U-Report Liberia Launches in Westpoint

An SMS-based tool that connects young people around the country to vital information and services

Chris Fabian
Children playing in WestPoint, Monrovia, Liberia
10 March 2015

Today we launched U-report in Liberia.  It was awesome. This post is written to capture some things that worked really well, and some things that did not.

For those who are just tuning in for the first time, UNICEF has been working hand-in-hand (as well as phone-in-phone) with youth from Liberia to create U-report, an SMS/text-messaging-based tool that connects young people around the country to vital information and services. The end result is a two-way communication channel enabling citizens to report on the status of the Ebola situation (and any other concerns) in their local communities directly to youth groups or others at a national level, and to receive a real-time response with important information. 

It was clear that in a country like Liberia, where massive infrastructure deficits prevent information from moving – and prevent young people from getting access to basic information about how to prevent Ebola, or what kind of services are available near them – a simple solution to connect kids to resources can be a vital tool. U-report also allows for the aggregation of this information, so suddenly youth groups or others at a national level can see what trends are most important to young people.  

We begin at about 9 AM – it’s already hot – our team is standing in Westpoint – a part of Monrovia that has been at the center of the Ebola story.  It’s densely packed, and urban-poor.  60-70,000 people (hard to count in informally-settled areas) live here.  More than 50% of them are children.

It’s never easy to do a tech launch in a new market. The normally thin Liberian technology scene is stressed by months of the Ebola crisis.  A lot of engineers have left.  The infrastructure (cell towers) is getting more data pulled through it than usual because of all the international responders.  We have the support of three of the four major mobile operators, the excitement of the Government, and a firm partnership with USAID and others.  We also have our first group of users.

As we arrive, one of our mobile network partners hasn’t quite set up the reverse-billing (so that text messages would be free for users.)  Crisis time.  None of these kids have any spare credit on their phones, and we can’t ask them to pay for the text messages that we need to test the system.

Children study outside dwellings in the overcrowded WestPoint slum neighbourhood in Monrovia
Children study outside dwellings in the overcrowded WestPoint slum neighbourhood in Monrovia

A quick run to a kiosk and 35$ worth of testing credit later, we are breathing more easily.  Oh yeah.  Our posters aren’t ready yet.  Black-and-white printouts IT IS.  Everyone starts filling up their phones.  Except that a lot of our users have taken out “airtime loans” – where you can get some credit advanced if you’re flat out.  As soon as the credit’s in their phone, it gets pulled right out again.

It’s ok.  Enough of the phones work.  (A few are also completely out of electrical charge.  Kids run off and swap batteries with their friends.)  Expert users help their friends.  Some kids are better at texting than others – one girl has three phones in her hands and is teaching and texting at the same time.

What we first thought was us overloading the cell tower was more of a problem of credit-debt.  So then everyone starts registering.

What’s your name.  Easy.  Everyone gets that one.

What is your county. Nice confusion on this one – is this the county you are coming from? or where you are now? and can anyone spell Montserrado? I can’t.  I just had to look it up again now.

There is a lot of delay at first on messages coming back – but Liberia’s a high-latency country and none of the kids are too upset.  I am, however, a little concerned. Then a ping from the server – one U-reporter had completed registration.  Then another.  And another.

Suddenly we have almost 50 U-reporters.  We have more girls than boys.  And the Westpoint crew is broken into little groups with people who know more about the system explaining it to others:

Can we ask whatever we want? Yes, but we have to work to build out answers first
How many questions can we ask? As many as you want.
What can we ask about? Well, particularly things that your parents might not know the answers to
Will it always work?

…and so on.

As we left, the Lonestar/MTN shortcode came online (text JOIN to 8737 in Liberia to access U-report).  An hour later we had the first poll sent out (which the Westpoint kids had written last week).

You can see the results from this group coming in now.

Tomorrow we challenge these kids to recruit 10 more U-reporters each.  Then twenty.  Then more.  In order to approach a problem that scales as quickly as an epidemic, that scales exponentially, we have to use systems that can scale the same way.

A locally adapted, youth-powered system for asking important questions has just the energy to grow quickly, adjust course, and make change happen.