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Uganda conference addresses cutting-edge issues of technology for development

© UNICEF Uganda/2010/Sean Blaschke
UNICEF Uganda Fellow Jean-Marc Lefebure provides guidance on how to set up an SMS poll at the Kampala 'BarCamp'.

By Terra Weikel

KAMPALA, Uganda, 19 November 2010 – How can applications for mobile phones help to meet the world’s toughest development issues? That was the big question at the Mobile Communication Technology for Development (M4D) conference held in Kampala last week.

To address this issue, the UNICEF Uganda Technology for Development (T4D) Unit teamed up with some of the most influential trendsetters in this emerging new field to offer a free ‘BarCamp’ at Makerere University.

BarCamp is an international network of user-generated conferences that are structured as open, participatory workshop-style events with content provided by participants.

Support for existing tools

At the Kampala event, local and visiting experts leading M4D data-collection projects – including RapidSMS, FrontlineSMS and OpenXData – provided real-world context for how these applications are being used in the field. At the same time, they debated issues involving appropriate technology, sustainability and emerging best practices.

(‘RapidSMS’ is UNICEF's open-source platform for data collection, logistics coordination and communication, allowing any mobile phone to interact with the web. The technology directly responds to one of the biggest challenges facing UNICEF's field operations: access to accurate, timely and actionable information.)

© UNICEF Uganda/2010/Blaschke
UNICEF Uganda software programmer Mugisha Moses explains the data modules used in RapidSMS technology to Makerere University students.

A common theme that ran through the BarCamp was the need for donors, development partners and young programmers to actively support existing software tools, rather than continually trying to reinvent the wheel.

“Many of the tools needed already exist,” said David McCann, software programmer for UNICEF Uganda. “Instead of building something from scratch, look at the available open-source software to see if it fits your needs. With a little customization, these applications will fit most cases and any work that you do on improving it, goes directly back to the greater community.”

Simple solutions

The young programmers were reminded that their ‘audience’ is more likely the mother in a rural village, waiting in line each day to get safe water for her family, than the tech-savvy city dweller who is constantly upgrading to the latest iPhone model.

When you’re struggling for survival, cell phone technology is not particularly high on the list of priorities, participants agreed.

© UNICEF Uganda/2010/Blaschke
About 70 students at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda receive training on RapidSMS data-collection technology.

“One of the biggest traps that many M4D enthusiasts fall into is becoming too enamored with the technology,” said UNICEF Uganda T4D Specialist Sean Blaschke. “It is crucial to involve end users all along the development chain in the design of any M4D application. Successful solutions tend to be those that were kept relatively simple and focus first and foremost on improving health outcomes.”

Practical applications

Following demos of some of the most widely used M4D applications, UNICEF programmers ran a ‘trade fair’ that included members of the Uganda Linux User Group, the Foundation for Innovative New Diagnostics and FrontlineSMS, as well as senior programmers from Makerere University

“This is exactly the kind of thing our students need – exposure like this and the opportunity to work on very practical projects,” said Prof. Michael Niyitegeka, Head of Corporate Relations for the Faculty of Computing and Informatics Technology at Makerere University.

The afternoon wrapped up with a technical training session, in which about 70 participants used RapidSMS for the first time, and about 30 young programmers practiced developing their own RapidSMS applications.

“This really opened my eyes to how Ugandan software programmers can help organizations like UNICEF make a difference,” said a second-year student at Makerere. “There is a lot of great stuff already out there. I can’t wait to get more involved.”



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