8 Feb 2012

Why did Maji Matone fail? 1. Low tech obstacles to high tech solutions?

Back in December, I blogged about the failure of Maji Matone - that we simply didn't get the level of citizens' engagement that we had hoped and expected, and that we were therefore going to redesign the programme to work in a different way. And I promised that a series of blogposts in early 2012 would examine this failure in more detail, so that as many people as possible can benefit from our experience. This is therefore the first in a short series of posts on what went wrong, from our perspective. In this post I will write about matching technology to context. In the second post I will write on issues specific to rural water supply, and the final post in the series will look at citizens engagement, risk and apathy.

Why did Maji Matone fail? 1. Low-tech obstacles to high-tech solutions?
Low-tech obstacles to high-tech solutions

When we started working on Maji Matone, one of our earliest tasks was to find the right software to handle the flow of SMSs. There were plenty of possible technological options, each with its own strengths and weaknesses. Using an existing software package such as FrontlineSMS, Rapid SMS or FreedomFone was one option. Finding a software engineer to design and build something specifically for us (or to customise an existing package such as Ushahidi or Human Sensor Webs) was another. Or we could contract a commercial aggregation firm (such as Push Mobile or Starfish Mobile) to handle the technology for us (which is what we did).

But very quickly it became clear that the programme was not about technology. The very fact that any one of the software packages or systems mentioned above could have done the job for us shows that technology is not what matters here. Getting the human side of things right was clearly going to be much harder than making the technology work. We reached that conclusion even before the programme started, and we have made the point on several previous occasions (see here and here, for example).

Persuading citizens to send messages and persuading government officials to act on those messages were clearly going to be the main challenges for the programme to overcome. And in the end we did pretty well on the second part of that - our record of turning information provided by citizens into action taken by District Water Engineers and repaired waterpoints was very good. The problem was the first part - persuading citizens to engage.

So when I use the phrase "high-tech solutions" in the title of this post*, I'm not talking about getting the technology we have in the office right, to manage the flow of messages as smoothly as possible. No, I'm referring to the technology we were asking rural Tanzania citizens in the villages to use. "High-tech" doesn't mean complex software or equipment, it means mobile phones and SMS.

And the low-tech obstacles? The evaluator's report (to be published shortly) refers to literacy, education levels, access to information, access to mobile phone networks and access to a source of electricity for charging phones. In the specific context the programme was targeting - rural areas of Tanzania - these are all issues, all hurdles to be overcome when asking people to send messages.

A similar programme targeting public services in urban areas, particularly a service used by educated young people, may have had more success. We don't have very good comparative data on any similar programmes to test this point, but Daraja's own experience promoting citizens' engagement through SMS on our local newspaper programme suggests that persuading urbanites to send messages is much easier than persuading people in rural areas. Our "Twanga Swali" ("Shoot the Question") feature, in which readers can ask questions that we take to local government officials is getting a lot of engagement. However, this difference could just as likely be the result of Twanga Swali's open-ended nature, in contrast to Maji Matone's narrow focus on rural water supply.

One review of the programme found that in rural areas people use their phones much more for voice calls than for SMS - 94% said they prefer calling to texting, while only 4% preferred texting. So perhaps we should have used voice calls instead of SMS? Well, it might have worked, though a short trial of this idea suggests otherwise. We send a staff member for training in the use of Freedom Fone bought the equipment and set it up in the office, but in three weeks we didn't get a single report of a broken-down waterpoint, despite daily promotion of the service on local radio.

So what should we have done?

Well, if we knew the answer to that question then we would already be doing it. We don't, which is why we've put the programme on hold for the moment. Perhaps the rural context is simply too difficult for this kind of crowd-sourcing at the moment, which is what the evaluator's report (and the Twanga Swali comparison) suggests? Perhaps there's some feature of the water sector that makes it particularly tricky? Or perhaps we didn't give people a sufficiently compelling reason to engage - didn't convince them that it was worth their time and money to send a message? My next two posts in this series will explore these two ideas further.

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* The title is taken from an evaluator's draft report, which will be made available online shortly.