured it’s very much alive and continuing to shape the way Nuru understands aspects of community life. I’m Nathalie Collins, Nuru’s summer intern working alongside the foundation team here in Kuria. Unlike program managers in each of Nuru’s core areas, my role has given me the opportunity to look across program areas for nuggets of information which can clue us into relationships we might not have otherwise seen.  So far it’s been quite enlightening.

David has written in the past about how the use of mobile phones has revolutionized the way our staff is able to communicate and quickly document information about the community. They’ve been inputing responses from interviews at local water sources, (How far do people travel for water? Are their families getting sick?), information about the size of farms and the type of seed being planted, and even data points tracking child malnutrition. Armed with a mobile phone and a GPS, one of our staff members, Julius Nyamohanga, has been visiting every household in Nuru’s project area conducting a proper census. Given that current maps are largely incorrect and government census data are largely inflated, we are using this information with the awesome power of Google Earth to create the first accurate map of this region. For anyone out there who has ever found their own house on a satellite map and reveled at their place in the broader world, think about what it means for someone who has never before left their village let alone seen a proper picture of what it looks like. You can imagine the smiles on the faces of our field staff when they got their first glimpse.

However, what happens when you start to look at not only one of these data points but at several in conjunction? What is the effect of higher agricultural yields on children’s attendance in schools? How does the prevalence of latrines affect the community’s perception of the cleanliness of its water sources? Knowing where people live, can we better understand the spread of contagious disease and, perhaps equally importantly, contagious behavior? We believe that by leveraging the dynamic nature of data collection through mobile phones, we’re well on our way to answering these questions and many like them. Being truly informed about the ebbs and flows of community life puts us in a much better position to respond to real needs, not imagined ones. The cool thing I’ve realized through this work, is that we’re not in it alone.

In the last few weeks, I’ve had a set of very inspiring conversations with the broader ICT (Information and Communication Technologies) community about existing projects in this space. I wanted to really understand how other organizations are using mobile phones to benefit their projects and to learn from their successes and failures. Assuming solid funding for research projects and years of experience, I expected to take my place at the table as a humble sponge soaking in as much knowledge as I could. Though I’ve undoubtedly learned a lot from others’ experiences, I was delighted to find a vibrant community of individuals facing the exact same problems as ours – dealing with dead spots in network coverage, making the most of inexpensive equipment, and still struggling with the social dynamics of mobile phone based interviewing. Many of these projects are focused in specific areas such as Health (mostly) and Agriculture. Sharing Nuru’s work on the PIN inspired a good deal of excitement around our holistic approach of not only measuring progress in one program area, but truly trying to understand the relationships across them. I realized I had felt this type of energy before. It’s very reminiscent of the Silicon Valley’s .com boom where everything is new, exciting, and possible. Truly leveraging the power of internet-enabled mobile phones in development work is a new frontier and one full of unprecedented opportunities. It’s great to realize that we’re part of a network of people inspired to forge its future together.

I wanted to thank Aliya Walji from the MoTeCH project, Neal Lesh from CommCare, and Sarah Bird from IRD for their insights along the way.  Here’s a bit more about the amazing work they’re doing:

MoTeCH: A part of the Grameen Foundation’s AppLab initiative, the MoTeCH project uses mobile phones to increase the quantity and quality of antenatal and neonatal care in rural Ghana.

CommCare: Created by DigiMagi, CommCare is an application designed to strengthen and monitor community health programs that runs on mobile phones.

Interactive Research & Development: IRD is a non-profit research and service organization committed to saving lives through improvements in  global  health.  They  seek  to  create  opportunities  for  scientists  and  entrepreneurs  that maximize  the  impact of health interventions in low-income communities.