Empowering communities for better emergency response using real-time data

Information is power

By Gregory Gondwe
Janet and her family listen attentively as the data collector asks questions
UNICEF Malawi/2020/Gregory Gondwe
04 September 2020

Fifty-year-old Janet Songolo, a mother of eight from Jalipelusi Village, Traditional Authority Chikowi in Zomba is expecting good tidings after pouring her heart out to two gentlemen who visited her house to better understand what coping mechanisms her household had put in place in the face of COVID-19 pandemic. The two visitors were trained with UNICEF support to conduct a survey in 13 districts, to understand their awareness of COVID-19 prevention measures and assess any gaps in COVID-19 response initiatives.

"Before today, no one had ever come to give us the opportunity to voice out what we want and what we need to fight COVID-19. This has really helped us to express ourselves," said Janet after undergoing a one-hour long process where she and her children answered questions from the data collectors in her village.

"At least four days of the week, my husband and I walk over 30 kilometres up to the Zomba Mountain to fetch firewood which we sell to help us fend for our family," she says.

Janet explains, “Between 1993 and 2008, I gave birth to eight children leading to a life of struggles.  My family needs some relief assistance in form of cash to buy buckets, food and masks. If we could get some cash assistance, we could buy food in bulk and stop going to the market back and forth to avoid contracting the Corona virus.”

Information is power, especially in an emergency

Giving Janet and others a chance to voice their concerns is a result of a recent study by UNICEF in the flood-affected districts of Southern Malawi. The study revealed that communication through right channels in emergency times goes a long way in supporting communities to cope and recover.

Since the study also notes that people have sources of information that they trust and rely on, UNICEF Malawi worked with government counterparts to identify these trusted frontline development workers such village development committee members, child protection workers and health surveillance assistants to facilitate communication between communities and the authorities, using smartphones.

The smartphone survey is a collaborative effort by UNICEF, the Government of Malawi and other partners that include The Story Workshop Educational Trust (SWET) and Development Communications Trust (DCT), United Purpose and Malawi Institute of Journalism.

With just a click, local authorities can get feedback from their clients- the communities- for better programme planning
UNICEF Malawi/2020/Matteo Frontini
With just a click, local authorities can get feedback from their clients- the communities- for better programme planning

Local Governance and Decentralization Specialist for UNICEF Malawi, Elton Edward says UNICEF and the Ministry of Local Government and Rural development developed a dashboard which captures information from all local authorities on what is happening in terms of COVID-19 programming. Each council is using the smartphones which have pre-installed survey tools. Once completed, the information automatically reflects in the Ministry of Local Government dashboard.

"The idea is to give the Ministry of Local Government and Rural development an opportunity to receive feedback from the communities, councils and districts on what is happening in the local authorities at the click of a button without waiting for paper reports or emails," says Edward.

Abdul Rashid Katemangu is Chairperson of Thundu Radio Listening Club, which was set up by UNICEF’s partner, DCT. He was trained to collect data using smartphones. He observes that like Janet, many people are happy with the initiative because it has given them a voice to express themselves as they offer their suggestions and proposals.

"Expectations are huge. People are expecting to see a change in future after their submissions, through this survey," he says.

Abdul believes that the smartphone survey has also strengthened collaboration among different stakeholders like Child Protection Committees, Village Development Committees and Community Civil Protection Committees.

Hearing from children and young people

Silaje, Janet's 18-year-old son, a Standard 7 learner at Chalomwe Primary School, says ever since schools closed in March, he has just been home with nothing to do.

"I heard that radio lessons were ongoing but since our family cannot afford a radio, I have missed this opportunity," says Silaje who wants to become a primary school teacher.

Silanje, 18, is eager to go back to school
UNICEF Malawi/2020/Gregory Gondwe
Silanje, 18, is eager to go back to school

Silaje wants schools to reopen, with preventive measures in place. "Before schools closed, there were over 100 students in my Standard Seven class. A desk designed to take two learners had four of us occupying it. This situation has to improve to stop the spread of coronavirus," he says.

His elder sister, Ndiuzayani, 20, who became a teenage mother one and half years ago had just returned to school in Standard Eight. The closure of school has affected her preparation for primary school leaving certificate examinations.

"Having paid our examination fees and all, we were set. I hope this closure will not shatter my dreams of becoming a nurse," she expressed her fears.

Towards tailor-made solutions

UNICEF's Edward says it is important to get information to and from the communities, especially from remote parts of the districts. "When we get data from the field, it helps us to understand what is working and what is not working," he says. "The advantage is that the data that comes through is area-specific."

Edward says this is possible because the information will be identified through coordinates of a specific Traditional Authority where the sender is based.

"We can, therefore, advocate for more tailored interventions based on the needs of the specific area," explains Edward. “This exercise will help us understand the specific needs for a particular area and address those issues."

Those collecting that data in the communities include Health Surveillance Assistants, Primary Education Advisors, Child Protection Workers and Community Development Assistants, trusted individuals who are already in direct contact with the communities.

"We know that information dissemination has been a challenge in emergency response programmes. This feedback mechanism will inform future programming, whether by UNICEF or the Government.," explains Edward.

Some important feedbacks unveiled by the smartphone survey and as displayed on the dashboard include from those who are unable to access the radio learning platforms and communities’ preferred channels of communication during COVID-19.

"Previously, people used to say we can use radio, TV, and drama to disseminate information, but things have changed now. If you look at our  communication for development dashboard, it is coming out clearly that while radio still remains the biggest platform, social media seems to be overtaking TV as a preferred channel of communication and these  are trends that programmers have to adapt to," explains Edward.