Using technology to influence communities

In the UK, for many years, the Government have tried many methods to influence the behaviour of the population for their own good. We know that smoking is bad for us, but its legal. So to discourage smoking, the government places high taxes on tobacco to discourage smoking. On the roads, the wearing of seatbelts in cars or helmets for motor cyclists are mandatory as part of an effort to reduce road deaths. The trouble is that whilst governments want to do things which are to the benefit of citizens, they are often accused of being the “nanny state” if they use too much carrot and not enough stick.  

Softer methods are being tried to influence behaviours in the UK. The government  formed the “Nudge Unit” to explore ways where behaviours in the population can be changed for the benefit of all. The unit uses social media amongst other tools to promote behaviours such as going to the doctor for check-ups are certain times in our lives. This would include campaigns such as breast cancer screening or blood pressure checks for folks of a certain age.  

There are endless reasons why a government may wish to nudge people to do things for their own good. In developed countries, governments will use radio, TV, social media, newspapers and other channels to influence behaviour. But in the developing nations of the Global South, how can governments and NGOs influence the population which a significant number of people might be illiterate, or lack access to infrastructure and technology?  In this article, I want to shine a spotlight on an organisation called Literacy Bridge. They have a very innovative approach to message rural population and a way to measure how successful their approach has been.  

For many years, health NGOs and UN agencies have delivered programmes which improves the health of the nation. Malaria is one of the biggest killers. We know that we can reduce malaria infections through programmes to distribute bed nets. But how do we get the population to use the nets properly and to refresh the insecticide in the nets? How can we promote other health related topics such as breast feeding, routine vaccinations, and other important messages? 

Social media does have a role to play alongside radio and TV broadcasts, but it will exclude a significant percentage of rural communities as many people do not have access to a smartphone. Where smartphones exists, they are mainly used by men which means that some messages targeted at women will not be passed on.

Literacy Bridge  is using technology to get messages to rural communities in a very innovative way. Their talking book is a robust unit built by ARM, a leading edge technology manufacturer which was spun off by the University of Cambridge in the UK. The talking book has a series of pre-recorded messages stored on a memory card which can be played by members of the community where the technology is distributed. The memory card is sufficiently large enough to allow families to record feedback for programme managers to collect.  

Each unit has a unique ID and its location is registered when it is handed over to the community. Whilst it is deployed, in addition to the recoded feedback, the system also logs what messages were played and how often. Over a period of time, project teams will visit the communities to collect the data and to replace the existing content with new messages. This exchange of messages and data can be done using an application on a smartphone.

The talking book runs on standard batteries. In communities where batteries are hard to source, project teams can supply rechargeable batteries with a solar charger.  

Literacy Bridge is a “Not for Profit” and is very keen that its product is reliable and has a very positive impact on the communities where messages are being delivered. Their approach is to partner with organisations to deliver messaging as part of a wider campaign. They are driven by success and have worked with organisations such as Care and UNICEF.  

To deliver reliable and sustainable technology, they do not sell talking books. They use a leasing model through local partners who will ensure that the units are supported in country.  

The quality of content is very important to Literacy Bridge.  They want messages to be accurate, and appropriate to the communities where the technology is being used. The content will be in local dialects and may take the form of interviews with senior role models, songs and plays.  

So, what does success look like?  Well in 2013, Literacy Bridge was running a programme in partnership with UNICEF in Ghana’s Jirapa District in the Upper West Region. They reached 44,000 people in 49 communities. The feedback demonstrated that 50% of pregnant women and children were more likely to sleep under bed nets when using talking books.   

Conclusion: The Literacy Bridge approach  can be regarded as ICT4D. Within the SCI IT team, we like to call it “Technology for Programmes (T4P)” as we feel that simple practical solutions to real problems is the way forward to alleviate suffering now. In the wider ICT4D community, there are people looking at artificial intelligence and big data. I am sure that the big conferences which promote these big ideas as an academic exercise will deliver something amazing in the near future. However whilst academia works hard to ask the big questions on how we can use big data for the greater good, at the same time, we need to stay focused on identifying simple and sustainable innovation which can have an instant impact on communities today.  

For more information, please visit www.literacybridge.org.

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